It's like the regularness of life is too hard for me
I don't know
Hey there, it’s been a while, hasn’t it?
It’s been eighteen days since my last Worcester Sucks post and sixteen days since my last post anywhere, which was in Welcome To Hell World. I wrote about the way we handle our city’s unhoused residents and the way Boston handles theirs—how it’s the same (they just use the cops to shuffle people from illegal camp to illegal camp and do not, despite claims to the contrary, provide a viable alternative to living in a tent) and how it’s different (in Boston they at least claim to give a shit and there are people more seriously holding them accountable).
Since that piece ran there’s been plenty in Worcester to write about—The Worcester Regional Transit Authority voted to keep the city bus free for another year (woooo!); the City Manager proposed using $1.5 million of the city’s federal COVID relief money to buy the cops body cameras (boooo). As I’m writing right now, I’m listening to the School Committee meet with the search firm they’ve hired to find a new superintendent. The Sharkside DIY community skatepark was demolished by the Krocks, Worcester’s finest slumlords, on a court order from City Hall. The park and a number of homeless people in tents were removed to make a lot full of overgrowth somehow more ugly, desolate and bleak, and for a reason that hardly seems pressing or even apparent. Worcester activists are pressing the City Council to follow the lead of Boston Mayor Michelle Wu in filing an ordinance to divest the city from fossil fuels and, it goes without saying, it’s unlikely they will. The city is moving one way or another to a district-based School Committee election process and the way they decide to do it will impact city politics for decades.
Any and all of these things would be perfect fodder for a Worcester Sucks post and often over the past several weeks I’d sit down to write ‘em up. I have interviews with Sharkside skaters and a comment from the city spokesman and I’ve watched a ton of tape and talked to a ton of people. I have great pictures and videos! But you know what? I just couldn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. What meager passages I found myself able to eek out would ring hollow, boring and uninspired. In a traditional media job like the one I had at Worcester Magazine I’d have a quota of stories I’d be expected to produce and word counts to hit, and when I’ve felt this way in the past I would hit those quotas begrudgingly, turning in work that merely reaches the threshold of acceptable journalism. Now that I work for myself the equation is different. There are plenty of places in Worcester to read standard news stories and if that’s all I offered you I wouldn’t have a job, now would I? No one is paying $5 a month for press release rewrites. So if I don’t think it’s good, I’m not sending it out.
But going so long without publishing anything—in the turbulently fast-paced discourse economy of social media and tenuously self-employed on a subscription model—has been a major source of mounting anxiety for several weeks now, and it bleeds into the rest of my life. It’s always there like a fly buzzing by my ear. The frequency of the little fluttering wings tickles my insides and I swat it away out of instinct but it comes right back. I’m unable to stop thinking about it, but also unable to do anything about it.
Tonight’s post is admittedly a different one as it has little to do with Worcester or it sucking or my loving it. What I want to talk about is burnout, maybe even a collective burnout, and how we’re experiencing it in this small verse of the ever-unending epic we might call the “Extinction Event Blues.” So I’ll start with my experience of being physically unable to do anything and then we’ll get into why there might be something in the air around here, sound good?
It really hit me that I was all-the-way 100 percent burnt out last Friday when the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict came down. The sham trial of a uniquely American villain ended in a predictable craven miscarriage of justice. I watched my friends and family and every other person in the damn country take to the Internet to relitigate the morality of shooting people dead with combat rifles at protests (it’s up for debate!) and I sat there scrolling past the reductive and self-righteous outrage on Instagram and the little spats between know-nothing idiots on Facebook and a million tweets from Glenn Greenwald, who I used to so admire, about how the Mainstream Media Is Lying To You—“He didn’t bring his gun across state lines!”—and I felt for that whole day like my heart had shriveled to jerky and fell to the pit of my stomach. This is just the way things are around here and it’s how it’s always gonna be and nothing’s gonna change. The time that day I had budgeted to write about the one-year extension of a fare-free city bus was spent in bed, cycling between my phone and the ceiling and my pillow until responsibility compelled me to get up and go to my other job. I couldn’t muster a coherent thought, let alone an opinion. God forbid a post. Everyone that day who had something to say on the Rittenhouse matter irritated me, regardless of intention or what “side” they had chosen. It was all some dark theater designed to hurt me, and I resented it.
