Pyramid Pals

What I Learned About Belonging From My Brief Encounter With a Multi-Level Marketing Scheme

I was struggling to settle on a topic for this week’s installment until I had the following exchange with my friend Mike:

The people have spoken (well, one person), so I’m going to tell the story of the time one of my startup’s customers tried to recruit me into a multi-level marketing scheme. If you’d rather hear about police abolition or my musical, blame Mike—and cross your fingers that I text you instead the next time I can’t decide what to write about.

Anyway: in the summer of 2016 I was 26 and living in Detroit, and running a startup that wasn’t doing very well. I had started the company when I was 24, basically a child, and we had just had a year or so where we had been doing very well indeed; we had graduated from a famous accelerator in California often called “the Harvard of startups,” and I had taken a lot of coffee meetings that ended with the person across from me deciding to wire us lots of money based on a pitch deck or a particularly canny line, or based just on the fact that I was young and male and have always been uncomfortably good at intuiting who the person I’m talking to wants me to be and then temporarily becoming that person.

But now the accelerator had ended and we were back in Detroit, where we were realizing that much of the success we’d previously attributed to our brilliance had actually been the result of dumb luck. (For example: one of our local competitors had turned out to be a Ponzi scheme and had been busted by the FBI during our time at the accelerator, flooding the market with desperate customers in need of a new solution.)

Our team of around ten or so, all of whom had either been my friends already or become them, was so visibly counting on me, and I lived in constant fear of letting them—not to mention our customers and investors—down. My relationship with the millions of dollars we had just been given had become kind of like the relationship between Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross in the last scene of The Graduate, when he’s just broken up her wedding and they ride away together in the back of that bus, her wedding dress still on, and give each other that panicked look that says, Okay, now what do we do?

It was in this context that one of our customers invited me to meet with her and her husband at their home in the suburbs. Her name was Veronica Lovelorn, which is, of course, a fake name I invented for the purposes of this piece, but I promise you that her real name was equally ridiculous.

It wasn’t unusual for our customers to want to meet us. My company was a tech-powered property management service for small-time landlords, and as such we spent a lot of time in American real estate’s emotionally nebulous netherworld. Amateur real estate investors are a weird bunch: they tend to be both enthusiastic capitalists and yet also drawn to real estate for idiosyncratic, highly personal reasons, of which “I ran the numbers and this seemed like the best investment” is rarely one. Some of them like the idea of their investment being put to use as a home for a real person instead of just being a line item on some giant company’s balance sheet; others have been suckered by the ever-present portrayal of real estate as a can’t-lose investment strategy; and still others are the type who want to be “entrepreneurial,” but aren’t creative enough to actually come up with their own business idea.

I wasn’t sure which Veronica was. She owned a few properties that we managed, and she’d recommended us to a few landlord friends who had also become our customers. Today, of course, if I was running a business and a customer asked me to drive out to their home for a meeting, I would probably ask at least one follow-up question—such as “Why?” or “What about?”—before agreeing. But we were desperate for any and all growth we could get, and it seemed like there was a chance this meeting could lead to some. Besides, at 26, I still found it hard to say no any time an “adult” asked me to do something.

Veronica lived in Grosse Pointe, a wealthy, predominantly white suburb bordering Detroit’s eastern edge that was infamous at the time for having erected a literal wall in the middle of the road to prevent Detroiters from driving into their city. Her house was nice that generic suburban way, like a magazine spread come to life. Most notable, though, was the fact that though I had been under the impression I was meeting with just Veronica and her husband, there were at least ten other people there when I arrived. They were all good-looking in that way people in their early forties often are, where you could tell they’d been even better-looking in the recent past and had just begun the long, slow decline of middle age.

I grabbed a paper plate of supermarket hors d’oeuvres, adjusted the tuck of that one button-down shirt I always wore to meetings, and started making my way around the living room, where—after multiple people asked me how I knew Veronica—it quickly became clear that this was not, in fact, a business meeting at all, but rather some kind of social event. Still, everyone was unfailingly lovely and polite, and no one acted as if it were at all strange that I was a decade younger than everyone else there. Wanting to fit in, I quickly found myself exaggerating the extent of my relationship with Veronica, implying that she was somehow an extra-special customer and not just one of the two hundred or so people who paid us to manage their properties.

