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Aaron Gilbreath
Aaron Gilbreath has written essays and articles for Harper's, The New York Times, Paris Review, Tin House, Kenyon Review, Vice, and The Morning News. Curbside Splendor published his essay collection, "Everything We Don't Know," in 2016. @AaronGilbreath

Beyond “Rumble”: Talking with John O’Connor About the Other Link Wray

David Warner Ellis/Redferns

Most stories about guitarist Link Wray focus on his 1958 radio hit “Rumble,” a vaguely menacing, instrumental rock song that had no predecessor. They talk about how he punctured his amp with a pencil to get a grittier sound, maybe about the way his slick-hair, rockabilly, leather jacket look predated Elvis’. For the Oxford American‘s new music issue, journalist John O’Connor focuses on Wray’s lesser known masterpieces: the three albums fans call the shack sessions.

Despite the influence Link Wray’s instrumentals had on rock and roll on both sides of the Atlantic, from The Who to Jimmy Page, nothing brought Link much financial security or relief from the grueling life of touring tiny holes-in-the-walls. To retool his career and break free from the instrumental rock genre where he made his name, Link and his brothers started jamming in the early 1970s in the family’s rural chicken shack. The sessions mixed blues, folk, gospel, and country, featured singing, and produced rootsy music that sound like no other in Wray’s vast catalogue. Yet somehow, few people have written about this milestone in his creative life. O’Connor’s story “Mystic Chords” stands alone in the Link Wray literary canon. O’Connor talked with me about Link, journalism, and writing this epic story.

If I read your story correctly, you didn’t know much about Link Wray before researching this article. How did you find him and the story of his shack albums?

You read it correctly. My friend Dacus put the song “La De Da” from Link Wray on a mixtape a few years ago (“mixtape” isn’t quite right, but you know what I mean, a Dropbox thing) and I was like, “What the fuck is this?” I’d always thought of myself as educated about obscure ’70s rock or Americana or whatever you want to call it. I’ve got a hard-and-fast rule in record shops about buying LPs from ’71, 72, 73 ─ precisely the Shack era ─ if the price is right, and especially if there’s a funny-looking dude on the cover. So I was embarrassed that I’d never even heard of Link. And puzzled. I mean, how was it possible that I made it into my 40s without ever hearing Link Wray and the other Shack records? What else had I missed? All this stuff came up online about him having invented the power-chord, and how the rock gods all worshipped him: Townshend and Page, Dylan and Young. My embarrassment deepened, as did a curiosity about Link. That he was Native American added a layer of intrigue, because at that point, besides Robbie Robertson of The Band and Buffy Sainte-Marie, I probably couldn’t have named a single Native American musician, I’m ashamed to say. Actually, I could’ve named some: Karen Dalton, Jesse Ed Davis, Jimmy Carl Black, who played with Zappa. But I just didn’t know they were Native American, which is weird. This was all very maddening to me. Then, trying to find out more about Link got to be pretty dispiriting pretty quick. So much of what was written about him seemed cursory, half-baked, or worse. I had two early conversations with folks ─ Greg Laxton of the now defunct website linkwray.com, and Sherry Wray, Link’s neice ─ that convinced me basically everything I thought I knew about Link was wrong. Greg put me in touch with the producer Steve Verroca, who nobody had heard from in years. The story was writing itself.

Wow, that’s a strong start. When writers have questions that they’re compelled to answer, things get interesting, and the stories that result can have more urgency than ones that arise solely from a desire to tell a story. So when you started searching for answers, was there just a dearth of information about Link? Or a lack of humanizing detail?

There were a couple of starting points, like Jimmy McDonough’s article, which came out not long after Link’s death. He knew Link and seems to have talked to everyone else who knew him. It’s a fun read. But it’s also a tribute, as McDonough admits, a piece of hero worship, and therefore limited. And it came out twelve years ago. There wasn’t much else. Link didn’t give many interviews. Not by choice. He just wasn’t asked. This partly explains why so many of the stories about him are recycled and/or patently false. When he died, some obits referred to him as “Frederick Lincoln Wray.” At no point in his life was he named Frederick. It was also said that he had one son, when he had four. Anyway, that stuff’s easy to check. What’s nearly impossible to dissect is all the family conflict and bad feeling that endure over Link’s publishing rights, and the competing narratives, some of them legal in nature, about Link and his legacy. It’s still very raw for these folks.

