How a lousy comments section restored my faith in humanity

First, a bit of housekeeping:  after my inaugural post, I should say at the outset that I deeply appreciate the warm welcome from old readers, new readers, dues-paying members, and (temporary) free riders (we’re coming for you!), as well as all the efforts of my friends and former colleagues who inflicted the living hell out of me on the reading public.   I probably owe my former Weekly Standard compadres Jim Swift and Jonathan V. Last, in particular, gift cards to their favorite massage parlor (don’t ask) for all the promotional heavy lifting. It went above and beyond the launch I had any reasonable right to expect.  I was moved. You have all been what my favorite Jewish cowboy and former profile subject, Kinky Friedman, calls “the wind beneath my knees.” (Actually, Kinky’s keyboard player, Little Jewford, used to say that about Kinky’s knees, but they were practically the same person.)

That said – and this is going to meander a bit before I get to the main event, which I really urge you to stick around for because I think it’s important, so bear with me -  I did harbor doubts about joining what my spirit animal, Bari Weiss, calls the Substack pirate ship.  Mainly, because I naturally distrust all new enterprises.   Exhibit A: here is a picture of the phone I still used up until about two months ago, perhaps subconsciously wanting to make sure smartphones caught on before I took the plunge.

I’d still be hauling that artifact around if it hadn’t stopped receiving texts.  When I called tech support, a kindly African-American woman explained, “Baby, they don’t want you to carry that no more. You obsolete!”  (Tell me something I don’t know, sister.)   So now I’m all 5G-ed up like the rest of irradiated America.  Please point me in the direction of the cattle feed so I can follow the vulgar herd.

But getting back to Substack, I’m now all in, psychologically, ready to shimmy up the greasy pole to the top of the leader board no matter who I have to crush, even an innocent like Heather Cox Richardson. (Only kidding, Heather-head legions. Please don’t swarm me, or refer me to HR on this, my second day of work.)  But before leaping, I did wonder if we’d already achieved Peak Newsletter.  There now seems to be one catering to every predilection, curiosity, and perversion -  like salad fetishism.

Substack literally has a newsletter that caters to the salad enthusiast, The Department of Salad.  I’ve read it. It’s good. It has a lot of useful salad information. And don’t get me wrong, I too, like salads, particularly if they have meat in them.  But until about five seconds ago, I’d never given much thought, while enthusing over my meat salad, as to whether I’d rather be reading about it than eating it.

Or take Jeff Tweedy for instance, the frontman for the band Wilco. He now has his own Substack, Starship Casual, where he shares “songs, advice, general musings, and whatnot.”  Now I don’t know Jeff Tweedy personally, but I’ve admired the man for decades.  I think Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue albums with Billy Bragg (in which they set unfinished Woody Guthrie songs to music) are some of the finest of their time.  I have read, on audio, both of Tweedy’s books (Let’s Go, So We Can Get Back and How To Write One Song), and can’t recommend them highly enough.  For over twenty years, I’ve been insisting to anyone in earshot that Wilco’s  “It’s just that simple” is one of the great underrated alt-country tunes (though it was written and sung by Wilco’s bassist, John Stirratt.)

So do I have a problem with Jeff Tweedy’s Substack? No, I subscribed last week!  But I do have a question: why the hell are rock stars writing newsletters? They’re rock stars. They should have better things to do.  Do you see mopey, sad-sack journalists chiseling in on the rock-star occupation, headlining arena tours and bonking busloads of groupies? No, you do not.   So maybe stop being so selfish, Jeff Tweedy, and leave some work for the rest of us. 

But perhaps my biggest reservation of all – and now we are coming to the main course – is that most of my Substack  senseis  told me I needed to have a comments section.  They told me I needed to “build community,” as though I was throwing a HOA mixer.   Yet I became a journalist for the purest of reasons: so I didn’t have to think about anybody other than myself. I don’t need commenters in my head when I write.  They might crowd what’s already in there, like the self-doubt and performance anxiety. You know, the important stuff.

