SPOILER ALERT: You’re watching TV wrong in 2014

20140224-155117.jpgOK, we need to clear something up. Here are the rules to help you navigate the era of Twitter and Facebook and Netflix and DVR and subscription premium cable.

1. You have exactly SEVEN days to watch an episode of television after its original air date, and upon the expiration of that time period you may not complain about spoilers. When a new episode airs a week later, full and candid discussion of the previous week’s episode is fully sanctioned. Your failure to keep your DVR neatly groomed does not require our self-censorship.

2. If a show is released exclusively online in bingewatching full-season quantity, you have one month from the date of release, at the conclusion of such time you may not complain about spoilers. (For example, you have until March 14 to complete House of Cards.)

3. Under no circumstances may you squawk at people about spoilers for discussion of a show’s previous season when the new season is under way. Guess what? Lady Sybil dies in childbirth! Ned Stark gets beheaded! Henry Blake’s plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan! Not a spoiler a year or more after it happened.

4. You may not wade into a robust comments chain obviously dissecting a previous episode or season covered by the above rules and then complain about spoilers. Don’t look under a large rock if you don’t want to see dirt and bugs.

5. Finally, if you do not subscribe to HBO, you may not cry spoiler on the off chance you’re going to buy the DVDs or download in a year. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

These are the rules. Learn them, embrace them.

“If you are uncomfortable…”

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Not pictured: a bunch of nekkid ladies.

The title of this post is an excerpt from a sign hanging above me at a famed Korean day spa and sauna outside of Chicago. The uncomfortability referenced by the sign relates to the feeling that may arise if I spot someone who has entered the hot tub area without showering “with soap.” How would I possibly be able to see this? Because I can see everything. Literally. The uncomfortability is apparently not noteworthy if it arises from the fact that I’m stark naked surrounded by strangers and it’s America in 2014 and we’re all still completely hung up about doing things like this.

*****

The Day Before at the Airport (as told in texts)

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By the end of the day, I would come to realize how stupid both of those fears were.

*****

The Next Day at the All-Nude Korean Day Spa Outside of Chicago

tumblr_n0r85drLoe1r3xxruo2_500As I peel off my last piece of clothing for what will turn out to be a good portion of the day, I understand the cold sweat grip of terror and panic that Sandra Bullock must have experienced as she became untethered from her spacewoman rocketship in Gravity. As an American woman, if you’re playing by a certain rulebook (even generally speaking and whether you particularly want to or not) few people are going to be lucky enough to see you in a full state of undress. I was about to up my quotient considerably.

*****

Who Does This?

I have a very short list of friends cleared for such an excursion. There are two prerequisites to get on my short list:

1. Are you older than 35?
2. Have you had a baby(ies) and as such have a thorough understanding of what the miracle of life does to a once-respectable midsection?
Bonus: Have we at some point debated the relative merits of Dr. Oz supplements and tapeworm ingestion as weight loss techniques?

Luckily, the friend accompanying me for this outing met this criteria and earned the bonus. So off the clothes went and into the ladies spa complex we went.

*****

Sunshine on My Shoulder… Makes Me Want to Cry

I decide to get the “Princess Scrub” and massage, which sounds suitably regal and relaxing. It is neither.

On the hour, the women who work at the spa make their rounds looking for their clients, as identified by the numbered bracelets we wear. As for what they’re wearing, it’s black mesh bathing suit/undies things. I have no idea. Don’t ask.

The woman who walks up to me and gestures that she’ll be princess scrubbing me is named Sunny. This turns out to be a stunning bit of irony.

Bullpoop.

Shenanigans, Ariel. Shenanigans.

Because Sunny is a torture artist. The next 80 minutes involve a mix of scrubbing with what felt like sandpaper, and utter indignity — they work on everyone in a row, a fleshy naked xylophone of humanity behind a low “modesty” wall. I highly doubt Kate Middleton ever endured this sort of treatment, so frankly the name is kind of starting to seem like bullshit. I’m used to genteel massages at spas where the most skin revealed is the eight inches of leg and ankle visible between the bottom hem of a plush robe and the floor (the Victorian full monty).

Sunny mutters instructions for me to flip this way and that, foreshadowing that these instructions are coming with a whack of her fist on the nearest part of my body and a loud “Hey!” Sunny smiles only once through the entire process, when she crawls on top of my back and drives her entire weight into my spine with the pointed angle of her elbow. As I let out a yelp, she laughs.

Later, as the day unfolded, I would see women stumbling away in an (admittedly glowing) daze from Sunny’s table, trying to process what had just transpired before finally giving up and going to get a mango smoothie.

