Model number: HELP505

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This remote has a “Light” function, which illuminates all the buttons and is useful during late-night hours. This feature would also come in handy if a strange man were holding you captive in a candlelit, windowless room and forcing you to write product manuals for television accessories. This function allows you to change channels easily, or to find the nearest computer and begin your search for a missing woman.

If you are a cable subscriber, you can use this remote to tune to Lifetime, where you might find a program detailing the disappearance of 43-year-old Laura Kauffman, who went missing from her Kingston, NY home over two years ago. The program would probably conclude that Laura’s husband did it, and would point to his affair with a 19-year-old hussy named Madisyn as proof of his guilt. Though the program may be correct in concluding that this woman’s husband was a no-good shitbag infected with Madisyphilis, you should take this opportunity to familiarize yourself with the “Mute” button.

The “Search” function allows you to filter channels and programs by language. With it, you can find programming that would be enjoyed by a man who is Russian, Croatian, or some other Eastern European nationality that you can’t quite be sure about. A man whose English is so poor that you would merely have to throw in some TV-related words to convince him that you were writing legitimate product manuals instead of impassioned pleas for help. Sensor battery screen.

The “History” button allows you to track past searches and viewing choices. If 43-year-old Laura Kauffman of Kingston, NY were to access her history, it might remind her that she had spent many hours watching programs such as “Dirty Concrete Wall,” “How To Craft Makeshift Weapons,” and the Food Network original, “Cat Food Delivered Through A Little Slot.” You can press “Delete” at any time to clear your history, but you can never truly rid yourself of the scars it leaves behind.

The “Display” button allows you to choose from various picture settings for your television. You should feel very fortunate to have this option at your disposal, because some people have no control over what is in front of them. They would give anything to look outside and see a street sign, or a house number, or even just find out how “Breaking Bad” ended.

But the “Sound” menu is just as important. If you adjust your settings just right, you can pick up on little details that you might have missed, were you not as diligent. For example, you might be able to ascertain with reasonable confidence that you were located in West Virginia, that your captor’s name (which can’t be spelled here) sounds like “nickel eye,” and that your next-door neighbor plays either a French horn or a sousaphone.

When using this remote, you will often find that you wish to press the “Exit” or “Rewind” buttons, but that you simply cannot. In fact, you may feel as if your “Pause” button is permanently stuck. You may experience an unquenchable longing for someone to press “Save,” but find that the only button within your reach is “Ceaseless, Soul-Shredding Anguish” (located just below “Parental Controls”).

Thank you for taking the time to acquaint yourself with the plight of your remote. You may reach customer service at any time by dialing 1(800) 911-0911. We welcome any questions, concerns, or hostage negotiators you may have. We would love to hear from you.

But we know you won’t read this, so if you at least make sure to recycle it instead of trashing it, that’s good enough.

***

Dustin is currently being held captive by Paul Shirley, and is forced to write pieces just like this. On good days, Paul lets him use Twitter

My first car was a stick-shift. I learned to drive that thing within the first hour of getting it. I loved blasting my Wu-Tang Forever CD and pretending I was a racecar driver through the desolate streets of Kalamazoo, Michigan. There’s nothing more frightening than a 16-year-old with a new driver’s license and love of rap music. While I had zero interest in NASCAR, I would watch rally racing on my 8-inch TV and play Gran Turismo. Maybe it was the road rage I built up while playing hours of Mario Kart, but my competitive side was in full-force during my alterna-teen years.

My slow and shitty Toyota Tercel wasn’t cutting it, so I scoured the newspaper ads for something better. The guys I worked with at my pizza-making job gave me advice about what I should buy, and I ended up with a red 1991 VW GTI. The seats were plaid and the sunroof was operated by a hand-crank. It looked just like a sweet-ass European rally car. I was the coolest 17-year-old girl in Kalamazoo.

Shortly after I bought my dream car, I met my first boyfriend, Mike. He was five years older than me, and loved cars too. He introduced me to autocrossing—a race where each car competes individually for times on a course marked with cones. At one of the races, he let me sit in the passenger seat wearing a helmet and racing harness. It was so exhilarating; I needed to do this myself.

I spent the next few months picking up shifts and working far too much for still being in high school. I saved up enough money to buy new suspension, brakes, tires, and an intake for my VW. I learned how to install everything by watching Mike and his friends work on their cars. Also, I felt really cool getting covered in oil and car grease. I swear I have more testosterone than the average woman.

What I’m trying to say is, yes, I did see the first Fast and Furious movie in a theater.