Producer Steve Verocca is a key player in this story. Was he surprised you found him? And what happened when you started talking to him?

Greg Laxton got me in the door with Steve. I think he was skeptical. But Link’s music is also Steve’s legacy, in a way, and he was ready to talk. He had a pretty successful and multi-tentacled career, but as I say in the piece, Link sort of presides over it all. After we talked a couple of times, Steve hinted that he had some Shack-era stuff he was willing to share with me, but he wanted me to come to Virginia to see for myself. He didn’t say what it was, only that my mind would be blown. I thought maybe he had some outtakes or something. He surprised me there. But this speaks to your question above, too. My two principle sources were Steve and Sherry Wray. They disagree on essentially every point. Not just about Link. They’d disagree about what time of day it is. By the time I started talking to Steve, I’d already spent a lot of time on the phone with Sherry. So what happened when I started talking to him was my head started really spinning.

As a journalist, how do you build trust with a skeptical source like Steve Verocca? 

By talking to them, being patient, listening. People, generally, want to talk, even to complete strangers about incredibly personal stuff. They want their versions out there. You just have to be patient. Most people will go their entire lives without anyone ever asking them what they think about something. Nobody’s ever asked them for their opinion about anything, ever, and then suddenly you come along.

So Steve Verocca and Sherry Wray’s accounts conflict on nearly every point. As a journalist, how do you negotiate that sort of conflict between sources, especialy when they’re your two primary sources?

Checking with other people as best you can. I forget what the journalism rule is, something like cross-checking with two or more sources, or trying to. I offer a caveat in the piece along the lines of, I’m just trying to find a plausible centerline here. You know, looking for the path of least resistance. I’m on the outside looking in. Link’s dead. His brothers are long dead. Almost everyone who knew him or played at the Shack is dead. So I’m kind of at the mercy of secondhand stories. Maybe a good way to think about it is like a conversation between two people who’re both monologists and waiting for the other person to shut-up so they can resume talking and finish what they were saying. You’re a moderator, but one who’s also speaking to a dozen other people who’re weighing-in about what’s being said.

Link fans will salivate to hear that a whole fourth shack album exists and remains unreleased. In your piece, Verocca says he’d like to release this “When the time’s right.” Do you know if he has anything in the works? Are you going to help get that music out there? Do I sound like a crazy fan here? It’s just, when a person reaches an advanced age, biology has sort of made the time right.

I hope he releases it, but I don’t think he plans to do it anytime soon. A mutual friend reminded me the other day that Steve’s an old school record biz cat. Releasing stuff digitally just doesn’t register. He wants a physical product. And the chances of that are probably pretty slim, unfortunately. But you never know. Steve loves this record. It’s his favorite Shack record. He’s very proud of it. So it follows that he’d want people to hear it.

You admit you’re not a fan of “Rumble.” Now that you know so much more about Link and his music, and have listened to about everything he recorded, what do you think of his earlier, better known rock instrumentals?

I mean, I know what this stuff must’ve meant at the time, given the context. A few years before, “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” was No. 1 on the Billboard charts, a runaway smash hit! So, obviously an improvement. Which is the understatement of understatements. But it’d require some time-travel on my part to really appreciate “Raw-Hide” and “Jack the Ripper” and the rest.

The Humanities Marketplace As a Circle of Hell

Ian Nicholson/PA Wire/Press Association via AP Images

After earning two undergraduate degrees and a graduate degree, Athena Lathos, a self-described “Friendly Neighborhood Millennial,” still struggles to find adequate work, even in academia. Like many of us writer types, she had to work retail while applying to numerous other jobs that never contacted her back.

On her blog Bertha Mason’s Attic, Lathos shares her travails as a humanities major in the job market, as she tries to imagine that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t another dumpster fire. It isn’t as if she doesn’t recognize the pitfalls of her academic pursuits. It’s just that our capitalistic culture rewards too few people for them. The beauty is that her blog post makes her abilities evident: her wit, intellect, narration mixed with analysis, the engaging narrative voice, self-awareness, and deprecation so essential to compelling, insightful personal nonfiction. Please, someone help this talented, passionate writer and scholar find a job deserving of her.

