Discover more from Further Up
Caitlin Flanagan and Me
I click on the little blue eye in the upper right-hand corner of Chrome, the one with two clock hands cutting the pupil like highlights. The small window pops out and tells me my time remaining in blue digits: 00:12:29.
I switch to Edge, which has the same little blue eye. The blue digits in that window say 00:10:00.
If I flee to Incognito mode in Chrome, the eye is there. If I make my browser tab “In-Private” on Edge, the eye is there.
If I switch to “Guest account” in Chrome, however, the eye is not there. I discovered this recently. I should probably do something about it. There’s a way to disable the account. I should do that. Later.
My little blue eye is the logo for the time-management extension StayFocusd. I’ve put two “Blocked Sites” on its list, FaceBook and Twitter. But these days, I check FaceBook only once a day, if that. FaceBook is not the problem.
Two weeks ago today, Caitlin Flanagan published her Atlantic essay on Twitter addiction. It chronicles her extended “Twitter rehab,” aided by her capable Not Online sons, to one of whom she handed the keys of her account. She made this surrender along with a signed contract agreeing that no matter how desperately or cleverly she made her plea, her son would not give her the new password.
When her meta-essay was done and ready to be tweeted out, he opened the gate for her, for two minutes. He opened it again five days later so she could give her followers a brief assurance that her Twitter break was for the sake of her mental, not physical health. She wanted them to know that she had, in fact, just put herself on the outside of a very large quantity of ice cream.
It’s odd the way small things hit you. But as I scrolled through my feed that day, this tweet was a small thing that hit me very hard. Because I knew that probably, or at least not implausibly, I had something to do with this.
You see, a little over two months ago, I got into an argument with Caitlin Flanagan on Twitter. She had reviewed the Oscar-winning Nomadland, and in the course of the review had dropped a mention, almost by-the-by, about her end-of-life plans as she faces down cancer. Our ensuing Twitter exchange over this comment led me to go away and do some careful thinking about life, death, and dignity, which in turn led me to write this piece here at the Substack (only a couple weeks old at the time). As it took shape, the piece ultimately wasn’t really about Flanagan. I led with our exchange, but truthfully it was a pulling together of thoughts I’d had simmering for a long time, including thoughts on another prestige film, Supernova, which deals with dementia and assisted suicide. As a friend aptly put it, “It was Caitlin Flanagan plus…a bunch of other stuff.”
I was happy with the piece. It was some of my best work so far. Among other things, I thought it my most mature piece of film criticism. So I used the write-in form on Caitlin’s site to send it on, as well as tagging her on Twitter when I shared it. I didn’t exactly anticipate that she would love it, but I at least wanted to show her that I’d been thinking very hard about the rather pointed questions she put to me, which deserved much more than a tweet in response. (And, too, the fact that it was substantially film analysis seemed fitting, since her original article had been a film review.) We were never going to agree, that was clear. But I was a writer, and she was a writer, and I respected her. Maybe we could meet on this plane, at least.
One way or another, Flanagan picked up the piece, then tweeted it out with her reaction. I’m not going to link or quote that reaction here. It was not positive, suffice it to say. As the evening wore on, she tweeted follow-up thoughts. The likes piled up. The sub-threads swelled. Dan Savage got in on the action at some point. My plans for the night, whatever they were, wilted and died as I lay about with laptop and phone, checking and refreshing, refreshing, endlessly refreshing. I refreshed the stats for the piece on my Substack dashboard too. Overnight, they spiked by an order of magnitude. I found some consolation in this. It was a pretty damn good piece, I thought.
Friends and strangers were kind. The moment passed. Life moved on. Not too long after that, Flanagan began her self-imposed hiatus. Then she came back to tell us about it.
I’m not the sort to hold grudges, generally, and I certainly wasn’t holding one against Caitlin anymore. But any small grudge I still carried would have melted away as I read her essay. Because Caitlin’s essay wasn’t just about Caitlin. It was about me.
She describes that first day off the grid, free at last, floating out to the garden with a book. As she sits down, she experiences a sense of rest, of returning—a return to herself:
For the past few years, I’ve felt a strange restlessness as I read, and the desk in my bedroom is piled with wonderful books I gave up on long before the halfway mark. I had started to wonder if we were in a post-reading age, or if reading loses its pleasure as we age—but I knew that wasn’t really true. Reading that book took me out of my own time and place, and I found myself once again wandering in a created world. I felt the old sensation of trying to slow down, so that the book would last a long time. I had suspected for a while that my reading problems had something to do with Twitter, and several times I’d tried leaving the phone in another room—but it was no good. Twitter didn’t live in the phone. It lived in me.
And that’s when I realized what those bastards in Silicon Valley had done to me. They’d wormed their way into my brain, found the thing that was more important to me than Twitter, and cut the connection.