Then Veronica asked us all to take a seat—so, she said, “the presentation could begin.” I hadn’t been aware that there was even going to be a presentation, but by the time everyone started sitting down, it was too late for me to make a discreet exit. So I grabbed a spot with the rest of the crowd and steeled myself for whatever it was I was about to experience.

The presentation—which lasted well over an hour—was so vague, and so full of generic stock imagery and ambiguous, new-agey mumbo-jumbo, that it took me a while to even figure out what it was about. For the first ten or fifteen minutes, I thought I might have just accidentally stumbled into recruitment for a cult, and so I was relieved when, about midway through, I finally realized that this was “just” a multi-level marketing scheme.

I still don’t remember exactly what service the company they’d been ensnared by actually provided: it had something to do with getting a discount on your existing cable bundle, or maybe switching to a new, superior cable bundle. I don’t remember any of the details of how the finances of the system worked, or even how much money they claimed you could make.

I probably don’t remember these things because none of the speakers spent much time on them. Instead, each presenter extolled the true greatest benefit of this scheme: the incredible community it had allowed them to become a part of. Speaker after speaker became visibly emotional discussing the friends they had made and the bonds they had forged through their membership with this company. Multiple people seemed to be on the verge of genuine tears.

This one hour completely changed my perception of the kinds of people who get sucked into MLM schemes. I had assumed they were largely driven by greed. But I realized, that afternoon on Veronica’s extra-wide couch, that they were actually driven by loneliness. And I felt sad for them, even as I made my half-assed excuses and got the hell out of there as soon as the presentation ended: how have we ended up with a society where so many are so desperate for a kind of belonging they can’t find anywhere else?


When I got back to our office—which was also our house—I told the rest of my team what had happened, and we collapsed in laughter. We were outsiders in so many ways: startup types in one of the most old-school industries around; young people in a field dominated by middle-aged traditionalists; relative newcomers to Detroit. At the time I saw my misadventure at Veronica’s house as just one more instance of my startup odyssey giving me a peek at a world so totally unlike my own.

But looking back on it now, I’m not sure Veronica and I were as different as I would have had myself believe. Sure, my company wasn’t a fraud built on taking advantage of the vulnerable—though we certainly got accused of being all that and more when we collapsed a few years later. But I too had gotten into business primarily out of a search for community: I wanted to build something meaningful with the people I cared about the most.

More than anything else, that was why I pushed through the sleepless nights and the repeat heartaches and the non-stop stress that, to this day, I’m convinced took at least five years off my life—not really for the money, not even really out of any deep conviction in the importance of what my company did, but to build a community around me. To belong, and to provide others with a sense of belonging. And when the company shut down, it was that feeling of belonging that I missed the most.

I have a new job now, one where a core part of my work is creating community. I think a lot about the different places people find belonging, or at least try to. And I think about Veronica. Though I never sold a single cable bundle on her behalf, in a way, she and her fellow hucksters got to me anyway.

Yours in having just now realized that if I ever wanted to start a multi-level marketing company myself, I’d probably be pretty good at it,

Max


Read of the week: speaking of community, this Vice article about a “pro-choice” suicide forum raises some thorny questions about belonging, free speech, and the limits of individual rights. (Be warned: not a light read.)

How to Lose a Mind in Ten Days

Flatulence, Masturbation, and Enlightenment on My Silent Meditation Retreat

Editor’s note: I misspelled Stacey Abrams’ name in last week’s issue. Stacey, if you’re reading this, please accept my apologies.


Like having a threesome, attending a silent meditation retreat is one of those subjects that it’s almost impossible to write about without seeming as though your only motivation is to brag. In fact there’s something almost perversely ironic about having an experience that’s so emphatically internal and individual, whose entire purpose is the lessening or elimination of ego, and then coming back and loudly announcing it to the whole world. Still, I did, in fact, attend a ten-day silent meditation retreat back in January. And I am, in fact, now going to tell you all about it.