Before I finished graduate school, I met with a career counselor at OSU and explained that I might like to pursue a career where I could remain part of university life, i.e. as a low-level administrator. For jobs even at that tier, she told me I would likely need another MA in “Higher Education Administration.” Really? Another MA? That I would have to pay in full for? To use the same programs and software that I had already been using as an instructor at OSU? Okay.

I heard her, but I also ended up applying to a lot of entry-level admin jobs, most of which amounted to working as a receptionist. I didn’t get any interviews.

After a summer of job searching, and increasingly desperate for cash, I began working retail at a local bookstore, thinking that I could continue looking for a position while I earned minimum wage. I ended up there for a year. Every few months, I was given tasks that increased in complexity and responsibility – everything from daily bookkeeping to making bank deposits for the store – while being told it wasn’t likely I would ever get a raise beyond a cashier’s minimum wage. At the store, nearly all of us had a college education or more, but we were treated like high schoolers with little to no intelligence. For example, one member of upper management referred to us as “the blind leading the blind.” Another, when I gave my two weeks notice, assumed it was because I was starting college as a freshman in the fall, expressing utter shock after she learned that I was 24 with an MA degree. In addition to those comments, there was the daily drudgery of being condescended to and degraded by everyone’s favorite I-must-speak-to-the-manager-immediately shoppers, who a) routinely berate you for store policies you have no control over and b) treat you like a thoughtless robot.

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The Making of Nirvana’s Most Vulnerable Album

Kevin Estrada/MediaPunch/IPX

In the 25 years since Nirvana last performed, we’ve seen a slew of posthumous releases and documentaries. One of the most enduring monuments to the band’s brilliance is their 1993 MTV Unplugged performance. Yes, they played a rare acoustic set. They played Leadbelly and David Bowie covers, and were joined by the Meat Pupppets. But the show contained an affecting vulnerability that still cuts right through people like me, who are old enough to have watched the show when it first aired. Kurt laughed. He talked with the crowd. The audience wasn’t moshing or jumping around. Fans were enchanted, especially when Kurt spoke with them one-on-one after the show. Unplugged became one of the band’s best selling albums. For The Ringer, Alan Siegal talks with the musicians, producers, and fans who made this historic night happen.

Craig Marks (editor, Spin): When he did “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” it wasn’t one of those things where a month later, or a week later, or a year later, you’re like, “That was great,” even though you didn’t really know it at the time. You knew the dead second that it was happening that you were witnessing something phenomenal. You didn’t really even know he had it in him. It was that good.

Bobcat Goldthwait (comedian-filmmaker): When they did that song, I remember the hair standing up on my arm.

Beth McCarthy-Miller (director, MTV Unplugged): That song told a thousand tales. It felt like he was singing all the pain that he had through that song. It was crazy.

Charles R. Cross (journalist-Cobain biographer): You get the sense that he’s just gonna fall apart, it’s like a car without its wheels, and yet, in the end, he plows through it.

Gillian Gaar (journalist): The thing he did, and he did it in a number of Nirvana songs, you’ll notice, [is] where he’ll be singing full bore, going all out, but then in the final verse he’ll go up an octave. And then really ratchet the energy up.

Scott Litt (producer, MTV Unplugged in New York): It fucking killed me—particularly where he paused before the end and gasped.

Amy Finnerty (Vice president of music and talent, MTV): The breath in between the breath. He made time stop. Time just stopped.

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What Was Andy Warhol’s Factory Really Like?

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To many young people now, artist Andy Warhol is just that stylishly dressed dude who made that soup can painting, but back in his prime in New York City, Warhol was the influential center of a powerful artistic community both venerable and strange. Warhol was mysterious. He influenced pop culture. He controlled a vast network of other artists and hangers-on. He had a group work and gallery space called The Factory, where artists, friends, sycophantic scenesters, and assorted oddballs involved themselves with him, did drugs, painted and made films, and tangled themselves in Warhol’s never-ending psychodrama. The amphetamines surely worsened peoples’ relationships by heightening the paranoia, but art somehow got made, too. For The New York Times, Guy Trebay and Ruth La Ferla ask participants about Warhol and the Factory, creating a fascinating oral history of a bizarro scene that had as much to do with sex and appearances as it did art.