Finally, mercifully, we appear to be nearing the end. Sunny begins slathering my face with a gloopy mixture of light green substance flecked with dark green bits of something. I’d seen it covering the faces of other women as I came in for my treatment but couldn’t place what the substance was. I sniff and decide that the base note of the goop on my face is cucumber. Must be the light green stuff. But it’s punctuated by something smellier, more bitter — the dark green stuff.

Oh God. There is kale on my face.

*****

But it turns out, it takes only about an hour to overcome a lifetime of Puritan-infused American nudity norms. (Results may vary, depending on whether parents were hippies or you embrace kale.) That’s it.

After one hour, my last vestige of modesty was obliterated in a hail of exposed hindquarters. Along with it, a good deal of my body image issues, at least for the day. Seem too convenient? Too pat? Too bad. It’s true. Had I only come here when I was 14, I probably could have avoided a lot of undue heartache.

Because the women of America — as represented by those gathered on this freezing afternoon at a Korean day spa outside of Chicago — look entirely different and nobody needs to care. We’re in shape or we’re not. We’re keeping it tight or we’re letting it go. We’re smooth or we’re lumpy. We’re young or we’re old.

In this space, we’re bound together by one, common thread: We’re all terrified of Sunny.

Who Is the Yellow King?

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Today’s New York magazine piece has some really interesting theories about who the Yellow King is on True Detective. And on i09, Michael Hughes let us know “The One Literary Reference” we needed to know to determine it.Image

But, um, you guys… I’ve got a perfectly cromulent explanation.

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Detective Hart was right. Our “true failure was inattention.”

War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

“How can you not see the holes in the yard?!”

My husband widened his eyes in disbelief, incredulous that I hadn’t noticed the path of destruction on our front lawn caused by legions of marauding squirrels. But I saw in his searching expression that he needed to believe it was lack of observation. He couldn’t allow himself, not yet at least, to think that perhaps I was in some sense complicit by turning a blind eye.

I should say right up front that I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the squirrels. I genuinely don’t see the holes, I don’t think anyone’s yard looks good in the winter anyway, and I’ve got bigger mental fish to fry. Speaking of rats, I’ve always viewed squirrels as gross rodents. Rats with a better PR team, I’d say, when for some reason the subject had turned to such rankings — usually while being skeeved out by both groups of them in Central Park or on the Mall. But now I found myself silently rooting for the squirrels.

Why? Because after years of complaining about them digging holes all over the yard — allegedly, because again, I don’t see it — he’d decided it was the year to finally take action. Alliances were formed, a neighbor with traps enlisted. And then, the centerpiece of the battle plan unveiled: Squirrel transport.

For some reason, my husband has the impression that one merely needs to transport the squirrels six miles and over a body of water for them to remain forever banished. Not five. Not seven. Not dry land.

“Six miles and over a body of water.” He said those exact words. The 1892 Farmer’s Almanac had come to life and was standing in my kitchen in the form of a sandy blond, six-foot-tall Texan sucking down his tenth Diet Coke of the day, amped up on caffeine and the bravado of men preparing for battle as they have since Thermopylae.

There would be no slaughter though. No tiny heads on pikes lining our driveway. We were in effect to become the bus to the country for the squirrels, where we would release them for a better life and miles of farmland. The Squirrel Jitney.

Correction: He would. I believed this plan to be insane and wanted no part of it. Also, I was completely grossed out by the idea of them thrashing around in the trunk of my car. It wouldn’t matter though, I thought, because what squirrel would be dumb enough to get caught in a giant, obvious metal cage baited with a few measly peanuts?

Day 1
The dumbest squirrels on the East Coast live in our neighborhood.

Me, answering phone at work: “Hello?”
Him: “Four! We got four! And it’s only the first day!”
Me: “Wow. That’s really something. OK, I gotta go.”

Day 2
Me: “Are you washing your hands after you move those cages? Because those things are crawling with vermin and rabies.”
Him: “Yeah. I mean, sort of I guess. (pause) Do you have any hand sanitizer in your bag?”

Day 3
Me: “Is there like, a tarp down in the trunk? Because I put the groceries back there.”
Him: “Yeah.”
Me: <opens the trunk><finds a piece of cardboard the size of a notepad in the vast ocean of unprotected trunk><closes trunk><goes inside and pours a glass of wine>

Day 4
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Me: “Hello?”
Him: “We got 6!”
Me: “I’m hanging up now.”