The retreat I attended was one of the many run at the California Vipassana Center by famed meditation teacher S. N. Goenka—who you’ll be hearing a lot more about a bit later in this piece—and known colloquially as a “Goenka retreat.” Goenka retreats are one of the most popular for beginners, largely, I believe, due to their being the first Google result for “silent meditation retreat.” They are also free (though donations are accepted after the course), which probably helps; I have a hard time imagining how many people could be convinced to pay for ten days in what is more or less a very chill prison.

I am honestly not 100% sure why I decided to go on one of these retreats in the first place, other than that I had been meditating for five years by that point and have always been drawn to doing things in excess, even meditation. I signed up on a whim, committing in what at the time seemed like the distant future, in much the same way you might agree to lunch plans next month with someone you don’t particularly like and would never agree to meet right now.

As the retreat approached, I considered backing out several times, but by then I’d told so many people that I was going that I resolved to endure almost any torment rather than face the humiliation of publicly backing out. And so there I was, driving my rented Volkswagen Beetle from SFO to the charmingly-named North Fork, California, to sit in silence for ten days.

You get to keep your hair at these retreats, but other than that you pretty much live like a monk: for ten days, you wake up at 4am, don’t communicate with the other students—which includes not just speaking and writing but also nods and eye contact—and fast after an 11am lunch. (First-time students are allowed a fruit and tea break in the afternoon, and boy did I see some attendees milk this loophole for everything it was worth, building mile-high piles of fruit salad as if they were auditioning for a job at Edible Arrangements.)

Oh, and you also meditate for ten hours a day.

When I talk about this course with people who, like my mother, don’t meditate and think that anyone who would do something like this is insane, I often find there’s a lot of confusion about what meditation actually is. “Are you just sitting there?” is a common question.

But you’re hardly just sitting there. Meditation—especially vipassana, the type I practice—involves intense, concentrated focus on bodily sensations (starting with your breath, then “graduating” to following the slightest sensations throughout your body), as well as sitting completely still for up to three hours at a time—no scratching itches or shifting to alleviate cramps. The ten daily hours of meditation end up being so effortful that the few hours each day where you actually do get to “just sit there” become welcome respites. I’ve never craved mere boredom so much.

During my time at the center I was also told to follow five additional precepts, which I assume derive in some form from Buddhist teaching, but whose precise origins were never quite clear:

  1. To abstain from killing any being (easy, though I did have to remind myself not to squish bugs)

  2. To abstain from stealing (easy even for a kleptomaniac, as there is almost nothing around to steal)

  3. To abstain from telling lies (easy, since you can’t speak)

  4. To abstain from all intoxicants (easy, since you presumably didn’t bring any)

  5. To abstain from all sexual activity (easy… in theory?)

A precise definition of “sexual activity” was never provided, but I had to assume it included masturbation. I didn’t ask, though, even though you were allowed to break your silence to ask a brief question of the assistant teacher. There’s not really any way to ask your meditation teacher about the regulatory status of masturbation without the question coming across as more than purely hypothetical.

And speaking of bodily functions: a brief note on flatulence. Feed 100 people a diet of mostly beans and place them in a silent meditation hall for hours on end and the result will be a symphony of poots and gurgles unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. It was as if our bodies knew we weren’t allowed to speak with our mouths and were compensating by generating sounds from as many other areas as possible. If the goal of the retreat was to get me comfortable with Zen paradoxes, they succeeded: I’ve never eaten less and farted more.


During the first few days of the retreat, I was absolutely groovin’. In the weeks before, I’d worked myself into such a frenzied lather anticipating all kinds of mental and physical horrors that I was delighted when each day turned out to be… actually quite easy. Sure, like most meditators I never fully won my daily battles with distraction, but I could feel my technique improving with each hour of practice, and I certainly wasn’t suffering from the experience—at least, not any more than some level of suffering is the baseline state of all of existence.

Besides, the California sun was on full display each day, and the retreat center was beautiful, albeit a little shabby. Really, this whole thing was kind of like a vacation. A weird vacation, where you couldn’t talk and didn’t do anything fun, but a vacation nonetheless.

Near the close of day four, after I’d fought my way through distraction and thigh cramps to meditate for three hours straight, without moving even the slightest bit—and discrediting everyone who ever called me fidgety in the process—I was filled with a euphoria that was absolutely worth four days of silence to achieve. “I nailed it,” I thought to myself, very un-Buddhist-ly. “I’m fucking great at meditating.”


