Someone is Wrong on the Internet: A Study in Pandemic Distraction

Irina Dumitrescu is Prepared to Do Anything So As Not to Do Something

I am about to set a timer and write, when I notice someone is wrong on the internet. They have linked to an article without looking at its source. They looked at its source but did not see the logical flaws in the article. They pulled out the quote they agreed with and didn’t see or didn’t care how wrong the rest of it was. I must help them see this. I must stop the culture of online misinformation. It is my duty to explain to them that this number and that number are not really comparable. That there is an ideology behind this.

If they double down on their position I must double down on my position. They think they are arguing rationally, but I am in fact the one who is thinking about this rationally. They seem emotional to me. I must explain to them that all of this needs context. Cultural context, historical context, social context. You can’t compare an apple and a pear. You can’t compare a bee and an airplane. You can’t compare Italy to Mongolia. Someone is wrong online, and I will get back to writing just as soon as I’ve worked this out for them, just as soon as they acknowledge I’m right.

My package was not delivered. I waited all day for the package and checked the doorbell and everything, but the package did not come. When I heard the delivery truck stop on the other side of the street, I looked out the window and watched the delivery guy spend a mysterious amount of time at his passenger seat, holding something. Was he holding my package? Could he read my name on the doorbell? Did he ring and I did not hear him?

Now the online tracker tells me he tried to deliver but failed. I know this is a lie. I am home all the time, I never leave, where would I be but at this desk, trying to write? I make a phone call. I write an email. I write an email to the people who sent me the package. I tweet at the delivery company, not one tweet but an entire thread of angry tweets, angry but a little bit witty.

They are well composed, my tweets, I imagine them concentrating the rage of a generation and going viral. I imagine the delivery service apologizing to me, offering to send out my package today. I don’t need my package that soon, but it’s the principle of the thing. I don’t want to waste my time waiting for a package.

The kitchen is a mess. How can I concentrate when I know that two rooms over, the kitchen is a mess? The sink is filled with plates and glasses that couldn’t fit into the dishwasher the night before, so now we have a lag in the dishwashing. There is no end to the dishwashing. There is no tabula rasa. It doesn’t help that the pans all have special requirements, they need so much individualized care they might as well be hothouse orchids.

This one is carbon steel, that one is cast iron, then there is the one that won’t rust but needs to be scrubbed with two different sponges and two different cleaning substances—a powder, then a gel—to get really clean. The cast iron torments me with its remonstrances: I have not kept it well. The bottom is rusted on one pan, the other pan ought to be in the trash bin already.

Do I really know what I think I knew 30 seconds ago, back when I began the sentence?

But I cannot throw out cast iron, everyone knows that all cast iron can be saved, it’s just a matter of a little elbow grease. What kind of person throws out cast iron? A person who doesn’t know how to improve things, who has no sense for revision. I will rescue the cast iron, and when I have scoured all the rust off of it and lovingly oiled it and re-seasoned it, then I will be in control of my life. I will have set things in order.

My email inbox is full. My email inbox is overfull. I keep getting a message telling me that soon my emails will not arrive anymore because of the fulness of my inbox. For two weeks I have deleted this message, thinking: it is taking up space, it is bringing me closer to the limit of the inbox. I ought to deal with the other emails too. How can I focus on my own writing when I have a box full of question marks waiting to be turned into periods?

People need things from me. My students want to know if this is a good topic for their essay. I should write them back soon, I don’t want to keep them from working on their essay. Their entire creative process will be blocked until they have my opinion about whether their topic is good. Their topic is too broad, but I will explain to them lovingly that this is always the case, so they don’t lose heart.

Then there are forms that have to be printed and signed and scanned and emailed back. This is work but it is easy work and I might as well get it out of the way so it doesn’t distract me from my writing. Then someone is angry with me for something another person did to them five years ago, or for something nobody did to them and they would rather have had done. This will take diplomacy, I will have to think carefully about how to phrase things, I will have to manage the personalities involved. You have to choose your words carefully for this kind of thing.

I am hungry. My breakfast was too light, and I am hungry but it is only mid-morning. I try to gage the precise level of my hunger: do I need to quell it now or can it wait until lunch? Can I focus for another hour and a half if I am a little bit hungry, not ravenous, but not at peace either? Has anyone ever composed anything of greatness on an empty stomach? I need another cup of coffee, then I pour myself another cup of coffee, then I wonder why coffee reacts so differently to milk once it cools a bit.

The late morning cup is always different from the morning cup, it needs more milk to cut the bitterness and it stays darker besides. I have to find the precise amount of milk that will make the bitter bearable but not too milky, because the taste of warm milk is the most hideous taste I know and to be avoided at all cost. But now, before half the cup is done, it is already too cold to enjoy and I am too agitated to concentrate on a line of prose.

I need a glass of water. I need to go to the bathroom. I went to the bathroom an hour ago, but ever since having a child I am always thirsty and always need to go to the bathroom. I consider that I may have diabetes. I google “always thirsty need to pee” and decide I probably do have diabetes. I go to the kitchen and eat some chocolate to make up for having diabetes so long before lunchtime. I go to the bathroom and fiddle with my phone until it is time for lunch. After lunch I will sit down at my desk. Unless of course I need a nap.

I am ready to write. I begin a sentence. It is a strong sentence, a sentence that makes no bones about things, a sentence that makes a clear point and stands by it. I am close to hitting the period on this sentence when I realize I have not considered all the options. Do I really know what I think I knew 30 seconds ago, back when I began the sentence? Have I not made assumptions? Do I know the full history of the topic? Did I think about the context, the social context and the historical context and of course the cultural context? Maybe it’s different if the context is different.