Day 5
My father baits a trap with a Diet Coke can and says the squirrels must be mounting a counter attack. I find it hilarious. Later, husband oh-so-casually checks to make sure the integrity of the trap still stands after the hooliganism.

Day 6
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This appears on the hood of our freshly washed car. It’s a destroyed apple, teeth marks evident across its moldering surface. The squirrels really are mounting a counter attack. Shots fired.

Day 7
Me: “You know that in the Pixar movie they would make about this, you’re the big human jerk terrorizing the little animals, right? Or like, say this was Fantastic Mr. Fox…you’re Boggis, Bunce and Bean. That’s on you, dude.”

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Day 8
Him, via text message: “Came home and there were four in the driveway. They’re hunting in packs now.”

Day 9
Me: “Hello?”
Him: “Ten!”
Me: “You know I have an important job, right? Like, I make a difference in people’s lives?”
Him: “Tennnnn!”

And so it goes. The battle rages on. I am reminded of Hemingway’s resignation to such things: “Once we have a war there is only one thing to do. It must be won. For defeat brings worse things than any that can ever happen in war.”

Slow Your Roll, Kringle

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Attention every business and restaurant in America: Please stop with the superfluous Santa visits.

Just. Stop.

This time of year, you can’t go get waxed without an unsolicited appearance by the big man. In the past two weeks I’ve either personally encountered or seen Himself advertised as visiting Home Depot, the tree farm, Speaker John Boehner’s office, three local restaurants and a civic pancake breakfast. Santa’s one Meet the Press sitdown away from the Full Ginsburg.

It used to be, you’d head to the mall and with hushed reverence wait in a seemingly interminable line snaking past Orange Julius and Claire’s for your one annual one-on-one with him. One, being the operative number. ONE. Now you’re awkwardly dodging him in the grocery store aisle like that weirdo from accounting whose LinkedIn request you’ve been ignoring. And most of these “Santas” are in suits and beards that are a little more janky than jolly.

Here’s the thing… [SPOILER ALERT] Now that I’m a parent, I’m Santa.

As in, the real Santa Claus is me and I am him. As such, I have a pretty tight secrecy game to maintain. So it’s not helping when I have to answer the question, “Is that the real Santa?,” accompanied by a tiny raised eyebrow, every time we run an errand in the month of December. She’s only four, but she’s already got a hair-trigger holiday bullshit detector.

Don’t even get me started on Santa Stumbles. All of you drunken buffoons running through downtown in red thongs and Santa beards in the middle of a Saturday can go sod off.

So let’s give it a rest, shall we? I shouldn’t have to pull out the chipper spiel about “Santa’s helpers” unless I’m teaching her how to politely ignore Salvation Army bell ringers.

“This is something I have to express. It may be no one takes an interest. But I have faith in people.”

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[TRIGGER WARNING: Content is about suicide]

As I was getting into bed late last night and putting my cell phone on my nightstand, a Gmail message popped up. What followed shook me utterly. It was an email from a gentleman who said that he’d read the piece I wrote for The Washington Post this summer and it left an impression on him. He wanted to reach out to me to share his writing.

He was doing this, he said, because he was planning to kill himself, imminently.

The email was not the stuff of a ranting madman. There were no references to aliens or avenging gods or government mind control. It was well written. It was at turns heartbreaking and maddening in its self-absorption. He lamented that his writings over a lifetime — a few philosophy books, a play — achieved little notice.

“I am taking my life not out of despair but simply because I’ve said everything I wanted to say and consider my work finished. Since no one at present (nor in the past half-century) is interested, I have no platform upon which to stand and talk about my work. In this regard, I believe I have an immense amount to give, not only from my mind but from my heart, and there are just no takers. I’m [redacted] years old now. Yes, I’m disappointed that the books go unnoticed. But I also know that such a thing isn’t that unusual in the world of ideas.”

In my 15 years as a reporter and writer, I’ve gotten a fair number of messages from people apparently suffering from mental illness. I have never once received a call or an email threatening suicide, nor have I heard of this happening to any of my colleagues and friends who are reporters.

I wanted to believe it was a scam. I needed it to be a hoax. A quick Google search certainly would reveal the holes in the story and I’d roll my eyes, delete the email and go to sleep. After a career in journalism, I have a hair-trigger b.s. detector. People lie. Constantly and badly.

But each step through his life online muted my skepticism, while ratcheting my anxiety. He was in fact a regular guy, suffering from a terminal illness, living in the country where he alleged to be living. He was on Facebook, posting pictures of himself at spots in the foreign city he calls home, sharing observations that ranged from the interesting to the mundane. Under the posts, friends clicked ‘Like.’ In the email, he mentioned an ex-wife who he said is still his closest friend. He provided an email address he alleged to be hers.