Benedetta Barzini, 75, Vogue model, actress. Factory years: 1960s.

There was also this about the Factory: There were all these people hanging around hoping to find themselves but losing themselves more and more and more. I think Andy enjoyed seeing the suffering.

Danny Fields, 78, music industry executive, former manager of the Ramones. Factory years: 1960s.

There was a time when we went to Peter Knoll’s [heir to the Knoll furniture fortune] apartment on East 72nd Street. Andy was sitting on a sofa while Ivy Nicholson [model and actress] was disgracing herself, crawling around on her hands and knees bemoaning her love for Andy. Every so often Andy would, not violently but with a slight lift of his foot, kick her like a tiresome child or a dog you did not want to hurt but wanted to go away.

Dustin Pittman, photographer. Factory years: 1969-75.

He chased you and then — there is no gentle way to say this — he moved on. When Andy dropped the Superstars, they were upset. They all expected Andy to take care of them. They felt they certainly had a part in Andy’s fame.

Geraldine Smith, 69, actress. Factory years: 1960s.

He liked people that he thought had star quality. He put you in his movies, and then it was up to you to parlay that into something else. A lot of people didn’t.

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Working to Preserve Traditional Gospel Music

AP Photo/Ron Frehm
The golden age of gospel music overlapped with the civil rights movement, yet approximately 75 percent of the music has already been lost, its records destroyed, undocumented, and thrown away over generations. At Oxford American, Will Bostwick writes about historian Robert Darden’s efforts to collect, catalogue, and digitize what’s left in the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, an archive at Baylor University in Texas. So how did so much of gospel get lost?

Ask them why, and the answer gets complicated. “Part of it is racism,” Darden says. “Part of it is economic.” Part of it has to do with the consolidation in the music industry (some record companies hold the copyrights to these songs, but, lacking financial incentive, don’t make them available in any form). And the last part, as he sees it, is the religious aspect of this music. Marovich put it to me this way: “When I was growing up, there was always, in our neighborhood, a couple of guys in white shirts and black ties that wanted to talk to you about Jesus. And you wanted to run the opposite direction from those guys. . . . Gospel is a little frightening to the unknowledgeable.”

In February of 2005, Darden wrote an op-ed in the New York Times lamenting the loss of these treasures from gospel’s golden age: “It would be more than a cultural disaster to forever lose this music,” he writes. “It would be a sin.” The apparent imbalance of that remark stuck with me. By any honest standard, we sin regularly. A cultural disaster seems like a much more grievous affair. But I also had the feeling that he was onto something—that the loss of this music was a moral failing born out of a history of oppression and neglect. He explained to me that when he wrote that, he had in mind Jim Wallis’s (at the time controversial) claim that racism was America’s original sin.

The day the op-ed came out, Charles Royce, an investor from New York with no particular ties to gospel music, called Darden and asked what needed to be done to save what remained of the music. With Royce’s funding, and with the institutional support of Baylor University libraries, Darden and his colleagues started the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. In a 2007 interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, Darden said, “We see it as kind of like those seed banks up around the Arctic Circle that keep one copy of every kind of seed there is in case there’s another Dutch elm disease. I just want to make sure that every gospel song, the music that all American music comes from, is saved.”

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How the U.S. Systematically Puts Black Farmers Out of Business

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As if farming wasn’t difficult enough, with the physical exhaustion, expensive equipment, and unreliable weather, racist lending policies continue to winnow away the number of black sugarcane growers in Louisiana. Only 2 percent of farmers in the U.S. are black. In Iberia Parish, Louisiana, the number of black farmers decreased by 44.7 percent between 2007 and 2012. For The Guardian, Debbie Weingarten focuses on one of those families, the Provosts, and how racist lending policy and outright intimidation put them out of business. What redlining was to black home ownership, racist loaning practices are to black farmers. But in sugarcane it’s deeper than that, because American sugarcane farming began as a plantation system that both used enslaved black workers and worked to sustain the racist social hierarchy through beatings and lynching. You can see the effects in the Provosts’ fields, which now belong to a bank.

