This Post Cost Me $68

For the third year in a row (I think), I let the registration lapse on my domain name, alexanderjh.com. I have a milestone birthday coming up, and have thoughts about it that I want to turn into a Thoughts on the New Year-style essay if I have time, so I needed to re-up my subscription.

Then I noticed that I haven’t posted since May 1, so this is the sort of filler post I write sometimes when I realize the site has sat dormant for too long. So that’s fun.

A Simple Request for Writers and Editors

Pretty much every thing I post to this site breaks my primary rule for writing. This post here has already broken it. It’s something I regularly scream into the abyss about. (That’s what I call posting something on Twitter, because my engagement on there is almost non-existent.) I’m okay with breaking it here, because this is my own site! And it doesn’t matter because who’s going to read it anyway?

The rule is this: Do not refer to yourself in the first paragraph, and definitely do not use a first-person pronoun as the first word in your lede. Made more prescriptive: Take yourself out of your story.Your article about a park ranger in the Smoky Mountains doesn’t need to start with “I,” “me,” “my,” “we,” “our,” or any variant thereof. Your profile of an up-and-coming actor should be about the actor herself. Nobody cares about the  Ivy League writer’s fellowship winner typing away about the newest innovation in at-home climate control.

The major exception is the personal essay, which it’s impossible to remove yourself from since you are the subject of the story. But not everything is a personal essay, despite almost every single writer trying to turn their story about wolves in Yellowstone or arugula farms in California into one.

I would link to examples, but honestly, go to any website like Vox or Slate or pick up any magazine like National Geographic, Vanity Fair or The Atlantic, and you’ll see this everywhere.

I think this comes largely from the typical writer’s mindset. One thing I learned when I was getting a salary to write is that the most successful writers are aggressively self-promotional. It’s inevitable, since the bulk of the job does not consist of actual writing but rather trying to sell yourself and your ideas. You have to sell yourself during the reporting, during the pitch, during the promotion. If you’re not completely convinced of your worth — of the idea that your story is the one that people should care about today, not anybody else’s — you are not going to succeed as a writer. I’m talking specifically about journalism, but this certainly applies to book authors as well.

(I should note that there are many, many writers today are good about not doing this. Ezra Klein at Vox is a good example, as are many of the people I worked with at Eater, though food writing is otherwise one of the worst culprits.)

This problem doesn’t completely come from the writer’s mentality. Editors need to do better as well. This has become the house style of the contemporary American thinkpiece and feature article, so editors typically edit to this style. But it’s a bad style!

Much of an editor’s job consists of helping the author see the whole forest after focusing so closely on the trees for so long. When a writer does a significant amount of reporting (in the case of feature articles) or, I guess, thinking (in the case of thinkpieces), they frequently want to get every single piece of information into their article. But the editor — being removed from the research and creation of the content — can see whether or not certain pieces actually add value to the piece. It can work the same way with the scourge of unnecessary first-person! When a writer is discussing Aaron Sorkin’s newest project, she doesn’t need to talk about the first time she saw an episode of The West Wing. Inserting yourself into the story rarely adds value for the reader, and frequently it is actually distracting.

Editors, do better!

As consumers, we have very little power in this world. (This is a frequent refrain of mine.) When a company or a product annoys or offends us, all we can really do is choose not to patronize that company or buy that product. It’s different with writing. I stop reading an article if the first word is a first-person pronoun. If the writer injects him- or herself into the first paragraph, there’s only a 30 percent chance I’ll continue. But doing that doesn’t change the ecosystem at all. Writing is not like other products. By the time a writer’s annoying self-regard has turned me off, I’ve already purchased the magazine or given the website my click. As a consumer there’s almost nothing I can do to affect this ecosystem.

I’ll just continue to scream into the abyss and hope an editor somewhere hears it.

Maybe It’s Not All So Bad After All

Over the weekend, I wrote a very long — at almost exactly 2,500 words, probably too long — essay about the current American political climate. Titled “The Rhetoric of Negativity,” the essay’s subhed promised to explain “why I’m supporting Hillary Clinton.” I think I achieved this! But while I do support her and expect her to be the Democratic nominee for the US presidency, I’ve learned some things about Bernie Sanders over the last few days that would make me very happy to vote for him instead.

Sanders’s rhetoric of “revolution,” of figuratively blowing up the current systems, should be very pleasing to me, but as I noted in my essay, “a drastic uprooting of the American system is not going to happen.” And since so much of the country would strongly oppose such a disruption, that’s probably a good thing. The trick, then, is figuring out how to solve the problems our country faces — like access to quality health care, especially for women; economic injustices; racial inequities in the economic and justice systems; ecological devastation — within the framework of the United States as currently constituted.

