4. dear lauren – the Today show
May 4, 2009
I didn’t get the internship. I’m kind of sort of really mad at you, Lauren, because I didn’t get the internship, the one I applied for a month ago and had been thinking about applying for for months before and that I just knew that I would get, just knew. Why didn’t I get it? I don’t understand, I really don’t. I was so prepared and it was so perfect, it was perfect for me and I was perfect for it and I didn’t get it. My application was perfect: my references loved me, I drafted a confident and attention-grabbing cover letter, I showed a deep understanding of the position I was applying for and the workplace I was applying to, I had a beautifully formatted resume which mentioned the work I had recently completed with adorable foreign children and which described my blog and how it had been praised in several major publications. I was so prepared and it was so perfect and I didn’t get it.
I was so prepared. I felt like I knew so many things about being an intern, that I had this deep understanding of what it meant to be an intern, mostly because of you and Whitney on the show. I felt like you and Whitney on the show had let me look into your lives as interns and see the things you did when you were interns and what it was like to be an intern so I could watch and learn and be prepared for my own eventual internship. I felt like this was a gift of yours, a tutorial, like you were giving me lessons every week. An internship for internships! Because of you and Whitney on the show, I felt I knew all of the details that interning entailed: the duties and the tasks, the attitude and the emoticons, the highs and lows of the modern internship–I felt you had prepared me for all of them. I was ready to work really hard at my chosen internship, to be abused by my important, mean boss and treated as ugly and unspecial but also to have interesting experiences and opportunities for emotional, spiritual, and professional growth. I saw all of these things happen to you and Whitney on your show, in your internships, and because of that I felt so prepared to be an intern. Not to say that your show was the only research I did to prepare for my internship, gosh, no, of course not. I also watched a few episodes of Running in Heels and I’m From Rolling Stone and I read The Devil Wears Prada twice, in addition to seeing the movie. I felt that because of all my research and preparation, I had really gotten to the white hot center of intern culture, I felt like I understood interning inside and out, that I had internalized interning. I was so prepared and I had done so much research and then I didn’t get the internship, Lauren. Why?
It feels wrong because I knew that I’d get an interview and then the internship afterward because who else could’ve been more perfect for the internship that I had chosen for myself than me? What person possessed more of the special and unique qualities that made me myself?
It’s so funny because I was supposedly like a critic of you and your show and your audience and your culture, I was supposedly someone who was supposed to be able to understand from the outside who you were and what you meant, what you signified, that was one of my fancy critic words I used to talk about you, “signified.” I thought I understood what you meant and how you meant it and how your meaning affected people and “the culture.” Here’s me talking last year about the audience for Whit’s show, The City:
yet, for all my worries about the city being the devil wears prada made real, this could also be the key to the success of the show. the hills and the city are as much fantasy as sex and the city and the devil wears prada, but all of those stories are fantasies that girls across the country want to make into their reality and are actively trying to make into their reality, trying to turn these images that they’ve watched in suburbs and small towns into real lived life. the city is just this, whitney taking a popular fiction and making it into her actual life. there’s very real potential for that to resonate with the aforementioned consumed consumers.
“Consumed consumers” — oh, what a fun little bit of wordplay there, right Lauren? It’s so funny, I’m so clever. It’s so funny because I thought I was outside of this thing, commenting on it, appreciating from the exterior its dimensions and particulars. In that quote, I thought I was talking about, you know, magical thinking, that’s what it was, this belief inspired by your show that dreams of success for ordinary young people are possible and come true and everything, the idea that reality can be a fairy tale without being a fantasy. I thought I was being like a critic of that kind of belief. Not a critic in terms of good/bad or yes/no, not the kind of critic who really even “criticizes,” but the kind of critic who thinks about and understands things more or differently than regular people, understands how the things work and can take the things apart and explain them in interesting and readable prose. I thought that I was explaining from the outside this new magical thinking, this magical thinking inspired by your show that enabled the “consumed consumers” to believe that when their time came they could all go to the urban center of their choice and get the perfect internship in their chosen field based solely on their belief in themselves. That all it would take would be choice and hope and belief, magical thinking, American dreams, the Secret.
But Lauren, I’m not outside or above or beyond the “consumed consumers” I so neatly named. I thought I understood them but as it turns out, I didn’t, not at all, I’m actually one of them, I’m patient zero. Do you want to know how I realized this? Ok, I’ll give you the proof, the proof of my warped mind that made me want to write you this letter, even though I’ve kind of mad and don’t want to talk to you.