In 2008, June’s second season farming on his own, the sugarcane production cost was $615 per acre. But June [Provost] was only loaned $194 per acre. After weeding and fertilizing, he had little left to repair or purchase equipment. By fall, he could barely afford to pay his workers, let alone plant new cane for future production.

The Provosts argue that First Guaranty Bank and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved years of unfeasible loans that were too small for the scale of June’s production and dispersed too late in the season – and that when he failed, they collected on his collateral.

Such lending discrimination, Angie argues, can be observed just by looking at the fields around south Louisiana. By summer, white farmers’ fields are well-drained, weed-free, laser-leveled, whereas black farmers’ fields are overrun with Johnsongrass, a noxious weed – visual proof, says Angie, that black farmers are provided fewer resources than white farmers.

“You have to see it as a giant web, and every time you move in one way, it pulls you back in another,” says Hank Sanders, an attorney who is regularly involved in strategy with the Provosts’ legal team. “White supremacy is such a powerful thing … and it manifests itself in these various entities and institutions.”

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A Burger Made of Money

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By offering burgers, donuts, pizza, and ramen at his assortment of casual eateries, Micah Camden has built himself into Portland, Oregon’s most successful restaurateur. He owns more restaurants than anyone else, which wasn’t his goal but is saying something for a city known for star chefs and great food. At Willamette Week, Leah Sottile profiles Camden to understand what makes this 40-year old millionaire tick, as he ventures into vegan ice cream and another fast food concept. Some Portlanders see his restaurants as agents of gentrification, their aesthetics bland and homogenous, popular with tourists. Some find his personality contentious. He doesn’t care. He grew up on fast food, and he gives people what they want: fast food and value.

 His approach to entrepreneurship, in general, is at odds with the city’s usual way of doing things.
“I think he doesn’t give a shit about authenticity or any of these hang-ups that a lot of us have,” Huffman says. “Everybody’s trying to do stuff that feels sincere or something in a way that you don’t want to do things that feel calculated or douchey. And Micah’s like, ‘I want to make money!'”
Matt Brown, co-owner of Bunk Sandwiches, agrees that part of Camden’s success is his ability to hang up his chef clothes and to approach food without culinary-school pretension.
“When you’re wearing the whites, you’re going for a niche part of the pie,” Brown says. “When you’re wearing that hat, you want to get written up in Bon Appétit and be celebrated for providing something wonderful for their market. Fast casual means taking yourself out of the equation and thinking, ‘What does everyone else in town want?’ He approaches that pretty well.”

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Searching for Insights from Her Father’s Delusions

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After Jean Guerrero’s father tore up his condominium’s walls to find the devices that he believed were monitoring him, her mother diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic. The crack cocaine he’d been smoking certainly exacerbated his condition. For Wired, Guerrero honors her father’s claim that he is a TI, or “Targeted Individual,” by treating his story the way a trained journalist should: she goes searching for answers. She casts a wide essayistic net, examining philosophy and psychology, the biblical prophets who modern people would call bananas. She investigates the CIA’s MKUltra mind-control program and wonders if certain psychological ailments can show us things about the world we might not otherwise see. She’s reaching, but only because she’s searching for unconventional, uncomfortable truths in a country where the CIA did actually dose 10,000 American citizens with LSD without their consent. In an era of data-harvesting, she says, aren’t we all under surveillance?

We can dismiss the targeted individual whose persecutors allegedly tormented her about a breakup. Or we can ask ourselves if her story reveals something we’ve ignored about ourselves: a social media dynamic in which we are actually being watched, in which our most intimate lives are exposed, in which we are sometimes mocked and taunted by remorseless strangers.

There’s no mystery that Facebook knows our gender, ages, hometowns, birthdays, friends, likes, political leanings, and internet browsing habits. Facebook can tell, by analyzing our likes and comments, whether we are going through a breakup or a divorce. It can make predictions about our health. It can algorithmically intuit our fantasies and fears and use that information to target us with messaging so personalized it feels like persecution.

