On burnout, or another interpretation of something you’ve read this week

I’m not totally convinced that “burnout” in this latest BuzzFeed feature isn’t just carrying water for something larger and more mysterious. Everyone’s all caught up on this one, right? It’s worth reading, but I wanted to add a few thoughts. Stuff I’ve been kicking around lately.

“Burnout” is something I equate more specifically with the trials of juggling freelance assignments, constantly revising projects with no real goal in mind, long stretches of work without a vacation, whatever. There’s no exhalation there. It’s a real problem in American’s capitalist landscape! It’s a legitimate health concern. And we deal with it in our own ways. I usually split town with my fiancee for a few days, or, short of that, I smoke some pot and listen to old jazz records. Whatever. I’ve cultivated my own contentment.

But this feature is diagnosing a generational ill, which is a favorite chore of writers these days. I don’t think it’s helping much.

The piece begins by teeing up some weird organizational roadblock, where people my age can’t seem to get to the post office to mail in their voter registration forms or somehow can’t take three minutes to drop off their slacks at the dry cleaners around the corner. “My shame about these errands expands with each day,” Anne Helen Petersen writes, launching into the nut of the thing: “But the more I tried to figure out my errand paralysis, the more the actual parameters of burnout began to reveal themselves. Burnout and the behaviors and weight that accompany it aren’t, in fact, something we can cure by going on vacation. It’s not limited to workers in acutely high-stress environments. And it’s not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives.”

It’s the way things are.

The problem, I think, and I’m probably as full of it as the next guy, is that a lot of people of all ages are looking outside themselves for a sense of reality, for faith, for the meaning of life. They look and look and look, on TV, on Instagram, toward past generations’ relative comfort and lack of student debt, to the 2008 financial recession, to the president’s rantings and ravings, to market forces and “the gig economy,” to stories that we tell ourselves. Shadows on the wall of the cave. It’s the way things are, right?

This perception is not endemic to millennials, but it seems more pronounced and more prescriptive because our generation has, no doubt, grown up saddled with the vastly crushing weight of compounding alternate realities, layers of digital existence and late-capitalism sales pitches, all riddled brilliantly with manipulative interpretations of what it means to be human. Sprawling mass media. Stories. This problem, this weight, is certainly something that sets us apart from past generations, simply on face value. The internet and its spidery webs didn’t exist “back then.” Neither did The Bachelor. But so what?

The signal-to-noise ratio in white millennial American society is tremendously out of whack, which can very intentionally produce symptoms of burnout (Gah! Trump again!), but more importantly this horrible ratio confuses individuals and encourages them to ape the cultures and languages they see spinning in technicolor all around them. Advertisements and social media slang take the place of real human interaction, so people end up using marketing catchphrases in their actual speech. “Hold my beer.” “Not all heroes wear capes.” “You had one job.” “Crushing it!” It’s memetic (which is where we get the modern use of “meme”), and it robs us of creativity and humor. Doing something like that over a long period of time begins to erode any grip on a sense of self. And so we busy ourselves trying to find ourselves again.

Before long, you’re so busy looking for yourself that, of course, you don’t have time to check off minor errands from your to-do list. Couldn’t possibly! The post office begins to morph into Mount Doom, impossibly distant from your little corner of the world, and who cares anyway if you’re registered to vote? The president is just a TV character. You can change the channel. You can cut the cord!

Reality becomes transposed with something outside of you. A sense of self becomes, then, removed from the actual stuff of living a life. You may have heard of this? It’s called “adulting” now, which is another thing they sold to you. It’s not separate from life in the way that a television show is separate from life, it is life. The small moments that flutter into and out of the fog, always drifting into the past and, stunningly, emerging anew from the empty future.

It’s just easier to call it burnout, maybe because it’s kind of hard. And boring. A lot of life is a slog, but it doesn’t have to be seen that way. A “slog” is an idea, a story. A life disappears the moment you try to grasp it and identify it. A generational ill is a story, too.

It’s hard being 30 years old and working in this sort of bend-you-over economy. It’s hard scrounging money for bills each month. Going to the store to pick up cough medicine kind of sucksand the president is an asshole. But that’s got nothing to do with how individual lives ebb, flow, ebb again. “The steadier our lives, the more likely we are to make decisions that will make them even steadier,” Petersen writes, which, sure, but she’s forgetting a cosmic truth: Ain’t no such thing as a steady life. It’s all wriggly and wobbly, far as I can tell.

At the end, though, after the whole “burnout” detour, Petersen sticks a great landing, which, to bring it all back around, makes this piece worth reading.

“I don’t have a plan of action, other than to be more honest with myself about what I am and am not doing and why, and to try to disentangle myself from the idea that everything good is bad and everything bad is good. This isn’t a task to complete or a line on a to-do list, or even a New Year’s resolution,” she writes. “It’s a way of thinking about life, and what joy and meaning we can derive not just from optimizing it, but living it. Which is another way of saying: It’s life’s actual work.”

Bon voyage!


‘How We Breathe’

I watched the College Football Championship game last night, sort of, doing the thing where I mute the teevee and smoke a little bit of cannabis and play music in my living room. Clemson played a hell of a game.

Last night, it was Pinback’s seminal and attention-grabbing Autumn of the Seraphs, which I picked up on vinyl at My Mind’s Eye Records over the weekend (along with some Coltrane, Mingus and DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing…, which I’m setting aside for a brilliant, gray, rainy spring morning). I love this album.