Beyond sleeping, the afternoon break, and the occasional meal, our main respite from meditating was the evening lecture. Every evening, Goenka—a soft-spoken man in his mid-seventies who looked a bit like a Burmese Philip Baker Hall—would speak for around an hour, seemingly extemporaneously, on various meditation topics. Goenka teaches Buddhism more as a philosophy or set of practical systems than as a religion: his take is that Buddha was just a guy who (re)discovered an impactful meditation technique, and who would not be thrilled if he ever rose from the dead to discover that an entire religion had sprung up around his image.

But there’s a twist to these talks: like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, Goenka has been dead this whole time. (More specifically, since 2013.) He “teaches” the course via video and audio recordings that were made in 1991, with two (living) assistant teachers present to guide you, and to answer the occasional question.

This is objectively insane, but even the most outrageous insanity can be made to seem normal in a high-control environment. Besides, the course’s path is so rigidly prescribed that even thirty-year-old recordings can still be strikingly relevant. When video-Goenka said, “You’re probably wondering about…,” it was almost always something I was, in fact, wondering about. He began to remind me of Hari Seldon, the prophet from Isaac Asimov’s (hugely overrated) Foundation series, emerging periodically from beyond the grave to make uncannily accurate pronouncements.

Perhaps I’m making this sound a bit like a cult. I can’t deny that it’s at least a bit of a cult of personality, given that I spent ten-plus hours watching VHS tapes of the deceased founder. But the thing about cults of personality is that they tend to emerge around people who have really compelling personalities. Goenka is engaging, funny, and impossible not to love. (If you’re curious, you can find some videos of him on YouTube, though in the absence of the rest of the retreat structure I’m not sure the effect will be the same.)

For all its oddities, the entire course has an undeniably positive aura around it. It’s free, staffed entirely on a volunteer basis, and clearly created and run by people whose own lives have been so impacted by meditation that they can’t help but share what they’ve experienced. In a way it reminded me of Alcoholics Anonymous: here is something that works for us, they were all saying, and now we would like to share it with you.


Reader, I confess that I did not make it more than halfway through the retreat without violating one of the five precepts. I’m not going to tell you exactly which one it was, but let’s just say it was violated quickly, efficiently, and with an intense focus on bodily sensations, although probably not the kind the Buddha had in mind. On the positive side, if I’m ever faced with a choice between a vow of silence and a vow of celibacy, I now know definitively which one I’ll have more trouble with.


And then it was day eight, and all at once things weren’t so easy.

Meditations that had previously felt near-effortless had become agonizing without my even noticing, and I found myself constantly fighting the urge to check my watch to see how much longer I had before each session was over. (Once, meditating in my room for what I was sure had been at least an hour, I broke my silence with an accidental shout of “Oh, fuck!” after looking at the clock and realizing it had only been about fifteen minutes.) Each bout of meditative purgatory contributed to a cycle of self-recrimination: the more I dreaded each session, the harder it was; the harder it was, the more I dreaded the next one.

And on top of that, the thought loops were really starting to get to me. More than anything else, a retreat like this teaches you how little control you have over your own thoughts. I found myself repeating the same few internal monologues over and over, well past the point where there was any further benefit to be gained by continuing to consider them. I’d catch myself thinking one of the thoughts that I knew was going to send me down the same mental journey I’d been on fifteen times before, but once that first thought broke through the surface, the rest were out of my control, and I’d have no choice but to tell myself to buckle up as I was swept along for the ride, a passenger to my own mind. Some of these loops were harmless (like the hours I spent desperately trying to remember the name of the Vincent Adultman character from BoJack Horseman), but others were much more personal, and much more painful.

When the retreat ended on the morning of the eleventh day, I sped through my assigned cleanup chores so quickly that I could tell I looked absolutely manic to the other participants. Back in my rental car, the center shrinking behind me in the rear-view mirror, I pounded the steering wheel and laughed and laughed and laughed, and I found myself thinking of Jesse Pinkman in the last episode of Breaking Bad, when he breaks out of that pit in the ground those white supremacists have been keeping him in and speeds away in that sweet El Camino.