In the early days of the pandemic, in the spring of 2020, I remember a specific sort of feeling as the lockdown set in. The world seemed so scary and uncertain. It was a loneliness manifested as physical pain, like the air was too heavy to breathe, and I would experience it for hours at a time, unable to do anything but retreat from myself. I couldn’t eat and I slept in short spurts, often staying up through the night. I know I wasn’t alone in that feeling, as many friends and acquaintances have since confessed. But something changed when The Video surfaced and triggered a national wave of protests and riots and then the Minneapolis police station burned down on national TV and then in Boston I saw firsthand the riot cops come out of the darkness of the Common to turn a demonstration into a series of brawls and riots as if by design. The tear gas and the rubber bullets and the cop cars barreling through protesters and the fireworks lit off in the street next to a freshly looted Walgreens, now on fire, an impromptu dance party fueled by stolen bottles of Grey Goose and trunk subs. The air wasn’t too heavy to breathe anymore and it felt in that moment we had a purpose, that something good would finally come of all this, and we had a target for our anger, alienation and resentment. We weren’t trapped in ourselves and we weren’t patiently awaiting some unseen and uncontrollable doom. It was in that spirit that I quit WoMag and launched this newsletter, come to think of it.
When Rittenhouse killed those two people at a protest in Wisconsin that August, he presented a perfect foil to the movement, a national heel. A 17-year-old MAGA idiot who deputized himself Protector of Personal Property and drove to a protest with a loaded gun, killing two people and wounding another, with the apparent complicity of the cops. He went home that night and slept in his bed. In him we saw the right wing’s valuation of property over lives, the inhumanity they imposed on demonstrators, and, perhaps most jarringly, the open celebration of murder.
As with the Rittenhouse story, the whole of Black Lives Matter would gradually fade into the background as the pandemic raged on. Joe Biden got elected and the SNL/Daily Show crowd stopped caring. It wasn’t useful to them anymore and they moved on to a new toy and the capitol riot was right there and it was shiny and it seemed like fun. In the winter into spring, the rapid up-and-down ride: Yay! Vaccines! Aw heck, we’re too dumb for vaccines. And ever since it’s just been a gradual series of acceptances and allowances toward the inevitable conclusion that the pandemic is never going to end. All the while, every little thing is turned into a vacuous partisan debate by a media economy that relies on vacuous partisanship. We’re offered new characters to get mad at—the “plandemic” nuts and the hysterical critical race theory people and the small handful of awfully convenient bulwarks against anything decent in the Democratic Party like Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin—while nothing really moves. Nothing really changes. There is no one with any real power you can turn to and honestly believe they’re trying to help you out of this.
It’s in this time we really see the term “burnout” come back into the collective consciousness, with what may be a new meaning, and one that is certainly tied to the pandemic and its neverending nature. In May, the New Yorker’s Jill Lepore wrote a substantive look at the history of the term. Of anything I’ve read on the matter tonight, it’s this passage that really nails it for me:
Burnout is a combat metaphor. In the conditions of late capitalism, from the Reagan era forward, work, for many people, has come to feel like a battlefield, and daily life, including politics and life online, like yet more slaughter. People across all walks of life—rich and poor, young and old, caretakers and the cared for, the faithful and the faithless—really are worn down, wiped out, threadbare, on edge, battered, and battle-scarred.
Yeah, that’s how I feel!
Through the article I learned that in the 1980s, the researchers Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter created an objective (as much as these things can be) measurement of burnout called the Maslach Burnout Inventory and in March of this year re-upped their research in a short article for the Harvard Business Review addressing the issue of burnout in the context of the COVID-19 Pandemic. It was mostly a vampiric article written for bosses to be all like “don’t let your employees claim burnout is a medical condition” but I did find it interesting how they laid out the symptoms.
The MBI aligns with the World Health Organization’s 2019 definition of burnout as a legitimate occupational experience that organizations need to address, characterized by three dimensions:
Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
Reduced professional efficacy
In order to really think you’ve got a case of the burnout, the researchers claim, you have to check all three boxes. For me, over these past two or three weeks, it’s been check, check, check. Easy. Not even a question. I haven’t woken up well rested in at least a month. I’m feeling intensely cynical about journalism, ~The Discourse~ and anyone who participates in it, myself included. And I haven’t been able to bang a post out since the city election, more or less. How’s that for efficacy?
The funny thing is writing this newsletter is something I barely consider work. It’s my passion, something I genuinely enjoy doing, and I’m grateful every day that enough of youse guys chip in that I can continue to do it. It means the world to me and I consider it the greatest professional success of my life.
Even with all that, with the full understanding that this is the coolest thing I have or may do, I’m still feeling this way right now! The same way I would at some dead-end kitchen job where the boss is an asshole and the pay sucks and every day I show up to work dreaming of how I’ll performatively quit! I say this not for pity but to illustrate a point: There’s gotta be something going on right now that I could love this project so much and still feel so burnt out I can’t bring myself to do it, at least to the standard I’ve set for myself, for multiple weeks at a time.