When I wrote for my home magazine, we (blessedly) did not have a comments section.  But when I wrote for others, most  publications did. And I tended to loathe them.  Sure, there were always nice people telling you that you were a genius and that they loved every word. (This tended to happen more often when I posted anonymously under my own stories.)  But in many places, comments sections, in this Age of Rage, tend to be like human lint traps – a catchall for cranks, ill-tempered axe-grinders, and soft-handed keyboard warriors who evidence all the bravery in the world, so long as they can post under a fake name like “CuckSlayer.”

And yet, the other day, I let the comments section ride on my launch entry. I was pleasantly surprised. People are here because they want to be here.  Because just maybe, they get you, and think you get them.  They’re generally not spoiling for a fight, or looking to take out their frustrations.   They understand, and want to be understood.  

One of those people was a woman who posted under “Angie.”  I don’t have a lot of innate talents, but I am a pretty good judge of character. And I could tell Angie was a sweetheart from a mile away.  She wrote this: “I can't afford a subscription yet, been unemployed for a year and finally starting a new job Monday...but, I love what I just read and you were recommended to me by JVL, one of my, as soon as I can swing it I will....”

I told her to not worry about it.  To surf free, with a clean conscience, until she gets back on her feet.  Honesty time: I need subscriptions to make my life keep working. But if you really want to be here once I build that paywall, and you’ve fallen on hard times, and can’t afford it, tell me, and we’ll figure it out. (   I told her this, and am telling you this, not because I’m a great person. I’m not. I’m kind of a self-interested bastard, like most of the rest.

But one thing I have developed an acute understanding of is hard times.  I’ve had a few. Recently, even.  After all, I worked for the Weekly Standard, a place that provided the best job a feature writer could ever have. (See my launch post.)  There were almost no other jobs like it in journalism.  For 23 ½ years, I lived in writer heaven. And then, overnight, it disappeared in an instant. Not just my job, but those of all my colleagues/friends.  People I’d known my whole adult life, who did great work.  Our corporate overlords grew cranky, cut our throats, shut down the magazine, and threw us out in the street – in the worst journalism economy in decades. And they did so about a week before Christmas. I didn’t enjoy watching my kids open their already-purchased presents that year, to say the least.  Instead, I thought, “How much did that cost me, and is it too late to take it back?”  The kind of questions the unemployed don’t have the luxury of ignoring.

So though I might not have had Angie’s problems – we still had money coming in - I know what it’s like to worry. To startle awake in the middle of the night in a big puddle of despair and empty Franzia boxes, wondering what the future looks like, or if there’s a place for you in it.  You can listen to all the think-tank economists you want on cable news, telling you how  “the unemployed are milking the system,” by not returning to fry cook jobs that pay a fourth of what they used to make, in the middle of the deadliest pandemic in a century.  But, and I say this as a lukewarm Christian and lifelong conservative: eff them, with a cherry on top.  They can take their certitude and smugness, along with their Gary Cohn white papers – and stick it up their jampots. If you haven’t lived it, you don’t know it. So it’s probably best not to pretend you do. 

But my personal pain  isn’t why I’m telling you this story. Angie’s is. Or not Angie’s, actually. Her real name is Angelle Churchill (no relation to Winston). How do I know this? Because I had to find out. The reason I had to find out, is because I received a letter from a guy who read her post in my comments section. He doesn’t wish to be identified. When I asked him to choose his own alias, a courtesy I often extend to background sources, he went with  “Old School…. since at this point in my life, I pretty much am that.”

Old School asked me, with near desperate urgency, if he could pay for Angelle’s subscription anonymously. He did not want credit. I waved him off. I run this site, I can pay for her subscription myself, which I was moved to do after his voluntary sacrifice.  So I comp’ed her.  (Old School told me fine by him, he’d donate her subscription fee to the charity of my choice, instead.)