But it took less than an hour of sitting in the cacophony of SFO before I started to miss the stillness and clarity I’d found at the retreat, and before I even got on the plane to fly home, I knew I would someday go back.


There’s this one moment from the trip I keep returning to over and over. On my last evening there the sky burst into one of those sunsets that looks like an oil painting, everything splayed out luminescent and pink, and I found a high perch by the pagoda and sat with some other students to watch until it got dark. I felt peaceful and still, and I thought about how the voices in my head were quieter than they’d ever been before, and about how maybe it took an experience this extreme to strip away all the noise and truly sit with yourself, to even realize how much of what normally goes on in your mind is noise in the first place.

And I thought about the people in my life, those I’ve loved and those I’ve hurt, those who aren’t in my life anymore and those who are so much in my life that it can feel like they’re living in my head, and I thought about how we are all of us just temporary assemblies of particles, spinning lost and helpless through this tumbling world, and for a moment I was sure I was grasping at something true and raw and real, that this, this was it, this was what I had come here to understand, and that it had all of it been worth it, every second of it, for this moment.

And then the guy next to me farted.

Yours in hoping this didn’t go on too long,

Max


Read of the week. And speaking of Foundation: my read of the week is this Atlantic piece on Peter Turchin, who believes he can build mathematical models that explain and predict the dynamics of human societies regardless of individual behavior. A lot of people didn’t take him seriously… until he predicted, in 2010, worldwide social unrest sometime right around 2020. I’m hardly sold on Turchin’s theories, but he’s definitely worth paying attention to.

Eight Quick Thoughts About the Election

Ah, the newsletter writer’s dilemma this week: I don’t really want to write about the election, and I doubt you’re all that excited to read more about it, but it’s not as if either of us can really think about anything else right now.

So I present to you: eight quick thoughts about the election. We will return to our regularly scheduled, ostensibly apolitical programming next week.


1.

I watched approximately 100 hours of CNN this week and even though I stopped on Thursday I still feel like my brain is rotting. It’s horrifying to realize how many people watch this stuff regularly. Liberals like to complain about Fox, but if Fox is junk food, CNN and MSNBC are those pseudo-healthy snacks like veggie straws or Terra chips. Sure, they might be slightly better for you, but you probably still shouldn’t be eating them all the time.

2.

During the primaries, I had serious doubts about Biden’s electability. Until now, there hadn’t been a single election I was old enough to follow in which a Democrat chosen for their perceived “electability” actually got elected. I saw Biden as old, uninspiring, and a decades-long D.C. insider just four years after an election that saw the ultimate outsider swept into power on a wave of anti-establishment energy. Not to mention the fact that Biden’s two previous runs hadn’t exactly set the world on fire.

Turns out I was wrong. Who knows how much of this was due to the changes wrought by covid, but Biden was the right candidate for the moment. I remain a massive Elizabeth Warren stan and continue to believe she would have been the best of the bunch at the actual job of being President, but watching how this election played out, I think she probably would have lost.

3.

If the data we have so far can be believed (and that’s a big if), Donald Trump got more minority support in this election than any Republican candidate since Nixon. This is starting to make me wonder if white liberals like myself have been making some assumptions about race that aren’t always shared by actual minorities in this country.

4.

No one knows how to mourn a victory like liberals. I’m also disappointed we (probably) didn’t take the Senate. But if you’d shown me this electoral map a year ago, I would have been thrilled.

5.

I’m pretty sure there’s only one reason Georgia is blue and North Carolina isn’t: Stacey Abrams. She’s single-handedly making me reconsider my skepticism of the “Great man” theory of history.

6.

It drives me absolutely crazy when I hear someone ask that ever-present question about why poor people vote against their own supposed self-interest—no one asks the same thing about rich liberals voting for higher taxes! Poor people also have the right to define their self-interest in terms that aren’t purely financial.

7.

Here’s something I think about often: the citizens of what we now call the Late Roman Republic had no idea they were living through their polity’s last days.

8.

This election saw all-time high turnout for our all-time most authoritarian Presidential candidate. I still can’t decide if that’s a good sign for democracy or a bad one.