Oh my God, I thought as I read. She knows. She knows.
I went to a drawer in my room, one of those all-purpose “bits of kitsch” drawers that serves as an entropy sink. I dug around until I’d found what I was looking for: an old mini-memo book, 60 sheets, with a kitten and stuffed animals on the front. I flipped through the lined pages, completely covered in adolescent loopy cursive handwriting. It was a log. A book log. Dozens and dozens of titles, carefully recorded with my favorite gel pens. And underneath, dates. Day of starting, day of finishing.
There were classics, mystery, comedy, adventure. There was memoir and fantasy and history and children’s lit. There was Dickens and Kipling and Conan Doyle and Austen and Eliot and P. G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. There were light reads like Walter Farley’s Black Stallion potboilers, which I ate up one per day in a week. There were long, rich, difficult books I finished in days. There was a month where I re-read The Lord of the Rings. (I first read it when I was eight, racing to finish it before my ninth birthday, in parallel with The Complete Sherlock Holmes.) Sometimes I added a winky face next to books that took me only a day. Sometimes I doodled around the titles with thematically appropriate designs. A pirate flag for Treasure Island. A knight’s shield for Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman.
Not quite every page is covered with book names. There are a few pages where I attempt to draw a cat, perfecting a blocky childish design. It’s not serious. I did in fact know how to draw. I know if I walked to the right shelf outside my room, I would find sketchbooks full of work: animals, human faces, movie crushes, VHS box art copied in pencil.
A couple other pages in the memo book have the names of some albums full of radio drama I want to request for Christmas. This was a favorite pastime. I would listen for hours on end while I played chess, or played Rush Hour, or did something else with my hands, generally knitting, generally something useless.
A couple pages just have a list of state names. I remember this. I was trying to see if I could write them all down without looking. Geography was a favorite subject. All you had to do was remember lots and lots of things. My memory was very good. It’s still pretty good. But not that good.
One week into rehab, Caitlin wants back in. She marches into her son’s room. She gives him a rational explanation of Twitter’s importance in a journalistic career, specifically her journalistic career. Her son listens patiently. Then he pushes back his swivel chair and pulls down William James’s Principles of Psychology. She might find the essay on habits to be of interest, he suggests.
One month in, it’s time for her first break, after which she’s supposed to go dark again. But she feels like she’s got a plan. She’ll use the site for half an hour a day, no more. To further her career of course. But just half an hour, she promises. One son keeps reading his book. “The bargaining phase,” he says dryly. Her other son, the one with The Keys, fetches a book of Simone Weil essays. He opens to “On the Abolition of All Political Parties” and reads an apt passage aloud, replacing parties with Twitter.
And now I’m laughing inside, because this is not just Caitlin’s family. This is my family. This is how we banter and discuss and talk things out, pulling up references, grabbing books metaphorically and literally. And I think of books I’ve meant to read so I can discuss them with my dad. Only I have this problem, see. I have Caitlin’s problem.
Yeah, but it’s not as bad, I tell myself. Which is true. I was able to finish a long project last week while largely sticking to a promise to stay off the bird site except for DMs. (Friends can attest I still slunk in here and there in replies. It was the thought that counted.) I haven’t given anyone the keys to the kingdom, yet. I really am going to go and disable that guest account. Just…not right this minute.
A good friend of mine knows. We’ve been friends since long before Twitter. We’re very much alike. Our arcs bent in a similar direction. In late years, we have turned to the bird site for similar purposes, searching for similar highs. But we still manage to meet deadlines, produce work, and accomplish other non-bird-site-related tasks, because we’re good enough at what we do to get away with it. We say we’ll keep each other accountable, but more often we just wind up chatting in DMs, then telling each other to at least go to bed before 1 A.M., this one night. Still, chatting in DMs is better than refreshing, refreshing, endlessly refreshing.
She told me once she also finds reading more difficult these days. I suggested that she really is quite busy. “No,” she said bluntly. “Even when I’ve had time, I haven’t read.”
Caitlin’s sons won the argument. She returned to the garden in defeat. But “Even now,” she writes at the end of her essay, “Even now, I’m dopesick, dying to go back.”
I check FaceBook, reducing my time remaining on Chrome to 10:33. I really don’t need FaceBook on the blocked sites list, I think. And sometimes I use it to chat with someone I know who’s quite lonely. He’s not on Twitter.
Soon I’ll publish this, and soon I’ll tweet it out. Caitlin won’t see it, because Caitlin is in the garden with a good book, and a good cocktail, and maybe a dish of ice cream. But maybe one of these days she will see it. And Caitlin if you do, if you read this far, I’ve only one thing to say: Bless you. And good luck.