Brainwashing myself

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MAY 04, 2020

Think of this column like the requisite end-of-year reflection in third grade. It’s fitting: Today my home was hot, and it’s almost summer. My neck is sticking to my neck. I’m frustrated thinking about my stupid goals and my summer plans (e.g., to eat grass and pick my nose twice a day). Some things never change. Blah, blah, unexamined life not worth living. So let’s examine!

Column-writing occupies a weird niche in modern journalism. It’s called the “newspaper,” not the “columnpaper.” If the news is the interstate highway network (i.e., critical infrastructure, lifeblood of this nation, the functional reason for owning a car), then columns are roadside attractions — world’s largest tinfoil ball, statue of three pigs peeing on a phone booth, the Wendy’s in Tehachapi, California, where I once puked in the restroom, stuff like that. In the objective-driven world of journalism, columns are sideshows to pull over and gawk at, but not the reason you got on the road.

Case in point: In 1997, a journalist named Mary Schmich wrote an imaginary commencement speech titled, “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young.” The Chicago Tribune published it June 1, 1997. It was funny, certainly, and contained some pithy gems such as, “Do one thing every day that scares you,” and “Wear sunscreen.” Real words to live by. The column went the late-’90s version of viral, which is to say, as haywire as analog can be and (thus) completely scrambled.

“Do one thing every day that scares you” came to be frequently misattributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, and the entire column was said to be Kurt Vonnegut’s commencement speech to that year’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduating class. (For the record, Roosevelt said something along the same lines but about 10 times less quotable, and the 1997 MIT commencement speaker was then-Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan.) All the misattribution was the world’s way of expressing disbelief at the time. Little nuggets of sound-bite wisdom weren’t supposed to emerge from names people didn’t recognize!

I started this semester new to writing in a public forum, let alone writing a column. I hate new things and also most things, so how anything of mine was ever published defies logic. (On the other hand, the innumerable screeds I addressed to the editors were, uh, extremely plausible and very characteristic.) I am difficult to work with. If you don’t believe me, who could blame you? I don’t like feedback. I don’t like other people reading my things. I think the Oxford comma is real, and these newspaper people don’t.

Realizing what I had done in choosing to write a column was like pulling over to throw up in a Wendy’s for dignity’s sake — only to wake 17 hours later having signed a contract for nine more weeks of throwing up in a Wendy’s. Why did I do this to myself? I felt like I’d gotten a concussion by getting slapped upside the head with tilapia fillets at 3 in the afternoon — absolutely nonsensical.

The only explanation was brainwashing. It had to be. What else would make me do something I didn’t want to do? Little did I know, my belief in the power of the column had been inculcated in me as a child, and I never shook off that conditioning. People who pulled off columns just right are so exactly themselves and enviably cool that people accidentally-on-purpose regift their essence and their words to first ladies and high school English-standby authors. Just look at Mary! The moment I first opened a newspaper was the first stone in the groundwork to the path that would become the highway that would take me to a Wendy’s in Tehachapi, a little town in the middle of nowhere where I threw up and decided I would write a column.

Like every well-adjusted child with assorted interests, hobbies and self-soothing techniques at a tender young age, the first thing I did after I got home from school every single afternoon was read the newspaper. I was defenseless — Big Paper was MK-Ultra-ing me in the sanctity of my own home. There was a prescribed order for the maximum efficacy of my mental programming: First, the comics, which, for many years, were printed on the same page as the “Dear Annie” advice column, which is syndicated nationwide but, by the way, not appropriate reading for your elementary schooler.

Then the front page, though I only read the headlines because starting an article meant finishing an article, and finishing an article meant the thankless hunt for page B9 or D76 or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The last of my mandatory reading was the inside first page, which I always read bottom to top; sad to funny; local obituaries to local columns. Even as a child, I was unwittingly microdosing myself with the Kool-Aid. Columns! And so the insidious seed was planted.

That seed grew into a vile plant, and that vile plant bore bitter fruit, and then in February, I stomped all over my bitter fruit until it was pulp on the ground. From the dregs I squeezed out 10 weeks worth of poison juice. I drank every last drop. It was like eating fiberglass and getting an IV full of egg pudding. I know I sound like a mind control test subject. I just want you to understand how utterly bizarre and ordinary it felt to scrabble for an idea all week and then agonize for a morning and then argue for a night, with the weight of an anchor tearing a hole into my gut that I would have to do it all again next week. Rinse and repeat. Writing ached like threading an upper lip and it was great like Fosters Freeze and it was also just fine. Absolutely necessary and the best kind of pointless.

As of today, however, I am getting back in the car! I am on the highway ramp like the normies, no longer at my pit stop on the road to somewhere else. I am leaving my 10-week roadside attraction-fueled bender/detour/vacation behind me. No more column! I am purged. There was so much I didn’t get to tell you about, but we can come back to those another day. I have to save some things just for myself.

Contact Casey Li at 


MAY 11, 2020