I discovered Autumn of the Seraphs probably in 2008, shortly after it was release, while working on a journalism assignment in the Mac Lab in the basement of Alden Library at Ohio University. No one ever seemed to know about the Mac Lab; it was one of my top-three hang spots at the library back in those days. You could also go to the seventh-floor stacks and wheel a chair over to the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Ellis Hall and the pedestrian traffic flow across Park Place. Everyone running from class to class, social blips buzzing always. It was a great spot, and, again, no one ever seemed to know about it. I could crush books, slam stories, listen to countless hours of new music up there.

What I like about Pinback is just how thoughtful and totally chilled-out their music is. I admit: I could take or leave the first album, but everything from Blue Screen Life through Information Retrieved is stunning, polyglot string rhythms and esoteric, airy lyrical depth. (I saw the band once before they broke up, probably around 2011 or so, and I wasn’t feeling it at all. They played everything way too fast. That, to me, is the sign of some miscommunication between band and audience in any live setting. Why speed through your art like that? I’d also interviewed Rob Crow before the gig, and, despite being a fan, I just couldn’t get into our conversation. He was reticent, and I appreciate that, but it was a very difficult interview.)

But the music, more than a decade on now, remains a hallmark of my calmer hours.

The song that I stumbled upon in the Mac Lab so many years ago? “How We Breathe.”

Untitled excerpt from the old neighborhood

The bells rang hourly and sometimes in sudden moments of celebration. A baby was born or baptized. An elderly congregant’s hip replacement had taken. The nuns’ little Westie, Henry, a neighborhood icon and for one heady summer the ward’s “honorary” Democratic committee representative, had been returned to the church after accidentally (or boldly) boarding the Norfolk-Southern and falling asleep in a pile of mail bags. I tended to think that the dog had done it on his own. Up and left for a long weekend on the road. He was that sort of guy.

This morning, the bells rang brightly in an elegant version of “God Bless America.” The sunrise hung mutedly in the air, and I breathed slowly on the front porch. I waved to Henry when he walked by.


“And when your son looks at you and says, ‘Mama look, you won. Bullies don’t win,’ and I said, ‘Baby, they don’t,’ because we’re gonna go in there and we’re going to impeach the motherfucker.”

Now we got a ballgame, folks.

That’s U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib from Dee-troit talking to you. To us, all of us.

One of the great counter-narratives to what’s happening in the U.S. right now — to the story we tell ourselves — is that, actually, there are ways of prevailing against oppressive bad guys, even when they hold the most powerful seat in the land. They can be toppled, much like the sweetest wind can extinguish a runaway flame. It takes intent and vision and kindness and a lot of creativity. We’ll see it through.

2018 in books

IMG_3864I read 30 books in 2018, which is the most sustained stretch of reading I’ve done since maybe college. It was great to get back into the rhythm and discover some amazing works that I’d missed in the past. I’ve got a clear sense of what I want to read in 2019 — the types of books and the writers — and I’m thrilled to set off on those goals.

My favorite book in 2018 was Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon. It was an extraordinary, immersive experience. I then reread The Crying of Lot 49, and now I’m halfway through Vineland, which will be the first book I finish in 2019. Gravity’s Rainbow is on my list for sometime next year.

There was also a three-book run of Philip Roths in the fall. I read American Pastoral and was absolutely spellbound. As soon as I finished it, I walked down State Street in downtown Chicago to buy The Human Stain. I picked up The Plot Against America back in Northeast Ohio, and had to briefly explain to the cashier why I was buying a book with a swastika on the cover.

Brave New Weed by Joe Dolce.
It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis.
Influence by Robert Cialdini.
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.
The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe.
Kill All Your Darlings by Luc Sante.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.
The Quiet American by Graham Greene.
The Rise Of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris.
How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie.
Leisure, The Basis Of Culture by Josef Pieper.
Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferriss.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson.
Tropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.
Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon.
Dear God, What’s on the Second Floor? by Walter Holland.
How Music Works by David Byrne.
A Massacre in Mexico by Anabel Hernandez. (My review for the Cleveland Review of Books here)
American Pastoral by Philip Roth.
The Human Stain by Philip Roth.
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth.
White Noise by Don DeLillo (reread).
Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman.
Beatles vs. Stones by John McMillian.
Demand the Impossible! by Bill Ayers.
The Siege Of Harlem by Warren Miller.
Rabbit, Run by John Updike (not pictured).
The Crying Of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon (reread).


“If you see yourself as a creature of external forces, buffeted by a market, government, parental authority, whatever it may be, then you search for something elsewhere that will tell you what the meaning of your life is. If you have developed (it is a value judgment) what I think of as a healthy respect for yourself and others, you will design the meaning of your life.”

Noam Chomsky, 2014 interview


I’m a longtime supporter of the troubadours, the bards, even the rakish mountebanks who proffer wisdom and humor for the people. To quote one of the great beacons of my more writerly habits, Tom Robbins, “Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.”

The reason I like ’em all is because they tend to be virulently anti-fascist and anti-imperialist in their creative work and public character. And they’re often very funny. This matters quite a lot to me. A keen wit and an incisive humanitarian commentary are how I arm myself and revel in life with my loved ones.

(Why am I writing this? Why is any of this happening?)

Take Raffi Cavoukian, for instance. He helped kick-start my interest in music back when I was knee-high to a scruffy mutt, and I haven’t stopped listening to whatever sonic innovation and good-time grooves I can find. It’s how I spend my time, collecting perspectives and knowledge and jokes. Music is a terrific vehicle for all of the above, as are things like “books.” I’m not sure if that word means what I think it means in your modern tongue, but “books” convey ideas and narratives and fantastical visions of what once was and what might one day be again. Selah.