My first race was in a lot on the Western Michigan University campus. My car wasn’t heavily modified, so I was put into the E-Stock ladies class. There was one other girl in my class. She was 21, cute, and had a 1989 Volkswagen Rabbit. I was 17, covered in acne, and didn’t really know what I was doing.

After about fifty cars raced, my category was called. I was beyond nervous. I borrowed a helmet from Mike and pretended I was a pro. The other girl, Stacy, went first. She was really good. Her dad was a professional racecar driver, of course. She did her two laps and had a best time of 29 seconds. I wanted to beat her so badly.

I pulled up to the starting line. I had my car in first gear with my foot lightly on the gas. The light turned green and I was off. I switched back and forth from first to second gear, sliding and screeching around the cones like I was avoiding the bananas Donkey Kong had dropped on Rainbow Road. I had been practicing my heel-toe technique (putting your right foot on the break and gas at the same time while shifting to transition into a lower gear smoothly). I studied the track earlier and thought I had it memorized, but as I was coming around the last turn I hit a cone. Fuck! Missed cones are a two second penalty. I finished the race with a time of 34 seconds. I needed to step up my game for the second attempt.

I didn’t hit any cones the second time around, but I only improved my time by three seconds. I came in second place. Actually, it was last place, but since there were only two people in my category I still got to take home a plaque. Either way, I was so pumped and excited. I needed to do more of this.

I spent the next year going to autocross competitions around Michigan, determined to win every race I entered. I was far too hard on myself for only being 18. I would get angry if I didn’t win. I wouldn’t say I was a sore loser, but yeah, I didn’t take losing lightly. I saw it as motivation to become the best.

This wasn’t just for autocrossing; it was for everything.

Starting in kindergarten, the thrill of finishing my work first or getting the best grade was addicting. It seemed pointless to not be the best and smartest. During my 10-year softball little league career I would get angry if I didn’t pitch a perfect game, even if we won. The lack of attention I got growing up could be the main culprit. I don’t want to use that as an excuse for my aggression, but I rarely heard, “good job!” or “we’re proud of you!” On the bright side, it gave me insane drive and desire, but on the darker side, I never felt good enough.

This seems like the mindset that could’ve led someone to becoming president or a psychopath. I’m not president, but the latter is still an option.

I like being noticed and acknowledged for accomplishments, probably more than the average person. The things that make me happy are those that involve winning of some kind—being praised for something I wrote, booking a job, or having a guy I really like fall in love with me. Autocrossing was just one of the many outlets I saw as a way of winning and becoming the best.

For me, it’s clearly NOT the journey, and more the destination.

**

After that first year of autocrossing, I entered a road-race at Gingerman Raceway in South Haven, Michigan. Road-races are Formula One style tracks, and this particular one was 1.88 miles with 11 turns. My mortal enemy Stacy was not there, so I was the only girl there out of 70 dudes. I had been around the track a handful of times in my boyfriend’s car. This was much more intense than autocrossing. Some cars would get up to 100 mph on the straightaways. Also, I saw a man crash his BMW M3 on turn 7, after he lied to his wife about where he was going that day.

Before the actual race, we were taken around the track to familiarize ourselves with the turns. I had my helmet, gloves, and Sparco Pumas (racing shoes that made heel-toeing easier, and of course made me look cooler) ready to go.

Since I was the only girl there, I was bumped up to a class full of dudes. I was not intimidated at all. I walked around the waiting area, checking out the cars and admiring their engines. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking at, but they looked pretty cool.

My class was called to line up. My boyfriend Mike rode in my passenger seat for my first race to give me tips. I was fifth in line in a group of 6 cars. I started out slow and let the guy behind me pass. I screeched around the turns and felt instantly confident. Coming around the last turn I got up to 80 mph and was high on adrenaline. I overshot the turn and begun to spin out. Luckily there were tires lining the course and grass to stop me. Dust filled my car and I couldn’t see where the hell I was. I thought I was going to die for about 2 seconds, but then started laughing because it was the most fun I had ever had.

My boyfriend shook his head and said, “You’re a maniac.”

A few hours later my class was up again. I was passing the shit out of cars and not giving a fuck. Although my car was my everyday driver, I treated it like a racing machine. Brake pads were cheap, so I wasn’t concerned about grinding them down. I wanted to win.

My times were decent, but still not as good as the veteran racers. A lot of people congratulated me on doing really well for my first time. I felt cool as shit. At the end of the day trophies were awarded. My boyfriend won his class; he always won. I knew there was zero chance I would win, but I was really happy for Mike.

The last trophy they gave out was called the “Smooth Driver Award.” This was for the person who navigated the course well but didn’t necessarily get great times.

My name was called. I was so shocked I didn’t know what to do.

“Holy shit I won something,” I thought to myself walking to the front of room, trying to not show any emotions while all the guys clapped and congratulated me.