Maybe you feel the same? I mean, even if you want to keep it to yourself I know I’m hardly alone. The news in the past couple weeks has been awash with burnout stories. Earlier this month, WGBH published a story about the phenomenon among teachers of color coming up against the systemic racism built into public schools. On Nov. 12, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released data indicating a record high number of people, 4.4 million estimated, had quit their job in September. Stats like that have brought the term “The Great Resignation” into vogue. Prompted by a study earlier this year which found that three in 10 physicians were considering quitting their jobs, a doctor out of Omaha launched a podcast to address pandemic induced burnout and plead doctors to stay on.
And then there’s this tweet which says so little and so much all at once.
While it’s well documented that there’s a problem in recent months with some sort of nebulous concept we call “burnout,” it seems up for grabs what it really is. As with any sociological phenomenon, it’s just a lot of people who all do their own things for their own reasons, and the task of diagnosing the root cause is a foolish one. It’s a safe bet, however, that the pandemic is at least partly to blame. I would argue it also has something to do with the current moment, politically and culturally. The only way I can speak to that and have it not be total bullshit is talking about how I personally perceive it. Consider it an empirical study of one subject.
Since the summer, I’ve started to feel the weight of some lurking unseen doom creep back into my life, reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic—that suffocating feeling, that inability to really do anything. The lack of agency and the helplessness of it all. But it’s not scary, it’s not new. Now, more than a year and a half into the pandemic, it’s not something that could be blamed on apocalyptic uncertainty. It’s the opposite. It’s the recognition that there’s nothing new about it. That it’s just the way things are now and it’s not really going to change. The small hopes you had along the way for a light at the end of the tunnel are squashed and you now understand, better than ever, that there is no normal to return to. You live in the husk of a dying empire crumbling rapidly under its inability to handle a virus. With President Biden you understand better than you ever have that there’s no driver at the wheel right now, and there may have never been one in the first place.
It wasn’t my intention to focus so much on the Rittenhouse trial when I began this piece but the more I think about it, the more I think there’s something to it. The Rittenhouse trial ran from Nov. 1 to Nov. 19, sort of the exact period in which I was experiencing stifling burnout. Prior to that, I was deeply involved in and following the municipal elections in Worcester, which went surprisingly well. Like it did in Boston, the local political landscape all of a sudden became a lot more progressive and the potential outcomes a lot more exciting. But that excitement, for me, dissipated awfully quickly. While a tremendous victory for everyone around here, it came against a national backdrop that was anything but joyous. In the weeks following the election, the Rittenhouse trial was inescapable. In the blanket coverage and exhaustive punditry, it was an oppressive force. You were beat over the head with it. I think if you really have your head on straight about the American judicial system you would have understood the game was up the minute the video of him crying on the stand went viral and that he would be acquitted. Like you didn’t know it but you kinda knew it. The nation was captured for a day or two by the image of a young man having a panic attack on the stand. The MSNBC/CNN set took to pontificating on whether or not he was faking it and I gotta tell ya, that might sound like a good argument in your echo chamber but it was not a good look overall. That was a very depressing day to be online. The nuance of a murderer being capable of himself having experienced trauma was lost on everyone. If that’s the case, how could he be a villain? In America we’re too dumb to understand villains have feelings. If he has feelings, he must be innocent. If he’s guilty, he must be faking it. This is a trap easily laid in a political economy in which your only material engagement is to passively root for one team or the other. We saw a young man cry and we acquitted him of murder charges that were obviously warranted because there’s no room in the narrative for a villain with feelings.
The Black Lives Matter movement slowly faded from the popular consciousness over the course of this year and last. Its substantive demands were tepidly met in a few cities across the country but for the most part they were ignored. The liberal establishment no longer had time for calls to defund the police. It was no longer politically useful. So you stopped hearing about it. The culture of American policing and the right wing law-and-order mentality that bolsters it were only dealt a minor blow. The institution survived an insurrection against its oppressive dominance with only a few scrapes to lick. The political culture around it calcified. It was a bipartisan consensus that it would go this way. In that context, the Rittenhouse acquittal is easy to understand. He did what so many Americans wished they could have done, and the judicial system exonerated him. We want that to happen in America. We want teenage conservatives showing up to protests they don’t know how to handle with guns they do know how to handle. Hell, our sitting president, representing the most left-wing major political party we will see in America in our lifetime, told us we have to respect the verdict and respect the judicial system. Maybe that’s why the Rittenhouse trial was a particular point of exhaustion. It was a constant reminder that nothing really changed and nothing’s really going to. How could you have paid attention to that and not come away depressed—not understood, intuitively, that the deck is stacked against you in an insurmountable way? That justice does not, in fact, exist in this country? Maybe, just maybe, the sanctioning of violence against people who may in their frustration damage some property is actually a useful legal precedent for the powers that be? The powers which own the Targets and the Walmarts and the Best Buys that get looted?