For the first time in my life, last night, I had no clue what to do in a volatile situation. No gut instinct. No path that I knew would be tough but was clearly the right one. Nothing. It was a type of paralysis and silent panic I’ve never known.

I once had to put my then-baby daughter’s fate into the hands of doctors at Children’s Hospital for over a week, not knowing what was happening to her. Even then, I had some measure of faith that they knew what they were doing, and that ultimately, they would bring the problem under control. This thing was entirely unlike that thing. I was being approached as the one to bring control, or not, and I had no idea what to do.

Do nothing. It might be a cry for attention from someone with nothing more than a warped, perverse sense of humor — its own sickness to be sure, but not a fatal one that requires my involvement. Calling the police wasn’t even an option because of a language barrier. Emailing an address I couldn’t verify seemed to risk further engagement with him, which presented a host of potential problems. Any interaction might somehow open up my family to risk. Do nothing.

In his email, the gentleman referenced an article written about himself in the Post in the 1970s. As with everything else in the email, I wanted it to be a lie. It wasn’t. A quick archive search and a $3.95 fee later, it was on my laptop screen.

The black-and-white picture that accompanied the feature was of the very same man, then in his early 20s, smiling broadly, hands confidently resting on his hips, standing in front of the White House gates. He’d come to deliver a message to the president and caught the attention of one of the Post‘s features writers, who described him as tanned and lean. His words were earnest and endearing. “This is something I have to express,” he told the reporter. “It may be no one takes an interest. But I have faith in people.”

Forty some years later, the earnestness had given way to resignation. He concluded his message to me with this line:

“I’m not asking anything of you, but just hoping that by reaching out like this, the ideas will somehow survive. I believe in ideas, and that they really can change human destiny.”

The faith, at least, remained.

For a time overnight I was incredibly angry. The selfishness of someone to dump this psychic shitpile on a complete stranger was too much. And for what? Because his writing, his ideas, hadn’t gotten the attention he felt they deserved? “Who does this?” I asked myself, before finally falling asleep.

When I woke, the question remained but this time an answer followed. “Someone who needs help.”

Do something. If this man was standing in the street in front of my house threatening to take his own life, I would call the police without hesitation. If it was a member of my family or a friend who’d reached out to a stranger in the middle of the night, I’d want someone to help them. Did the threat coming from a four-inch iPhone screen somehow afford me the luxury of total removal? Do something.

Through Facebook, I privately messaged a woman who shared his last name and who interacts with him on his posts. She seemed kind in her comments, cheerily responding to his updates. I hoped for the best and as briefly and as calmly as possible explained the situation. I indicated that I needed and wanted no further involvement, but that I would carry deep regret if I did nothing — notified nobody — who could potentially check on him. I apologized.

I went outside with my daughter, into the grey and snowy morning that had shut down the city a few hours earlier. We fell back into what had accumulated, making snow angels. I looked up from the ground at the falling flakes. I closed my eyes and hoped for the best.

Readers Respond to “This Town” Navy Yard Piece

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NavyYardNavy Yard, Summer 2013

When the Washington Post published the “This Town” piece yesterday they included my gmail address at the end, which allowed readers to respond directly. I received a number of thoughtful and thought-provoking responses (funny how non-anonymous commenting mitigates incivility, sweeping generalizations about a stranger, and concern-trolling hyperventilation.) With the writers’ consent, I’m sharing their responses here.

“My husband and I live nearby, where he had to shelter in place. I left at 8:30 a.m., unaware of why hundreds of people were standing in our parking lot, and had to watch it all unfold from my desk at work knowing that I could not go home. Needless to say, I spent the entire day praying that there were not multiple shooters. At 11 a.m, I finally heard that my friend had made it out of his office at Navy Yard and was making his way home. In recent years I have had family and friends pass away, but Monday will probably go down as one of the most heart breaking and gut wrenching days of my life. It is a shame (and I mean that in the most literal sense) that our country didn’t skip a beat. This happened in my community, and your article is the first I have heard mention of the fact that Navy Yard is a community. I thought that maybe it was still too surreal for people to grasp, and once they did, the public outcry would soon follow. I am still waiting.”
–Rachel C. (Rachel started the #IAmNavyYard hashtag to pull together the many people who live in the neighborhood — and there are many. Add your voice to the conversation on Twitter.)

“I’m sure you’ve heard the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  If people cared, responsible gun control legislation would have  been enacted after Newtown.  It’s clear that they don’t.  Why would you expect another shooting, or another hundred, to change that?”
–David W.