For all his talk, Sanders knows this. Some of his policies are, certainly, impracticable, but when you start to actually look at his policy papers they’re much more realistic than one might expect. So that’s good. (Though that same realism means there is almost no chance he achieves his stated aims.) My largest issues with Sanders continue to be his supporters, who are by-and-large kind of annoying to a curmudgeon like me, and his age. He would be 75 upon taking office, 79 by the end of his first term. Hillary is even too old for me, but she is still six years younger.

On the Republican side, Rubio is now done, which is probably good. He was a subtle sort of evil, as opposed to Trump’s and Cruz’s explicit lunacy. Kasich is now the most mainstream of the candidates, and surely it would be good for the Republicans and the country if, somehow, he was the nominee. He’s fairly moderate, though his decision to defund Planned Parenthood is the worst sort of right wing fear-mongering, as doing so hurts women while having a negligible effect on abortions.

Consider this an addendum — an appendix — to that monstrous essay.

The Rhetoric of Negativity, or, Why I’m Supporting Hillary Clinton

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

-Preamble to the Constitution of the United States

My life as a political being goes in waves, from peaks of heightened political engagement where I think often about the current state of our country and the philosophical foundations of the American political system, to valleys where I maybe still read history and philosophy but don’t bother much to think about politics as such. The last few years have been such a valley — I’ve spent most of the Obama presidency with a deep respect and admiration for our current president and general annoyance at Republican obstructionism, punctuated by occasional interest in (without taking action on) key issues.

A few recent events have quickly taken me from a valley to a peak: the emergence of the new civil rights movement, particularly in and around my hometown; my wife’s and my decision to start watching The West Wing beginning back in November;  the massive popularity of the musical Hamilton, which got me reading more deeply about the early days of our country; and the current election, which vivifies everything wrong with our country today. In this current bout of consciousness I’ve bought a copy of the US Constitution and read it several times, while also beginning to read The Federalist Papers to be better understand the logic and history behind that Constitution.

One unintended result of this is that I like our current president more and more, while increasingly detesting the opposition party. In Barack Obama we have a pretty good president and a great, inspiring leader, willing to work with the opposition. In reaction, the Republican party has done the opposite at every turn. The end result is a rhetorically strong but intellectually dishonest attitude that has the potential to take our country in a disastrous direction. Continue reading

The Patron Saint of the Arbors

I.

There’s a handsome young gentleman who lives in my apartment complex who, the first year or so that I lived here, I thought was not a he but rather a she. This is a mistake many of us make when presented with a non-human creature: too often we address the cool, tough, intense, or energetic creatures as he, while the softer, gentler, more demure ones we call she. When we see a hawk or a bad-ass dog or a cartoon of a fierce dinosaur, we say, “Whoa, look at that guy!” With pretty birds and adorable pups it’s always, “Who’s a pretty girl?” This is crazy, though, and it reveals how deeply held our prejudices are.

So this gentleman in my complex, for over a year I referred to her as Honkers, a name drawn from her meow that is only barely deeper and bolder than a squeak. It’s a soft little Owmp, which in its pitifulness matches the cat’s scrawny size. Honkers is only seen at night, hanging around outside the apartment of one of our neighbors on the floor below us. She sleeps out there just outside the door, on a bed that her person put there for that purpose. But more often Honkers can be seen about ten feet down the way, sitting erect and looking out through the little wrought iron fence that blocks the walkway from the courtyard below. Always sitting there, Honkers just looks out on the nighttime world. When we come up from the car, she greets us with her little noise, honking and bonking and rubbing and purring. For a stranger, Honkers is the perfect cat.

Once or twice, I’d be talking to Honkers about what she’d seen and done since the last time we’d seen each other, when her owner would crack the door to see who was out there. Acting more skittish than the cats, I would dart away for fear of getting caught being the weirdo that I am. Eventually, though, I did get caught. On that occasion, my wife was standing there with our groceries — I had set my bag down, knowing that Honkers was, wisely, afraid of shopping bags — and she was patiently indulging me as I pet the cat. Then the door opened too quickly for me to gather my groceries and run away, so I tried chatting a bit with Honkers’ owner.

As friendly and chatty as Honkers is, her person is the opposite. But I was able to learn from her that Honkers’ real name is Tiggs — presumably short for Tigger, a terrible and obvious name for a cat — and that she is a boy cat. More accurately, she’s a grown-ass man cat. Tiggs just showed up at the person’s door one day and has been attached to her ever since.

