Monday, March 25, 2024

I Get It, Gary

I've retired my Chowhound narrative.

I've decided to never again recount the tale of Chowhound - nine years of unrecompensed labor and stress working a half-dozen full-time jobs in parallel, desperately defending against vandals, psychopaths, and guerilla marketers while contriving to handle mounting server bills and inadequate software, and then, at the very last moment, selling the damned thing and going to work for a deranged sadist (I recounted a lot of it for this Slog in a harrowing, hilarious, surreal series starting here).

Here's how it usually goes: I start recalling how I'd fallen into the project as a lark ("A Three Hour Tour! A Three Hour Tour!"), and listeners configure their features into an expression suitable for hearing about Jim's Kookie Experience. Then we reach the point where a million users stream into the site, and a low murmur begins to build:
Sort of like the murmuring Vikings in Monty Python's "Spam" sketch.

"Uh, no, hahaha. Not at all, actually," I dissuade the listeners in mid-titillation. "Actually, there was no revenue model. We were just offering a public service. I didn't make a dime the whole time."

Faces fall in coin-us interruptus. So then why, Jim, are we hearing this?

I try to explain my reasons for working myself to death in a horrendously stressful ordeal. And it's not that they have trouble parsing my decision-making - that they see the dilemma and wonder why I chose Door B. No, the entire notion is inscrutable. Why would anyone knock themselves out so utterly if it didn't directly benefit them? What are we missing here?

This is an era of "work/life balance." Way back when, shmucks like Beethoven and Shakespeare fussed endlessly with subtleties when they might have made a fine living just expediently tossing stuff out there. But that was then, and now is now, and doing more than necessary - when it's not rewarding you (moneymoneymoneymoney) - seems irrational. Obsessive. Unhinged.

I explain that I'd created a great thing. A dream. A utopia. All those people were eating really well. Unsung geniuses who'd otherwise have been lost amid the drek were spotlit, some becoming bona fide superstars. The proprietor of Di Fara Pizzeria - a bitter old man in 1996, planning to shutter for lack of business - was elevated into a revered culinary god. And, for the first time ever, the annointers weren't a class of snobby, imperious Mrs. Howell-ish food columnists, but weirdos and misfits like me who eschew trendiness and worship actual quality. I'd created a magical machine to achieve the result I most wanted to see in the world: discovering and spotlighting quality; aggregating the savvy; and creating incentive for conscientious geniuses to open great places. And it had actually worked! How could I just shut it down?

At this point, they see me as getting worked up into some egotistical boast, so there's drippy nodding. Yeah, yeah. Whatever, dude. How fantastic for you. Can we start wrapping this up?

My story continues: Grinding and grinding, fading and fading, until reduced to a desiccated husk, whereupon I resolved, finally, to close the damned thing, but, crazily, wound up selling it at the eleventh hour.


Well, y'know, that's not really the point here. I mean, no amount of money was worth it, and this amount certainly didn't come close. I was just lucky to avoid a total loss leaving me broken and penniless on the tarmac.


I got paid some. Nothing super-impressive for a decade of herculean labor creating a respected national media source out of nothing.


Last time, I told the tale to an old musician friend I hadn't seen in 30 years, and who'd missed all this. When I uttered "nothing super-impressive", the strangest emotion flashed across his face. I realized, to my horror, that he was relieved.

Oh, thank god.

Really? After this grueling tale, after all I'd been through, and being someone you genuinely like and respect, who you would presumably root for, you feel delighted schadenfreude that I didn't make zillions? Really? That's your takeaway? Your emotional through-line?

It doesn't always produce schadenfreude, thank god, but no one has ever managed to sustain emotional connection throughout the story. The lurching arc disorients them (imagine what it did to me!), leaving them unsure when to jump between jealousy (masked by fake enthusiasm) and pity (masked by fake sympathy). And without a final price tag, it's like porn without the money shot. Because what else matters? No one bothers to connect their observation that I look super old with the grueling story I just told. That requires a paying of attention, and some degree of empathy.

I enjoyed writing up the epic tale for this Slog, where I'm not subject to real-time reaction. I can assume readers are pulling for me while they read. I'm still an optimist! But I'll never again tell it live. My friend's schadenfreude is like a gear spinning in the back of my gut. No one else gets to plant gears in my gut. My gut is closed for business!

My observations keep telling me people are getting worse. More lost in their heads; more narcissistic; certainly less generally alert and intelligent. I've had a lifelong sensation of downturn. But I'm starting to think the change has been internal. Me, not them.

Less lost in my head, less narcissistic, I'm paying better attention and seeing more clearly. Things were always this way, but I, too, had long been too narcissistically lost in my head to notice. There was a time when I'd have assumed support and sympathy. The utterance of some rote platitude ("Oh, no!" or "Oh, great!") would have propped up my suspension of conversational disbelief. But, then, toiling to fathom truth, I overshot. I know exactly what's up. And it's not complicated.

What's going on is that: 1. none of this is happening to them, and 2. my story doesn't follow a familiar contour compelling stock reactions at obvious moments, so 3. they don't know what to do with their faces to signal the right sort of empathy, and 4. MONEYMONEYMONEY, and 5. I've come to fully understand 1, 2, 3 and 4.

#5 is the biggie. The other stuff just is what it is. And what it's probably always been (though I still think quarantine made it worse). As I keep repeating, we're all far too narcissistic to recognize how extremely narcissistic everyone is. Greetings from sunny Portugal, by the way.

Anyhoo, when old friends and musicians ask what I've been up to, I'll tell them I've been operating a trombone babysitting service in Cincinnati how about you?

A blabbermouth since birth, with each passing year I become more and more of a "strong silent type". I never saw coming my eventual transformation into Gary Cooper.

I get it, Gary.

1 comment:

plam said...

I would think that artists would get it. I'm no artist, but I think I get the desire to do something without an ulterior motive...

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