I didn’t apply to any other internships; I only applied to one. It’s so funny, I didn’t even think for one second about doing any other applications. I didn’t look (or even think to look) at what other internships there might have even been that I could have applied for, other options or possibilities that existed. I had no need or desire for backup plans or safety nets. Why would I? I had picked my internship, my perfect internship, just like you and Whitney had picked Teen Vogue, I had picked my internship and I felt like all I had to do was wait for it to pick me, it would be that simple, like the way we wait for a show to come back from commercial. There was no need to think about deadlines for summer internships at other places or that a lot of places only take college students and not college graduates or that most places don’t pay a stipend or if they do don’t pay enough of a stipend or the problems of getting entry level jobs even remotely related to any of my fields of interest because of the economy and my lack of practical experience in doing basically anything. I didn’t worry about any of those things because I didn’t need to worry about them because I had chosen my internship and so all I had to do was wait for it to choose me, just like on your show, just like I watched happen to you and everybody else, the choosing and then the being chosen, the Cinderella moment. I had watched it and so I knew how it happened, I just had to wait for my turn. Why would I waste my time on the particulars of other internships or jobs that I didn’t need, why would I burden myself with such superfluous detail? Instead of doing that, while I waited to be chosen, I fantasized about my new life in the urban center of my choice and how it would be once I got my internship, what I would do, how I would do it, who I would do it with. The images that ran through my head before sleep or in dull everyday moments were kind of like a trailer, like the trailers that MTV plays to promote the new seasons of your show. They were images of choice and hope and belief, magical thinking, American dreams, the Secret.
I didn’t get the internship, though, Lauren. Why? Why did you make me believe it would be so easy? Why did you give me hope? I mean, I can’t really blame you because it’s all my fault for believing in you, for believing in false idols, but I still want to blame you anyway because, I don’t know, I feel tricked, I guess. I’ve spent all this time and energy defending you and your show but I’m thinking now that maybe I was wrong when I was so passionately disagreeing with all those critics who wrote about how ugly and evil you and your show were, how empty and meaningless, how profoundly fake. I was always the defender of your artifice and your performance, I was always able to find what was beautiful and human and true in it. But now that I’ve been hurt by the fakeness of The Hills, by the false hope that it gave me, I don’t know what I think about it anymore. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what’s going to happen with my life. I don’t feel like I really know anything anymore. (God, this is all sounding like that stupid Quarterlife, thank God that got canceled, it was so much worse than your show.)
Believe me, Lauren, I know my problems are stupid and unimportant. I saw that PSA you did about Darfur, now that’s a serious problem, that’s not like this. I know how totally stupid and middle class my problems are, how totally Problems White People Have they are, I understand that, but I’m a stupid unimportant middle class white person having these problems nonetheless and they’re kind of messing with my head so you’ll have to bear with me for a second, which I think I’ve earned, you know, since I’ve paid so much attention to you and your stupid unimportant middle class white person problems. I watch the Today Show most mornings and until swine flu hit they were having these marketing experts on every hour, every day, all of them talking about how to get jobs in this “new” economy, how to market yourself, how to sell yourself to prospective employers, how to “strengthen your network.” I thought it was kind of gross and stupid because supposedly these “experts” were trying to help people but really they just seemed to be there to market their own books or websites or plans or theories or selves, to strengthen their networks. “You have to own your personal brand,” a “social networking” expert said while on the Today Show owning his own personal brand. He had recently been fired from the website he worked for and was at the time unemployed, but apparently this didn’t invalidate his credibility or tarnish his personal brand because he still knew the Secrets to leveraging social media and personal branding and the Internet into making all of his (and our, America’s) dreams and wishes come true.
You’re really good at that, Lauren — personal branding, I mean. I read all about how you just leveraged your personal brand into another nationwide fashion line, your second, for Kohl’s. I don’t really have a personal brand — I’ve been too busy writing long blog posts about other peoples’ personal brands to get one of my own. I mean, I’ve tried to make my personal brand with my blog but if nobody knows it or reads it or wants to buy it, then it’s really not a brand, is it? Maybe not, I don’t know, it’s kind of like that thing about trees falling in the woods and the sounds they make or don’t make. I didn’t take any economics classes in college because I was too busy reading novels and getting drunk but it’s fashionable now for writers to pretend they understand the economy, that’s a way to add “value” to their personal brand, so I guess I have to try too, right? Well, a brand is made up of commodities I think and a commodity is only a commodity if it’s being sold and people are buying it, I guess, so I’m not really a commodity, since nobody wants me, not least my internship. The force of the market’s demand is what transforms a thing into a commodity — there’s this famous and really cool example Marx used of a table just being this normal, everyday thing and how the force of the commodity fetish is magical and powerful enough to make it dance, to make these simple pieces of wood become animated. God, I can’t even make a regular table, much less a dancing one — I’ve never been good with my hands.