After my conversation with Tiggs’ person, I still take time to say hello to him whenever I can, and avoid her at all costs. Also, while common sense suggests his name is short for Tigger, I assume it’s actually an elision of Taye Diggs, so that’s what I call him. I don’t work nights anymore so I don’t see him as much, and besides I think he’s usually allowed to sleep inside when it’s below freezing, as it has been lately. But still, on warm nights sometimes he’s outside when I’m leaving for my pre-dawn run, and at the risk of disturbing his slumber I still usually exchange good mornings with him. Recently I saw him on the opposite side of the apartment complex, an area to which he rarely strays except for those occasions when he’s feeling so sociable that he follows my wife and I to our door. When he follows us, he usually lays outside our apartment for an hour or two, driving our cat Puss — full name Hunter Paxton Pusserton — absolutely crazy as he spies from the window.

On this occasion, though, Taye Diggs was on the landing half a flight of stairs up from the laundry room, pacing distractedly. I said hello, of course, and scratched him a bit behind the ears. Then I continued to the laundry room, to do those things that people do there. Then it became clear why Taye was just a half-flight of stairs away: his person was doing her laundry, and he had chosen to accompany her. We all always knew Taye Diggs was a true gentleman.

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Some Resolutions

Close readers of this blog (so, basically, my wife and my cat maybe, though my paltry traffic numbers leave me not totally convinced even they read me) may notice an inconsistency in my last post. As I collected my thoughts on the new year, I wrote that this year was exceptional in that I was actually making resolutions. Here’s what I wrote:

As I’ve noted in every New Year’s essay since my first one in 2011, I don’t like resolutions. (But this year I make some, see below.) Too often they’re negative, and they carry little weight beyond the end of January. I instead try to frame it positively.

First of all, this is not that much of an exception, as I’ve written almost that exact same thing before. Second of all, I never actually stated the resolutions I made this year. So here they are:

  • Stop biting my fingernails and, moreover, quit picking at my cuticles when I’m anxious. I’m tired of bleeding on everything.
  • Get up when I’m supposed to and consistently do my training in the morning rather than the evenings.
  • Drink less.
  • Be less affected by heteronymous forces. That is, curb my jealousies and resentments. Be myself and be good at it.
  • Keep reading. Challenge myself with new ideas.
  • Answer emails within a day of receiving them.

That will probably do it. If I do that combination of trivial and intense things while connecting better with the people around me, 2016 will be a good year.

Thoughts on the New Year: 2016 Edition

This is the fifth edition of my annual Thoughts on the New Year essay. I wrote it over three sessions, starting in the lobby of a Midas on New Year’s Eve and completing it the morning of New Year’s Day  at a crowded breakfast table. It feels awfully scattershot to me, but that’s how my brain works. See previous editions of this essay here.

Could any New Year’s Eve feel more unexpected? Sure, this is the inevitable end of any year: they all must end 365 or 366 days after they begin. But usually I’m at least aware that the year is ending for a couple weeks before it actually does. 2015 was so full, from beginning to end, that I haven’t felt any natural slowdown of this year or the attendant excitement for the coming one. That’s not a bad thing — tonight will be a fantastic night spent with friends and family– but it just feels different.

For the last several years, New Year’s — and all the hope and expectation that comes with it — has led me to think very deeply and feel very intensely about the coming year. That’s resulted in four consecutive annual editions of this essay. (Five in a row, whoa!) While writing this essay has become an important part of my New Year tradition, I didn’t start thinking about this year’s essay until this afternoon

As 2014 turned into 2015,  I committed myself to digging in, focusing, being more consistent, and chugging along like a tugboat captain. It was the Year of Stability. But it was still a year I was  excited about. And it didn’t disappoint: I followed up running a marathon in 2014 with running two more, and finishing the second under three hours. (Something achieved by only 2 1/2 percent of everyone who attempts a marathon — itself less than two percent of the population.) After nearly two years at a very good job I got a new one, and was able to quit my second job. Oh, and I got married.

All of those feats are indicators of stability. Marriage is stability. Long distance running is itself an endeavor of persistence, and it’s an activity I began in earnest in 2013 and am continuing into next year. That’s stability. And sure, I changed jobs, but I did so in a move that will hopefully allow me professional stability in a way I’ve never had..

So while chugging along I did some really great things, but it was stable. This was the first year since I was in high school in which I didn’t move. The apartment in which my wife, my cat, and I live isn’t great — I decided yesterday that it’s the third- or fourth-worst of the 12 or more I’ve lived in as an adult — and I don’t particularly like the area where we live. I feel, occasionally, that I’m performing well below my ambitions. But committing to my plan, working hard, and digging in was my goal for this past year. In addition to my very real and tangible and exciting successes, achieving that more passive goal is its own victory. I end 2015 feeling very good about the year.

The end of 2015 snuck up on me. Here we are, but when did we get here? When did all this time pass? This year has been busy, right up to the last few hours. (It’s so busy that I began this essay in the lobby of a Midas, watching the second Hangover movie while getting an oil change.) Suddenly tomorrow is next year and I’ve hardly thought about it at all.

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