Welcome to Laundry List, yet another Wildchild column, which is essentially a list masquerading as an article. Call it a listicle, if you will. What is a laundry list exactly? It is defined as “a long or exhaustive list of people or things.” We’ve deliberately kept the column title vague so we can talk about anything that tickles our fancy. No refunds if the list is not long or exhaustive.
Hello, stranger on the internet! Last Sunday evening, I had two small cups of pu er tea during dinner. Since I also drank coffee earlier in the afternoon, I accidentally consumed way more caffeine than my body could handle. So I was up till four in the morning, doomscrolling, as one does. At one point, I was practically begging for sleep to claim me. Later that morning, I had to report for work at my office and was only able to survive the day with the very substance that put me in my predicament. I wound up taking the entire week to repay my sleep debt.
Speaking of things that I consumed, here’s what I read two weeks ago and processed for the whole of last week. The items on this list happened to circle around similar themes. Namely, our unceasing quest for attention and validation as well as how the world is — to quote my favorite author Leslie Jamison — “always beginning and ending at once”.
#1. “High School Forever,” by Delia Cai for Vanity Fair
On a typical day, life online evokes an experience far more mundane yet also maddening; it feels somehow both insular and universal, and also endless. The internet, it turns out, is just the high school cafeteria all over again.
Cai starts the essay by drawing links between school and the online landscape. I believe, however, that it is useful to separate social media from the internet, though we often conflate the two. To be more specific, being on social media platforms is what makes us feel like we are in an inescapable popularity contest. We perform a version of ourselves in order to be rewarded with visibility and attention, which can now be quantified through views, likes, shares, and follows in our digital age.
This piece illuminates the crucial role that nostalgia plays in generating currency for modern cultural products as well as the appeal of school-related storylines in a culture fixated with adolescence. Cai delves into millennials’ preoccupation with high school — “the last time things felt promising” — and the teenage experience, citing the success of HBO’s hit series Euphoria. She also gives a nod to another excellent essay that explores how millennials’ desire to relive their youth contributed to the meteoric rise of Gen Z pop sensation Olivia Rodrigo:
First we felt seen, then we felt old, then we realized the entire product was a canvas for millennial nostalgia, as Julia Gray noted in The Ringer, literally designed to invoke a certain 2007 Paramore hit and the early 2000s visual aesthetic of our adolescence. “To call Rodrigo’s album a psyop is a bridge too far, but the nostalgia pandering raises questions,” Gray wrote of the album’s obvious access points for millennial listeners. “None of this is to say ‘gotcha!’ or assert that Rodrigo is some kind of poser…but rather to reexamine our fixation with dated pop culture relics and the admiration we pour on young people when they mimic the art we liked as kids.”
Whether the position of millennials in cultural tastemaking is strengthening or weakening, the high school trope is likely to endure in the meantime, considering how lucrative it currently is to please that generation.
#2. “The Narcissism of Queer Influencer Activists,” by Jason Okundaye for Gawker
This article dives into a specific type of social justice activism found on Instagram, which has seemed to inevitably veer off course since social media is inherently performative and intertwined with self-promotion. The standfirst of this essay is, “Getting a lot of likes on a specious infographic is a bad way to build a brand,” which makes me wonder what the writer thinks about building a brand based on well-researched infographics.
Okundaye elaborates on the instances when influencer activists “scramble to frame all things through queerness as it allows them to insert themselves into narratives for issues which have nothing much to do with them at all,” such as Adam Eli’s assertion that queer Ukrainians are the first to suffer in war.
(Related reading: Daniel Spielberger’s in-depth review of Eli’s book “The New Queer Conscience”, which elaborates on the other problematic statements that the influencer activist has made in charting an “amorphous roadmap for solidarity”.)
Beyond simply being annoying, the bigger problem is that the content and claims these influencers post are so often specious. Many of their posts, endlessly reshared, fall into a category of folk knowledge I call ‘things that sound true, and so must be true.’ The verification system many followers use to vet the accuracy of these posts seems to be pure vibes. A sense that, because what is written feasibly aligns with a vague understanding of structural oppression, then it is undeniably true, and unquestionable.
Much has been said about the Instagram infographic industrial complex; while educational infographics on Instagram can make complex problems easier to understand, it facilitates slacktivism and becomes fodder for virtue signaling. The users behind such posts have also co-opted brands’ design aesthetics to help their slideshows to go viral, which also raises questions on whether it is appropriate to aestheticize social justice issues, human-rights crises, and tragedies.
Apart from reminding us to constantly interrogate the validity and credibility of the information we read online, this essay invites us to reflect on what we hope to achieve when we share and engage with social justice content on social media; to consider how digital platforms can be better used as a tool for collectivism, organizing, and coalition-building.
#3. “Nothing Stops,” by Helena Fitzgerald for her newsletter, Griefbacon
A long-form personal essay about love and time, “This is the process of history, and of crisis, of disease and of love. We may try sometimes to stand still, but we are standing on a moving walkway.” Fitzgerald believes that the internet’s response (read: rage) towards the vibe shift betrays our longing for things to stay still — although the truth is that we are constantly on the precipice of something new. And along with the rest of her essays, I’m swept away by her beautiful prose.
We hope for the soft rooms, the unlit phone, the day without event. We hope we could care for each other when the worst comes. But there’s no way to know that. What we commit to with another person is not repetition but surprise, the phone call, the crisis, the next bad mood, the way we manage it and the way we don’t, who we will be tomorrow, and who we will become in the next version of the world. There is no way to ever plan for the future, and yet love says let’s settle down here in this room and do exactly that. Loving one another is always the process of deluding ourselves into believing in a better world. But what greater project is there, in an unbearable time, in a perpetual future, where nothing stops?
#4. “Bright Precious Thing: Reflections on a Life Shaped by Feminism” by Gail Caldwell
Memoir is, unsurprisingly, one of my favorite genres, considering my love for reflective personal writing. I recently finished reading all the memoirs by the late author Caroline Knapp and I wanted to further immerse myself in the world that she shared with her best friend and fellow writer Gail Caldwell.
In 2010, Caldwell published “Let’s Take The Long Way Home”, a beautiful memoir about their friendship, losing Knapp to lung cancer, and the process of grieving. I read “Bright Precious Thing” next because I had mistaken it for the sequel but it turned out to be the latest memoir in her oeuvre.
Caldwell writes about her childhood in Texas and how the women’s movement of the 1970s effectively altered her path in life as it granted her the autonomy to diverge from heterosexuality as well as the traditional paths of marriage and motherhood. Interpreting the world through the lens of a feminist, Caldwell recounts encounters with men who tried to take advantage of her as well as the cultural shifts within her community during the #MeToo movement and after Trump’s election.
Readers who are already acquainted with Caldwell’s work and life story will find themselves in familiar territory — there are sections on transformative female friendships (with Knapp, a mentor they shared, and a young girl from her neighborhood), the grueling work that is therapy, and grief after loss (from her editor’s suicide to the passing of her second Samoyed).
I’ve learned that you must love what is in front of you, rather than what is behind, or you will go mad with sorrow on the journey. Inhabit some careful land between the cloak of the past and what you have left ahead, even if it’s just the path itself.
Through her experiences, Caldwell has learned to “[accept] death as the natural end of the story — an outcome, insouciant and certain, like rain or night”. And in a world where everything is transient and nothing stops, she urges us to find the bright precious thing that we cherish and love enough to continue living well.
Feature collage by Sherryl Cheong
One thought on “Nothing Stops and High School Is Forever”