Yours in epistemological uncertainty,

Max


Read of the week. And now for something completely unrelated to politics: this interactive NYT piece about painter Albrecht Dürer’s pioneering self-portraits in the 1500s. Who would have thought ten years ago that by 2020 the New York Times would be doing some of the best interaction design on the web?

Why Rent (The Musical) Sucks

With election anxiety like an unscratchable itch in all our minds right now, I thought I’d attempt to give everyone a brief moment of levity by telling you about why I can’t stand the musical Rent.

I was a theater kid in high school, but I was never quite a true theater kid—I existed slightly on the outskirts of the core theater kid group. That might have been because unlike most of them, I had a bunch of other friends who weren’t part of the theater world. It might also have been because while they were all hardcore theater obsessives, I was there at least in part due to some calculating high school logic. Don’t get me wrong—I do like theater. But I also wanted to drink and have sex, and I was never going to make it into the popular crowd, so the theater kids were the obvious alternative.

There was no greater sign of my being a TKINO (theater kid in name only) than my abiding hatred for Rent. Rent is perennially popular among high school theater kids, probably because it’s about the kind of sexy bohemians they imagine they’ll become when they grow up. But it’s actually terrible, largely because almost every single person in the show is a colossal asshole.

In case you aren’t familiar, Rent tells the interweaving stories of a bunch of different characters in the mid-1980’s East Village. We open on Mark and Roger, a pair of whiny white guys who think that not paying their rent makes them artists, even though they haven’t actually produced any art in years. Mark and Roger are huddled together in their apartment—which is cold because they’re too poor to pay their heating bill—commiserating about how hard it is to be an artist when you don’t have any talent or motivation.

Enter Benny, their former friend and long-suffering landlord, and a successful Black businessman in his local community. Rent paints Benny as the villainous face of gentrification despite the fact that a) all he wants is for Mark and Roger to pay some rent after living in his building for free for over a year and b) the so-called “gentrification,” which all the artist characters of the show vehemently oppose, is his attempt to turn a vacant lot he owns into a community arts center. Of course, Mark and Roger refuse to pay, because they don’t have any money, and because apparently they believe that having once been Benny’s friends entitles them to live rent-free in his properties forever.

Although any other landlord would have called their lawyer at least six months ago by now, Benny offers Mark and Roger a deal: Maureen, Mark’s ex, is leading a protest against Benny’s plan to develop that arts center, along with her girlfriend Joanne. If Mark can convince her to cancel the protest, he and Roger can continue living in Benny’s building for free.

But Mark and Roger, being assholes, refuse. In fact, Mark decides that just because Benny asked he’s actually going to go help Maureen with the protest, even though he doesn’t really like her that much. He is apparently completely unaware of the irony that as unemployed artists, he and Roger could probably really benefit from a community arts center opening up in their neighborhood. (Meanwhile, in actual 2020 New York, the site of Benny’s proposed arts center is almost certainly now a Starbucks.)

Nearby, their friend Tom Collins (yes, just like the drink), a gay, HIV-positive NYU professor (and one of the characters in the show who’s actually employed) meets Angel, a cross-dressing, also HIV-positive street performer whose presence as the moral center of the show is subtly underscored by the fact—in case you missed it—his name is literally Angel. Despite their embarrassingly unoriginal names, Collins and Angel are both pretty alright guys, so I won’t rag on them any further here.

Back at the apartment, Roger underscores his lack of creative output and low expectations for himself by explaining how he just wants to write one good song before he dies. (Spoiler alert: he fails.) Their neighbor Mimi, a junkie and exotic dancer, flirts repeatedly with Roger, but he resists her. He’s probably jealous that she’s managed to hold down a job despite being a heroin addict, while he can’t even pay his rent or write a single good song.

At the protest, Maureen performs a painfully bad avant-garde art piece that reminds everyone why even people who share their politics often hate leftist protesters. During the after-party at a nearby café, Benny—who hasn’t yet realized that he should probably just find some better friends or something—shows up and criticizes the group’s self-centered bohemian lifestyle. In response, they prove him right by dancing on tables, throwing food, and just generally partying so riotously in the café that they definitely ruin the night of anyone else who happens to be having dinner there.

Also during the party, Roger and Mimi lock lips for the first time, and the locking theme continues when we also find out that Benny has padlocked Mark and Roger’s building. Admittedly, it is a violation of landlord-tenant law to lock occupants out of their building without a court order, but by this point Mark and Roger totally deserve it.