“I just read your article and am not even sure of the emotion it caused me to feel. Ashamed? Sad?… I was at Virginia Tech in 2007 when the shooting occurred and since then every national massacre or tragedy has always struck a chord with me and brought me to tears.  It all takes me back to that day, how I felt, how I worried, how I wondered why? And how I felt so horrible that a new group of people would be a part of that, would now experience those feelings with every reminder.

It’s sad that we now live in a world where tragedies like these occur so frequently, that on a normal day sitting at work you check your Facebook page and find that so many people’s worlds were just changed forever. Being from Baltimore and visiting DC often I don’t view it as a different world but something about this shooting felt different and I can’t fathom why.

I’m not writing this to explain myself, I’m actually not even sure why I am writing this to you. I just felt like reaching out because I feel so unaffected by this shooting and I feel so guilty because of it. Driving in to work this morning I saw flags at half mast and it took me a minute to figure out why. I shouldn’t feel such apathy about such a horrible thing that happened. 12 innocent lives were taken and we won’t ever be sure as to why. But the past few days I’ve been asking a question of myself… why doesn’t it bother me? When I heard about the Newtown shootings I was a wreck, I sobbed for half an hour that children had to live the last 5 minutes of their life in terror. I’m sure that the people who were wounded and killed this week felt that very same terror, so what makes this different? Where are the DC strong shirts and fundraisers? Why is this any less of a tragedy?

I really hope that you don’t find this e-mail offensive. That is not my intention. I just wanted to send you an e-mail because I am so sad for the families affected, for the coworkers whose work days will never be the same because they lost a friend or are going to be reminded every day they walk into their office of the horrible thing that happened there. I don’t know why the nation barely acknowledged this tragedy, I don’t know why I’ve barely acknowledged it.  Are we becoming numb to such random acts of violence? Are we just too scared to admit that one day it could be our town? I really can’t say. I just hope that the citizens of DC, families of the fallen and wounded and the employees of the Navy Yard get the support and encouragement that they deserve.

Thanks for reading, I really enjoyed your article and I just really wanted to send a response. Enjoy this beautiful Friday.”
–Lisa P.

“Your piece on the national disinterest in the Navy Yard shootings was well-written, and in many ways I agree with your ultimate point. I’m a little biased in that sense because I went to college in DC and  consider it a past home. However, I wanted to point out that your analysis of the book This Town is incorrect. Mark Leibovich’s depiction of Tim Russert’s funeral is not a humorous one – in fact, he is expressing his disgust with DC politicians who used Russert’s funeral as a meet-and-greet and place for deal-making. Yes, overall the book depicts that same impression that “Real America” has about Washington. But Leibovich’s point is in the same vain as yours – that humanity seems lost in today’s world, and particularly in DC.”
–Jennifer N.

“I thought I was the only one who was thinking, “Wow, no one checked on me today. Weird.” I had to call my family and friends and actually inform them something was going on. While we were holed up in our offices thinking two gunmen were out in DC on a mission to kill. You really summed it up well. Thank you.”
–Erin C.

“Just want to say thank you. That article actually said everything I’ve been feeling since the shooting , I just didn’t have the words to express my feelings. I can say that I was shaken that day and I worried that there might be more shootings, that there was a second shooter(who mysteriously disappeared  from the investigation radar??) and that he might come and shoot my building up due to my close proximity to the White House. My family is on the West Coast so at the time of the shooting everyone was still tucked in bed. I did take to social media and FB to give everyone a general statement. Those that I’m closest to responded right away. But everyone else seemed disconnected and some didn’t even check on me. Sad…sad that we are so desensitized.”
–Nadia E.

D.C. Strong

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Thank you to everyone who took the time to read yesterday’s post about the Navy Yard massacre on Monday and share your thoughts. Wanted to give a quick update on some ways you can take action:

* Give to the fund announced today to aid the Navy Yard victims and families. The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region announced creation of the Navy Yard Relief Fund this afternoon. It’s the same foundation that managed the $25 million relief fund after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon. You can learn more about it here.

* Share the image above, designed by D.C. graphic artist Erin Pedati, on your social media networks.

* Donate to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

* Take some time to read about the lives of the victims: Michael ArnoldMartin BodrogArthur DanielsSylvia FrasierKathleen GaardeJohn Roger JohnsonMary Frances DeLorenzo KnightFrank KohlerVishnu PanditKenneth Bernard ProctorGerald ReadRichard Michael Ridgell.

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