Consider this example from my own life: After the Los Angeles Times published allegations of sexual misconduct by a gynecologist at the university I attended, Facebook started bombarding me with pictures of his face in the form of ads, from plaintiff lawyers offering free consultations and injury checks. I’d had an uncomfortable experience with this gynecologist and had been considering sharing my story with journalists after reading the first article. But seeing his face on my news feed every time I opened Facebook felt invasive, almost nightmarish.

My USC classmates and I were being stalked by lawyers who knew we’d attended the university while the gynecologist worked there. It didn’t feel like the platform was presenting an option to speak up; it felt like harassment. The specificity of the ads, their omnipresence and relation to a very personal incident in my life felt like an assault on my process of deliberation—on the integrity of my free will.

Like my father, I was experiencing a form of gang stalking. And it was real.

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Who Killed Canada’s Pharmaceutical Giants?

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP

Last December, the murder of Barry and Honey Sherman became the biggest story in Canada. Barry founded Apotex Inc. in the 1970s, the ­generic drug company which was responsible for approximately one  in five Canadian prescriptions. But the Shermans weren’t like that scumbag Pharma Bro who raised his AIDS drug from $13.50 to $750 per pill. The Shermans donated generously to charitable causes, from antipoverty initiatives and educational institutions, to the Jewish community. Yet someone still murdered them. For Bloomberg Businessweek, Matthew Campbell narrates their triumphant lives and horrific end, and he looks at some prime suspects in the police’s inconclusive investigation.

The private investigators briefed the police on their conclusion that a murder-suicide couldn’t be the correct explanation, the person said. More than a month after the bodies were found, police officially endorsed that view. On Jan. 26 a homicide detective, Susan Gomes, told reporters that the police were now describing the case as “a double-homicide investigation” and that “both Honey and Barry Sherman were in fact targeted.” Asked what had convinced police, Gomes replied “six weeks of evidence and its review” and refused to elaborate.

This short briefing remains the most recent substantive update from Toronto police, a level of reticence unusual even for Canadian cops, who tend to be tight-lipped. A detective leading the inquiry, Brandon Price, didn’t respond to requests for comment; on Oct. 19 a spokeswoman told Bloomberg Businessweek that the force had no new information to provide.

In this vacuum, the theorizing about the Shermans has taken on a Murder on the Orient Express quality, with everyone a potential suspect. During more than 40 years in the generics industry, Sherman had cost his competitors billions of dollars. His fierce conflict with his cousins, the Winters, was also well-known. But more suggestive, to many, was Sherman’s affinity, if not affection, for inadvisable financial relationships.

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Shackled to Twitter

Jaap Arriens / Sipa USA / Sipa via AP Images

Most of us do a lot of boring, draining, annoying stuff for work. Processing paperwork. Crunching numbers. Making small talk with the narcissistic boss who can’t remember our name. For Vice, politics and culture writer Eve Peyser writes a hilarious account of the way her time using Twitter helped build her writing career before it started sucking the life out of her. Social media is a necessary burden for many writers, but some reach a tipping point where the professional returns no longer outweigh the psychological costs of posting constantly and preoccupying yourself with tweets’ performance. RT her story if you want.

As 2018 swings into full gear, my life neatens up and I can no longer ignore the cracks in my personal brand. I have a full-time job and I am in a serious long-term relationship with an amazing man whose love and companionship nourishes me in ways the affirmation of thousands of strangers never could. I hate Twitter. I have 79,000 followers and I still fucking hate it. I also still use it constantly. My timeline is a stream of infinite negativity, of horrific news, and everybody yelling at one another, and maybe I’m just getting older, but suddenly I am exhausted by all the cyber-rage. Every day online feels like Gamergate. The internet is angrier and more savage than it’s ever been, and it’s not safe to use Twitter as loosely as I once did. For the first time in years, my impulse to inform the world of all my inane passing thoughts and feelings has fizzled out. Moreover, I am gripped with fear that an amorphous Twitter beast will punish me for all the crazy things I’ve publicly shared over the years, that all my meanest and most callous moments will come back to bite me in the ass.

I don’t know who I am and I feel shame over the infinite ways I’ve misrepresented myself to an audience of cruel strangers. I oscillate between wanting to disappear and lapping up the dregs of pleasure I can’t help but take from having a viral tweet.

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