If you haven’t walked out yet (or turned off the even-worse film adaptation), you’ve made it to Act Two. Before the plot resumes, the cast lines up to sing Rent’s most famous song, “Seasons of Love,” in which they demonstrate their mastery of basic multiplication by successfully calculating the number of minutes in a year. It’s also the song in which they exhort the audience to measure their life based on how full of love it is, despite the fact that they all just spent the first act behaving like absolute assholes to each other.

When the song ends, Benny, who still hasn’t learned his lesson, shows up to offer Mark and Roger a truce. It apparently has something to do with the fact that Benny and Mimi used to date, though that doesn’t really explain why he bothered padlocking their building if he was going to turn around and offer them a truce immediately after. Maybe he was moved by the whole “how many minutes are there in a year” thing.

Of course, instead of being happy that his ridiculous quest to live rent-free forever has finally paid off, Roger is immediately jealous that Benny and Mimi used to date, even though he and Mimi literally just kissed for the first time. Apparently he thinks he’s entitled not only to a free apartment, but also for any woman he kisses to have a completely chaste past. His position becomes especially egregious when you remember that Mimi works at a strip club.

Roger and Mimi aren’t the only ones having trouble: Maureen and Joanne’s relationship is also strained, and they soon break up during a song in which each flings a litany of criticisms at the other. In a shocking oversight, Joanne fails to include Maureen’s obscenely bad performance art piece from Act One in her list of grievances.

Soon after, Angel dies of AIDS. Collins is devastated, but he can take solace in the fact that at least Angel doesn’t have to experience the remaining third of the show. At Angel’s funeral, Roger reveals that he’s going to move to Santa Fe, which for some reason causes everyone to get in a huge fight about basically nothing, which then causes Collins to get super upset that his friends are selfishly ruining Angel’s funeral. (He obviously wasn't paying attention to the show so far, since this behavior is completely in character for all of them.)

Also, Benny, who somehow still hasn’t learned his lesson, pays for Angel’s funeral and for Mimi to go to rehab, but everyone still hates him because he wears a suit.

One year later, the group reunites for a screening of a film Mark made. Apparently, Roger too has achieved his long-sought artistic breakthrough and written his one good song, but he doesn’t have much time to celebrate, since Mimi soon arrives, sick and nearing death. This is the eighties, so the prognosis for AIDS patients isn’t good, but luckily Mimi has access to a powerful medicine ACT UP could only dream of: the power of—you guessed it—Roger’s song.

So Roger finally plays his one song and it is, I kid you not, fucking terrible. This is especially egregious because for all its plot and character flaws, the songs in Rent are generally pretty good! But this one song—the song that we’ve been building up to for two and a half hours, that took Roger over a year to write, that’s supposedly the “one good song” that will secure his legacy, and that literally brings a woman back from the brink of death—is far and away the the least memorable song in the show. If you don’t believe me, listen for yourself and try to imagine how there could possibly be a universe where this song is the cure for AIDS.

But it works. And with Mimi back to life, the crew gathers together in a moment of shared happiness. They immediately change the subject from Roger’s song—probably so they don’t have to pretend they liked it—and resolve to enjoy whatever time they have left with each other and appreciate the small moments in life.

We, the audience, now also have a newfound appreciation for the small things in life, like how we’ll never have to sit through this show again.

And that’s why I hate Rent. See you next week, if civilization is still standing.

Yours in refreshing the FiveThirtyEight forecast so often I’m going to break my keyboard,

Max

Pining for Quarantine Tinder

When the bad dates start piling up, I find myself pining for the days of Quarantine Tinder.

I’m talking here about the true quarantine, that March–May era of sirens on the hour and lockdowns that seemed like they might actually be enforced, back when we still thought sanitizing packages would keep us safe. It was a hard time to be single, but it was a great time to be on Tinder. I think we all knew even then we were in the midst of something special; I remember joking with more than one match that five years from now we’d all be reading some New York Magazine article that was like, “An Oral History of Quarantine Tinder” or something, and reminiscing about what we’d by then be able to look back on as some version of the good old days.