Can I really say this thing, when all I know is my own life and the places I have lived and what it was like to inhabit them in my skin? I look at the sentence again and now holes have replaced all of the words. I must fill the holes. It will not take long: I have all of human knowledge at my fingertips. I search on Google. I read Wikipedia. I remember I am a rational person who cares about sources, so I search databases of articles. I download the articles and then I look for books.

I cannot buy the books, just like that, I already buy too many books. I must read the previews and scan the reviews. The preview is never enough so I spend some time scrolling down, scrolling down, because another push might just do it, might give me another page of scanned text, and that page will reveal to me whether the book is worth the purchase. I download all the articles I can and I order the books, and now I must wait for them to arrive before I can write the second sentence.

A small child wants something from me. The child says, “Mama” and I say “yes” without looking away from the screen, and it says “Mama” and I say “yes” more insistently now, still not looking away from the screen even though I no longer register what is on it. The child is bored. The child has done all its schoolwork, or it hasn’t, but in any case it is bored. The child has read all its books and listened to its CDs. The child has nothing to do.

The child’s room is filled with Lego pieces and wooden blocks and craft supplies and comics and empty CD cases. I suggest to the child that it could entertain itself by cleaning its room. The child is not amused. The child wants to watch videos. I desperately want the child to watch videos so I can get back to this sentence I had such great plans for, and which I have already half forgotten. But I am a good parent and I don’t want a child who has been made stupid by too many talking cars. I tell the child to read another book.

I read three blog posts and watch two YouTube videos about the Comic Sans trick. They say it really works.

The child appears again. It wants to tell me that the hottest thing we know is the core of the sun. I don’t know what to say to that. I look at the child and notice its big eyes and the tiny milia on its otherwise perfect cheeks and I think that this is my only child, and I am not spending time with it. In thirty years the child will be talking to a therapist about a mother who said screens were bad but never looked away from hers. I smell the top of the child’s head. I think back to my childhood. I don’t remember anyone playing with me when I was bored.

I agree to play a game with the child, just one game, and then I will get back to work. I do not know how to play to lose, so I win the first game. The child is so upset I play another just to give it a chance to win fairly. I win again. The child is even sadder now. I play two more games and really concentrate on making bad moves so a small child can save face. The victorious child asks me if it can watch videos. I figure I’ve made my point, so I let it watch videos and return to my desk. The noise of the talking cars drives me mad.

I need a better way of working. I need to change my relationship to writing. I should build good habits over years of dedicated sitting at my desk, but I want a fast trick. I want an easy thing I can do to unlock my writing, to let all the things flow that won’t flow. It should happen in a day, because I have deadlines. I google “beat writer’s block” and I find out you can write a ton by changing your font to something ugly. Comic Sans. You change your font to Comic Sans, and the prose just comes tumbling out.

Do I open a Word document and try writing in Comic Sans? No. I need to know first if this is a real thing, if it really works. I read three blog posts and watch two YouTube videos about the Comic Sans trick. They say it really works. They usually write eight hundred words and now they wrote three thousand, on Comic Sans. Like magic. I wonder if it’s true. I wonder if their prose is any good. Some of them give their own blog posts as evidence of how much they can write now, and I don’t think that really counts.

Then I wonder how it works, if it does work. I find blog posts explaining the science of the Comic Sans trick. It lowers your defenses. It bypasses your perfectionism. Then there are articles on writing websites deflating the whole Comic Sans hype. It works with any font. It doesn’t work at all. It’s psychological. But now when I finally open a Word doc and try out Comic Sans, half of me believes and half of me doesn’t believe, and you can’t do magic like that. I switch back to Times New Roman and breathe again. My sentences looked ugly in Comic Sans. I wanted them to disappear as soon as they existed.

I should take a break. I am not a machine. People can’t keep working like this, without pause. It’s the fault of capitalism, that I am driving myself like a machine. It’s the Protestant ethic. It’s the Puritans. I don’t know how to be kind to myself. But there is research about it now. No one can work more than four hours a day. I should rest. I should do something with my hands.

I should cook a meal for my child, or tend to the plants in my garden. I should feel present in the now. I should tell myself that I am enough, and that I forgive myself for the sentence I couldn’t finish. I should go on a walk. I look online to see if there are any good books about going on walks. I watch a TED talk that tells me to slow down. I watch a TED talk that tells me to unplug myself from social media. I agree. There are ten more TED talks about turning off social media. I wonder how many of these I have to watch before I finally convince myself to do it.

I turn to Facebook and write an ironic post about TED talks. I wait a few seconds for the first like, then refresh twice. I decide this is stupid and I should get back to my work, or back to my rest, whatever it was. But now I see that someone is writing something. There are little dots moving from left to right under my post, left to right, left to right. Someone is writing something, and I must wait to see what they wrote. Do they agree with me about how silly TED talks are? Will they take offence at what I wrote, and force me to defend myself?

I want to go do something else, I want to water the plants, I want to sit next to the plants and write my essay in a notebook with a fountain pen. But first I have to see if someone is angry, if someone has misunderstood me, if something needs clarifying. Things might explode at any moment. I pour out the last half cup of coffee in the pot and drink it black and cold. I need to stay focused. Something may happen.

Irina Dumitrescu
Irina Dumitrescu
Irina Dumitrescu's essays have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, shortlisted for the James Beard Foundation’s MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, and received the McGinnis-Ritchie Award for nonfiction. One piece was included in Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen and Bob Atwan, with others selected as notables in 2013, 2017, and 2018. Dumitrescu's work has also been reprinted in Holly Hughes’ Best Food Writing 2017, Jay McInerney’s Wine Reads: A Literary Anthology of Wine Writing (2018), and Longreads. Various pieces have also appeared in Romanian, Spanish, Latvian, and Chinese.

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