“I keep looking to see if you’ve written about me,” a friend said. “Where’s my blog post?” He was joking in a way that feels true, like when a partner “jokes” about a forgotten anniversary but it doesn’t quite come out right because VISIONS OF VENGEANCE dance in their heads.
I teased him for needing recognition, for wanting to be witnessed by strangers he’ll never meet, and for having a GIANT EGO I HOPE THIS POST SATISFIES. At the same time, I understood the feeling of existing behind someone’s scenes, of being invisible on the public stage of their world and watching them play their part and take their bows, while waiting—hoping—for a wink and a nod.
I exist behind his scenes as much as he does mine.
Recently, I stumbled across an article on wealthy people’s obsession with endurance sports (tl;dr our lives are so cushy and aimless, we crave PAIN TO FEEL ALIVE, just like every teenager in every middle-class suburb in America), and a particular passage stood out to me:
“The satisfaction of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence has been known to make a man quiet and easy,” writes Crawford, who in 2001 quit his job in academia to become a mechanic. “It seems to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He simply points: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on.”
Chattering interpretations. I love that.
Many of us spend our entire days involved in some form of “chattering interpretation” or other. We’re increasingly called upon to present ourselves in filtered images, 15-second videos, and 140-character tweets.
While never simple (I imagine), self-revelation has become a complex and ever-changing puzzle that requires us to adapt at racing speeds—like Tetris at some expert level I never had the patience (or skill) to reach. (Does everyone know what Tetris is? I want to ASSUME it’s part of our shared cultural lexicon, but one time a 19-year-old asked me what Monster Mash was, so apparently nothing is sacred and I am one million years old.) To exist in our current social landscape, we learn to play to audiences and present only pieces of ourselves that create a certain image or mystique.
A casual follower will see the expansive landscapes and remarkable highlights of my cross-country road trip, but they won’t see the unshowered binge-eating, frantic texting, and intermittent crying from a depressive episode last week. They’ll see allusions to romantic moments with ethereal characters, but they won’t see the lackluster lunches, unwashed sheets, and occasional halitosis of real human relationships, which exist outside the frame of fantasy.
In another article, I read today’s teens aren’t having as much sex as older generations. They aren’t spending as much time with friends. They’re choosing their phones over real-life experiences. And they’re more depressed than ever.
No wonder. Before they’re old enough to form their own understanding of the world, of friendships and relationships, they’re inundated with glamorized highlights of others’ seemingly real experiences.
An aimless drive around the city pales in comparison to your friends’ vibrant and seductive selfies. Their eternal laughter mocks you through a single, frozen frame, and you think you must be doing something wrong, that you’re missing some critical element of life and youth and fun, even as music wafts through the cool night air and your friend points out that bench where you once saw a pigeon attack some old lady’s hair. Boring, you think. But look at Shay’s instagram—THEY’RE having fun.
When that friend asked to be included in the blog, what he was really asking was to be recognized as a good part of my life, as something to brag about and make others jealous. He wants to be the loud instagram, not the quiet drive. He wants to be a chattering interpretation.
But relationships, to me, aren’t public. They aren’t labels or declarations. They’re moments, created and shared. They’re the running engine you poured hours into building, and look—you have a thing. It’s not glamorous, but it’s sitting in a room with you. It’s holding your hand. It’s cruising along the parkway humming This Charming Man.
In a world that demands self-revelation and self-definition in public spaces, omissions can feel like erasure—like anything not trotted before an audience couldn’t possibly be real—but I think it’s the opposite.
Chattering interpretations stream past us all day every day. They’re futile efforts to grasp at meaning and make ourselves known. They connect us in only the most tenuous way to some greater humanity, some larger idea about how we should coexist and move through this world. They reveal patterns and help us understand theories, shining light on the concept of being alive.
Actual living is a different thing. It’s tactile and ephemeral and uninteresting to behold. An orange-lit bridge against a gray-blue sky. Bulbous spiders and sugary vodka drinks. Laughter about nothing at all.
A collection of boring details that look like nothing but mean everything.
Life’s best parts happen behind the scenes.