I don’t really have a personal brand, personally. On Google, nothing relating to me comes up on a search of my name until page 14 of the search results. The first several pages are taken up with the website for and news stories and blog posts about this 20 year old who has the same name as me and who’s in prison right now, accused of murder. This other Justin Wolfe was apparently, according to his website, wrongfully accused of hiring one drug dealer to kill another drug dealer. While his website and several news reports and forum discussions argue that he’s innocent, he’s in still in jail, still on death row. He has my name and he’s close to my age and and he’s in jail right now and on death row and he has a website. He’s had two stays of execution so far, but he’s still there, still scheduled to die at some indeterminate point in the future. It’s embarrassing for me to give more proof of how affected my brain is by television, Lauren, but when I think of this other Justin Wolfe, when I imagine him in my mind’s eye, the only images I can come up with are like episodes from some imaginary season of The Wire (Ways White People Have of Understanding Unfamiliar Problems).
I didn’t watch The Wire when it was airing because I had these strong ideas about how television should be and The Wire didn’t fit my mold. I believed strongly in the collective authorship of reality TV, in the questions of the authenticity it raised, in the way that fiction and fact were blended live in front of our eyes, in what it revealed about the performativity of daily life in our contemporary culture. The Wire, on the other hand, was this old school auteur project, real classically-influenced drama, and I would read these self-important and overheated missives from or about Wire creator David Simon in newspapers and magazines and think, ugh, that’s not what I want from TV. Also, as a writer, I didn’t understand the point of writing about a show like The Wire, which seemed from my perspective to wear its heart and ideas on its sleeve, to almost shoot you in the head, gangland-style, with its themes and points and arguments and “social relevance.” It wasn’t an open text like The Hills, I didn’t have to dig through it to find meaning and transcendence because it was all there on the surface, ripe for the picking. To me, it seemed too easy, it was too easy of a moral and critical position to take to say how resonant and deep The Wire was. But anyway, recently, while I was waiting to be chosen for my internship, I started watching The Wire and of course I love it and I think it’s great and amazing and “socially relevant” just like everybody else.
And now that I’ve watched it, the images of it, just like the images from your show, are inside of my head and I’m using them to construct what the other Justin Wolfe’s life is like, the life of the Justin Wolfe who’s in prison accused of murder, because what real experience of jails and shootings and death do I have? What other images do I have to make pictures with? In my brain, even though I’ve seen a picture of him, the other Justin Wolfe looks like Nick Sobotka from The Wire Season 2 and I see him hiring his friend to kill some mid-level dealer with a stolen handgun on some gritty Baltimore corner amid the hoppers and I see him getting booked in one of those little interrogation rooms and crying like Ziggy did when he got caught and when he goes to jail I see him mixing with Avon and D’angelo during his free time and when I think of him dying, I see D’angelo getting strangled in the prison library, since there was never a real execution in jail on The Wire and so that’s as close as I can get. These are the images that I use to see and understand him in my head, they’re what I’ve got, like lenses over my eyes.