But I wanted  to know more from him, why he wanted to do what he volunteered to do. While fifty bucks isn’t a big outlay by a lot of people’s lights, Old School isn’t looking to blow discretionary income willy-nilly. He’s a lifelong toolroom machinist, who lives on the edge of Michigan’s thumb, about thirty miles outside of Flint.  He’s a working-class guy in his late sixties. But as he wrote to me, “Unemployment and I are no strangers. Been laid off a handful of times over the years, and can remember times when even five bucks for something extra was a stretch. Fortunately (and with no small amount of luck) I’ve weathered the various storms and am in a pretty  good place after a lifetime of work. At least a lot better place than a lot of folks.”

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When he asked me to give his money to Angelle, he didn’t want me to tell her his name.  But what he absolutely wanted me to do is to tell her that he cared.

So I did. I got in touch with Angelle.  And I told her that whatever happens to this silly-ass site of mine, as long as it exists, she was comp’ed.  And then I told her that Old School cared.  And she told me that she was touched, and that she was crying. “In a good way.”    Like many people you know, who you might not know are having them, she’s had some really hard times lately.

Angelle lives just west of Cleveland.  She’s 64 years old. In fact, she just turned it today. “And I am pretty sure my age was part of the problem getting a (new) job,” she tells me. She’s a bookkeeper by trade. For twenty years, she worked for a family-owned law firm.  “I loved it and was good at it,” she says.  But then market and pandemic pressures happened, and the partners decided to wind down the business, leaving her unemployed.

Her whole life has been altered ever since.  For lack of money, she had to stop doing what formerly brought her joy, like collecting things -  Care Bears, sci-fi toys, “anything that tickles my fancy.”  She no longer has a car. She had to turn one in at the end of her lease last May, now unable to afford it. “It has been awful,” she says, “needing to get a ride when I need to go somewhere.”  Poverty hands you lots of similar indignities. She lost her health insurance, and so, she’s “terrified of getting sick.” She’s struggled with depression and stress. “I feel unproductive and useless and it is kind of embarrassing needing help.”

“It has been rough,” she tells me. “I am my only source of income, and my mortgage is in forbearance, and I am behind a year, now.”  Angelle worries a lot.  She stays up half the night, sleeps half the day, and needs to get back on a regular schedule.  She just secured a new job that she’s about to start, but she frets that she’s too old and too out of the swing, after spending so long on the bench.  Though it did come just in the nick of time.  Her last unemployment payment was September 28. “I literally  have $40 to my name,” Angelle says. “All my September obligations are paid, but I won’t get my first paycheck till the 22nd, so I may need to borrow against the first check.”

She says she worries about her health, about COVID.  She’s prone to bronchitis, and says she’s overweight, a leading co-morbidity  (“though I have lost a ton while I normally gain weight by looking at food …..during this staying at home and eating crappy food event”).  She has other problems she doesn’t  delve deeply into. But she reassures me that “I am normally a Susie-Sunshine-it-will-all-work-out-in-the-end type. However, I am getting older, and I just didn’t expect to be where I am at this point, and due to a divorce, and subsequent job loss, and a bout with cancer not long after, this will be the third time I have had to crawl out of financial distress……sigh……I thought I was done.”

Maybe we’re never done with struggle. We are, after all, human . But that’s okay.  The human strugglers are welcome here.  Both Angelle, and those who show love to people like her, like Old School, who has struggled himself.  Because Old School understands something fundamental that too many seem to miss: that no matter how well you’re doing, we are all two turns of the screw away from being dropped to our knees.  God bless Old School, and God bless Angelle, and God bless my cursed comments section for showing me how wrong I was about comments sections, where unlikely magic can happen. Because magic, when it does happen, tends to happen on its own time, not ours. Maybe I’ll keep that comments section around after all.   I think it’s in good hands, freeing me to do other things, like reading about salad, or listening to Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting co-conspirator Billy Bragg, who keeps faith. As should we all.

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