It reminded me a bit of the early days of Tinder eight or so years ago, when the app had just been released and I’d created an account as a twenty-two-year-old who was newly single and newly arrived in Detroit, a city where I barely knew anyone, and that wasn’t exactly teeming with young people to begin with. Tinder then hadn’t yet lost its sheen of adventure: there was still something just a little bit taboo about meeting someone through a swipe, and even the most chaste messages were left lightly eroticized by the medium through which they’d arrived. (Also, Tinder was iOS-only at the time, and I maintain that iPhone users are, on average, better-looking. Fight me, Android people.)

The early days of the pandemic pushed so many of us to look at all kinds of elements of our lives from new angles, and the way we approached Tinder was no exception. We were all home alone (or alone-ish) all day, most of us for the first time, and buzzing with that strange emotional cocktail of being simultaneously bored beyond belief, yet also too agitated to really focus on anything. Plus we were all horny, or anxious—those are so often the same thing anyway—or starved for human contact, or just feeling things we couldn’t put into words. And there was Tinder, always the outlet for any and all of those feelings, now even more constantly available than before.

But whereas the Tinder of the Before Times had been full of flakes and creeps and the occasional outright grifter, us citizens of Quarantine Tinder we were all so gentle with each other. We remembered something we usually forget, something that, like most of the deepest truths, one rarely thinks about day to day: that everyone we encounter is making their way through a life that’s as difficult and as complicated as our own.

And we were all in it together. In what was some combination of canny marketing play and gesture of solidarity, Tinder made their “passport” feature—which lets people use the app as if they’re anywhere in the world—free during the pandemic’s first few months. And just like the real New York, the virtual New York attracted more virtual tourists than anywhere else. I matched with people in Paris and Portugal, in Melbourne and Moscow, in Denver and Dallas, everyone talking about their lockdowns and about the little differences that gave each its own distinctive flavor. (France’s, for example, had a classically bureaucratic twist, with paper travel slips—I assumed they were beautifully designed—required to leave your house.) And I was reminded that there’s something beautiful about going through a shared experience with the rest of humanity, even—or maybe even especially—if that experience is terrible.

Of course, when two people meet on a dating app during a lockdown, there isn’t much they can actually do, which meant Quarantine Tinder was Tinder for its own sake, Tinder with no end state to push towards. I had weeks-long, meandering conversations with people I knew I’d never meet, people I knew I probably wouldn’t even like if I did meet them. We’d all been knocked right out of our usual evaluative mindset and forced to focus on the moment. Instead of wondering if we would feel a lasting connection with each other when we met in person, we focused on the connection we were already experiencing right then and there. Quarantine Tinder was distracted and agitated and compulsive at times, but Quarantine Tinder was also Zen Tinder.

And since we couldn’t meet, we couldn’t be disappointed. We were perpetually stuck with all our matches in the first third of a romantic comedy, when it’s all butterflies and possibility and you haven’t yet realized that she’s not really sure she wants to be with you, or that behind his charming nebbishness he’s actually a sexual predator. If a relationship can’t go anywhere, it can’t go wrong.

It had to end, of course—we may not be rounding the corner on the coronavirus, but we rounded the corner on Quarantine Tinder long ago. We started leaving our houses again and slowly remembered how to interact with people in real life, and Tinder returned to being the bazaar of disappointment  and mediocrity it always was deep down. But I’ll remember the way it felt during those magical few months, long after I’ve forgotten the names of everyone I talked to then.

And hey, maybe in five years New York Magazine will interview me for that oral history.

Yours in doubting it was a good use of time to write 1,000 words about Tinder,

Max

P.S. A big thank you to everyone who requested a sequel to last week’s piece about my commitment to donating 10% of my income to charity. It’s coming, eventually. A special thank you to the reader who told me that the piece was just the push she needed to finally make an equivalent commitment herself. See, mom, this newsletter isn’t just a place where I damage my future career prospects by publicly referencing getting high!


Read of the week: This insane Lapham’s Quarterly piece about the ghastly, disreputable history of surgery. Did you know surgery used to happen at the barbershop (since all you needed to do it was access to sharp tools), and that the red and white stripes on a classic barber’s pole symbolize the bloody bandages of 16th-century surgery?

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