A lot of writers would take an anecdote like that, about me and the other Justin Wolfe and The Wire, and use it to show how shallow and media-damaged they (or “society”) are and would then write a transition paragraph involving “learning from it” and then, in an epiphanic final paragraph, “decide” to “change” and be less solipsistic and egotistical and do good things for the community and et cetera. I’m not like a lot of writers, though (maybe this is one reason I didn’t get my internship). When I was a senior in college, I went to this reading given by George Pelecanos, who’s a novelist who wrote and produced episodes of The Wire. I didn’t go to the reading because I wanted to — one of my professors, a big Wire fan, forced everyone in his workshops to attend. I was kind of annoyed by this, actually, because Spike Lee was speaking the same night in this big auditorium on the other side of campus and I wanted to go to that because I knew who Spike Lee was and liked his art and I didn’t know who George Pelecanos was and didn’t know about his art. In other words, I guess I preferred Spike Lee’s personal brand to George Pelecanos’s. But my professor made attendance mandatory and I was a good student who cared about his teachers and his grades and so I went to the reading, held at the English Department’s favorite dive bar, and I listened to George Pelecanos read and honestly, you know, it wasn’t that memorable, it was what I expected, some high-key emotional genre urban crime story or whatever, his thing, like The Wire but without the amazing acting or cinematography or weird literary moments like drug dealers listening to Garrison Keillor or prison library discussions of Gatsby and mostly what I remember about the reading is getting drunk and then going to play Mario Kart at a friend’s house down the street from the bar. George Pelecanos is a best-selling novelist and award winning screenwriter and overall well-respected man and I left the reading that night thinking, basically, “Yeah, whatever.” Thinking I was better than him, basically, that he was definitely good at the kind of writing he was doing, sure, but that that kind of writing wasn’t significant or important, it wasn’t doing anything new. This is the point in the anecdote where I’m supposed to show what I’ve learned from my bitch-ass past self but, honestly, if I went to one of his readings today, I probably wouldn’t like it any more than I did then. I guess there’s no accounting for taste — where’s my bailout epiphany?
I’m really vain and egotistical and self conscious and I can’t change that, I don’t think. After a whole lot of self-reflexive self reflection, I kind of believe that those traits are such a part of my essential self that I think if they went away, I wouldn’t be me anymore, I would be someone else. Maybe someone better or happier or more able to connect to other people, to truly live life, but at the same time a someone who isn’t really me. I went abroad for a year last year and I taught the adorable foreign children there and I loved them and they loved me and I loved teaching them and they loved being taught by me and it was an enriching experience all around for everybody. I just wrote all that in an extended list with this serial “and” to make it seem flippant and ironic but it really was a great job that did do good things for me, sort of shined a light through my crud-filled interior to try to locate my heart and soul and etc. I didn’t do the job to be a “do-gooder” or “altruistic” but I also didn’t do it as “a resume filler” or “career builder,” I didn’t do it for either well meaning or crass reasons. I also didn’t do it in a sort of postcolonial memoir tourism kind of way, to use the kids or the experience I had with them as chaff for my writing — I’ve only written two small things about teaching and I doubt I’ll write anymore. I mostly got and did the job because it was an easy job to get and do and they paid for my apartment and work visa and airfare and the hours weren’t bad so I had lots of time to write my blog and think and, because of the low cost of living there, I was able to save a decent amount of cash in the hopes that when I was back in country and had been accepted by the perfect internship of my choice, I would have money I needed to move to the urban center where it was located.
While I was doing my foreign teaching, which was a generally easy and fun job although one located in a maybe not generally easy or fun locale, I was putting all of the rest of my energy and all of the rest of myself into writing this blog, this blog about you Lauren, about you and your friends and your show and what it all means, the meaning of it. At first I wrote the blog about you because I wanted to set myself apart in some way from other bloggers, I wanted to be unique and special and get attention and I thought that the angle I had on you was interesting and different and “artistic.” Then I got some attention which confirmed my belief in this and so I kept going, I devoted more and more time to working on the blog and the more I worked on it, the more the blog became in a way part of my identity — I wasn’t just some cliched English teacher abroad anymore, I was a writer, I had this blog that smart and interesting people thought was smart and interesting. I wasn’t ordinary, I was something more.
As time went on, though I started to have these little identity crises related to you and me and the relationship between us. When I started the blog, I was doing these recaps of your show and as I went on and kept writing, these recaps got longer and longer and soon numbered into the thousands of words and they were the only thing I was writing and the only thing I had the time or energy to write. I started to feel less like an artist or a critic and more like a describer, like I was just writing these really long and detailed but overall pointless descriptions of television shows. After I had done a whole season of these long recaps, recapitulations, I kind of felt like what was the point? There were all just remembrances of things past, dead words on dead (web) pages about dead shows. I had put so much of myself into them and yet they no longer had any meaning or worth. That was hard to deal with and so I felt like I had to move on and do something else, write a different way about different things. At the same time, though, the more I wrote about you, Lauren, the more I started to see meaning in you, to feel like almost everything in the culture could be understood through understand you, and that’s when you started to kind of drive me crazy, like in that Britney song.