My burnout over the past few weeks, and the burnout seemingly in the air across the country... it comes from somewhere, right? So often, when you read about burnout, you’ll get some silly little self-help guide that’s like… if you have burnout, you should take a vacation! Make more time for yourself! Don’t send an email after 6 p.m.! But is that really it? Sure, maybe that’ll help alleviate it for some people in certain situations, but are we really going to sit here after the past two years and honestly attribute burnout to doing a little bit of extra work at night? There’s something wrong around here.
The pandemic and the course of the Black Lives Matter movement are intertwined. One happened shortly after the other. As I said before, a lonely and fearful depression took hold of me as the realities of the pandemic first became clear. That depression was alleviated by a joie de vivre within the promise of a social movement that had the potential to substantively change an oppressive institution, possibly even eradicate it. With it came a purpose and a hope for a better future. It combated the helplessness brought on by the pandemic. But those hopes quietly subsided over the course of a year or so. At the same time, so did the hopes that the pandemic would have a finite end. Now, we’re looking at a pandemic that we only ever half beat, if that, and it seems like we’ve only tamed a beast that may well rear its head again soon.
We’re heading into our second winter with the threat of the virus looming overhead. Unlike the first, we now know what to expect. It’s not scary so much as it’s stifling. And after the Rittenhouse verdict, we have a finite period put on the Black Lives Matter movement (this chapter of it, at least). We’ve learned that if someone shows up to your protest with a gun and shoots you, he’ll get away with it. Best be on good behavior. Don’t do anything to protest the people who are shooting you that might get you shot.
I’ve been rewatching the Sopranos because (don’t kill me) I’ve never finished it. The entire time I’ve been writing this, I’ve been chewing on this line from Christopher Moltisanti, where he’s in the car with Tony Soprano and Tony’s reaming him out for doing some dumb shit and he just says “It’s like just the fucking regularness of life is too fucking hard for me or something, I don’t know.”
If there isn’t a better way to describe burnout…
But it’s also a great way to describe depression, and on a closing note, I’d like to point out that having read about it quite a bit, the difference between “depression” and “burnout” seem to only exist in the context in which they’re brought up. Depression is a life problem. Burnout is a work problem. Lepore, in her New Yorker piece, puts it like this:
A number of studies suggest that burnout can’t be distinguished from depression, which doesn’t make it less horrible but does make it, as a clinical term, imprecise, redundant, and unnecessary.
At the end of the day, you call it what you want. If millions of Americans are quitting their job every month at unprecedented rates, as the Bureau of Labor points out, we might have a burnout problem on our hands, sure. But what really separates the burnout problem from the depression problem. And better yet—whatever you want to call it—what’s causing it? It’s just the regularness of life, I guess.
This is a very weird piece I’ll admit and maybe you liked it, maybe you didn’t, but it’s what I had on my mind and I couldn’t bring myself to write anything more normal. If you really liked it you can subscribe to support my work if you want! Every subscriber helps and it’s a small price to pay IMO to have some weirdo report on Worcester in a way other people could never, given the fact local journalism under traditional models right now is almost always “write as many easy things as you can, context and depth be damned, because we gotta get those digital ads.” I don’t and would never do that. I’m supported only by the people who care to read my work, and my only objective is providing work that I’m proud of, that accomplishes something, and is worth supporting.
I have been working on this post from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. with a short intermission. It has been a truly manic and anxiety-fueled undertaking. I don’t know when you’ll be reading this as I decided it best to have a copy editor take a look first, but yeah.
One piece of recent local journalism that is certifiably not that sorta weird hurried clickbait shit however is Worcester Business Journal editor Brad Kane’s short first-person essay on his problems with providing for his child in a pandemic-strained healthcare world. The Worcester Business Journal under his watch has been really strong and surprisingly good on a couple issues, the Worcester Red Sox ballpark especially. The guy cares about good reporting and doing it right and the risk he took here with the sort of publication he oversees is tremendous. Give it a read, give him a follow. Good stuff.
I have an Instagram now for the page, so give that a follow why don’t ya! Regular updates and more fun stuff.
People keep asking me about the shirts I made for the one-year anniversary so I’m trying to get a merch store up in the next couple weeks with some cool shit, stay tuned for that.
And as always every Tuesday I’ll be doing the Worcester Council Theater 3000 show with the Wootenanny Comedy boys who are great! It’s a ton of fun and it’s literally the only tolerable way to watch the City Council. It’s bound to be a doozy of a meeting. We have fun, we answer questions, and we just hang out. It’ll happen today at 6 p.m. like it does every week and you can find it here free of charge and sponsored by Worcester’s own Kraftea Kombucha. Here’s the link!
And finally I have tried to keep the Worcester politics stuff in the forefront of this newsletter and have shied away from personal essays or essays on national topics. With this post I did both so I’d appreciate you letting me know in the comments whether this was cool or sucked.
Okay happy Thanksgiving everyone, talk soon!