And now I’m writing these fake letters like this, these false documents which are again ostensibly about you, Lauren, but of course really have nothing to do with you at all. I don’t want to write about you anymore but somehow I keep doing it anyway, despite myself, even when I try not to. I didn’t watch the last season of your show and instead followed the narrative of the election, which of course led me to write a long essay about the relationship between The Hills and contemporary politics. I consciously tried to write literary essays and mixed media meditations that were not at all about the The Hills that would appeal to a wider more general audience and that worked for a while (for me, at least, if not for my audience) but eventually that became these fake letters I’ve been pretending to write to you and Heidi and Lo. I’m not watching the current season of your show, I don’t want to watch it, and so naturally I recently tried to start writing a novel inspired by you and the fact that you were writing a novel.
What does it all add up to, though? Notice that earlier I didn’t describe myself as a critic, I say that I was “like a critic,” because that’s what I am, if that. Lets look at some of my blurbs from several major publications, the ones I’m so very proud of, the ones that legitimize me and set me apart from other ordinary “bloggers.” Do these blurbs make me a writer? No, not really. They make me a “fan,” an “astute fan,” “one of The Hills’ most analytical fans.” Well, what does it mean to be a fan, really? What is that worth? One of the main problems with all of this writing I’ve done on this blog is that from the outside it seems like it’s all about you. I’ve gotten kind of frustrated with that but there’s nothing I can really do about it, at least not with regards to the writing I’ve already done. In the thousands and thousands of words I’ve written, there’s no way for me to take you out, I can’t Photoshop or cut and paste you away; my corpus doesn’t make sense without your body. I used to like that about my writing, how I was using you as a lense, a filter, but the problem with that is that probably a lot of people don’t see me in what I’ve done, they only see you. Like, I haven’t proved with this blog that I’m a good writer, I’ve proved that I’m really good at writing about you and The Hills. Well, big deal, right? Your show is basically over — I think you’re smart to get out now, while you’re still close to your peak, and I guess in a way I’m following you out or at least trying to. No matter how many seasons MTV wants to try to carry it on, I think your show is kind of dead or at least dying. It might once have been the zenith of the zeitgeist, I think it actually was, but now it’s a dead thing that I’m aligned with and that I need to get disconnected from, that I need to stop using as a lense or filter or reference point or Theory of Everything, because if I don’t I’m going to start to look (if I don’t look already) like someone living in the past, like some sad person existing in a cultural timewarp who doesn’t get “the now,” because if I don’t, I’m just going to keep accumulating this mass of words and pictures about you that signify nothing to nobody but you and me. I can’t own my personal brand, like they say to do on the Today show, because my personal brand is at least half held in another person, in you, and in another thing, your show. I don’t own those things and so until I stop talking about them, I don’t think I can own who I am or what this is.
That was maybe the real reason why I wanted to get that internship so badly, I think, instead of the ordinary surface reasons of wanting opportunities for emotional, spiritual, and professional growth. I guess what I thought is if I was working in this creative field and doing creative things I was proud of as a job, as “work” instead of as a “hobby,” then maybe I could stop feeling so much pressure inside to always always need to be creating on my own time, needing to make things and put them out there and make things and put them out there and feeling guilty and bad and sick when I couldn’t come up with things to make and put out there. I guess I felt that I could maybe take a break and get my identity from something other than writing, from somewhere else. Like writing about you was a season in my life that was ending and in the new season, I would go to a new location with new characters and themes and most importantly, a new plot, I would have a direction given to me by the producers or the Director and I could follow that lead, hopefully to a happy season finale.
But I didn’t get my internship, Lauren, and so I don’t know what the plot is anymore, I don’t know what direction to go, my life has no dramatic structure at all. That makes me feel bad, like there’s still a hole in me, like that stupid, cliche metaphor, and all I can do is fill the hole with words and pictures and symbols and signs of my own making because that’s all that makes it feel better and it’s all I know how to do. So even though I’ve said all that stuff about how angry I am with you Lauren, well, I’m still writing one more fake letter to you, I guess, because what else. So I wrote this letter which is more personal than the things I usually write to you or anybody and as I wrote it felt like maybe I should just leave it on my hard drive or delete it or something, keep it private. But I couldn’t, I couldn’t make myself. There’s this feeling I have that I have to post it, and then hopefully post something else tomorrow and something else the day after, that maybe it’s all I can do, step by step, day by day, like in the theme to that old show, because what else? Publish, perish, et cetera.