That trophy is currently five feet away from me on my bookshelf.

Unfortunately, old VWs are notorious for having problems (those Germans and their backwards engineering), and the Michigan winter was not forgiving for my little German friend. I had to sell that car for a more affordable Honda, but a few years ago I bought another GTI.

I haven’t autocrossed since moving from Michigan, but I still drift around freeway on-ramps like I’m Danica fucking Patrick.

***

Melissa Stetten is at work on her first book. She tweets from Twitter.

Lately, I’ve been obsessed with the Playstation game Dragon Age: Inquisition. It’s a role-playing game that takes place in a fantasy setting similar to Lord of The Rings. (Feel free to send any emails explaining all the differences between these two worlds to head editor Paul Shirley.)

I won’t get too far into the plot details, but suffice it to say there are elves and dwarves and magic and demons. I wander around a vast open world acquiring equipment, fighting battles, and completing quests that lead to the defeat of evil. In addition to the action, there is a vast story told through cut scenes and long, detailed conversations. It’s immersive and fascinating and just plain fun. And also vast.

At the center of the game is my avatar and I love mine. He is a badass Dalish elf with a red face tattoo. A strong and inspiring leader, he’s also down to earth, the kind of elf you could just grab a glass of mead with.

And so I did that recently. And it turns out he had A LOT of questions for me.

This was our conversation.

MATTY ELF: It’s simply wonderful to take a break from slaying demons to have this parley.

MATTESON: The pleasure is all mine, Matty Elf.

MATTY ELF: My name, Matty Elf. Let’s start there, shall we? Where does it come from? I’ve postulated that my moniker is somehow derived from your name, Matteson, but is it a reference to something else? Do people call you Matty?

MATTESON: No. It actually comes from Matty Ice. That’s the nickname of the Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.

MATTY ELF: So I am named after a famous falconer from the realm of Atlanta – how grand!

MATTESON: Oh no! Sorry. The Falcons are a football team, in the NFL. It’s a sport I follow.

MATTY ELF: And you are a supporter of this Atlanta Falcons footballing organization?

MATTESON: Not really. The name just popped into my head.

MATTY ELF: So, it seems your naming of me was rather random.

MATTESON: Kind of, yes. Do you hate it?

MATTY ELF: It’s not exactly regal, is it? I am the head of the Inquisition, The Herald of Andraste, the savior of Thedas. And my name is Matty Elf? Matty Elf sounds like someone who should be making toys in Santa’s workshop.

MATTESON: I’ll grant you that.

MATTY ELF: And let’s discuss my hair. The sides and back are shaved, but it’s long on top. You have noticed that no one else from my world has this style of haircut, haven’t you?

MATTESON: I know this reference won’t mean anything to you, but it’s the haircut Brad Pitt had in the movie Fury. I really liked it, but I didn’t think I could pull it off. So I gave it to you.

MATTY ELF: I see. Living vicariously. Fair enough. Moving on to equipment, sometimes we’ll have much stronger armor in the inventory, but you won’t allow me to put it on. Why is that?

MATTESON: I choose armor by what looks the coolest.

MATTY ELF: So, when my insufficient armor caused me to be burned alive by a Fear Demon, that was for fashion?

MATTESON: The stronger, fire-repellent armor wasn’t as shiny.

MATTY ELF: Well, thank god I looked good while I was writhing in agony. OK, onto something more important. For a while it seemed like I was a homosexual. But then I wasn’t. Do you care to update me on this matter?

MATTESON: I didn’t realize that the heart icon in the dialogue tree meant romance. So I was just selecting that option randomly.

MATTY ELF: Well, Matteson, your “accident” left ME to deal with a heartbroken Qunari warrior. If you’ve never seen a seven-foot tall half-bull, half-man creature weep, let me tell you: it is a sad spectacle.

MATTESON: Sorry about that.

MATTY ELF: And now it appears I am a heterosexual elf attracted to human women. Which is why we’re pursuing Cassandra the Seeker. But you haven’t had me talk to her in ages. Why is that?

MATTESON: Well, I usually play those parts of the game when my wife isn’t at home, because I’m embarrassed. She makes fun of me for trying to seduce a video game character. She now refers to Dragon Age: Inquisition as “the flirting game.”

MATTY ELF: That’s not fair. It’s so much more than that!

MATTESON: I know!

MATTY ELF: Moving on – What’s a butt plug?

MATTESON: Excuse me?

MATTY ELF: That’s what you named one of my swords. It’s called The Mighty Butt Plug.

MATTESON: Oh, right. That. Well, butt plugs are for people’s butts. They plug them.

MATTY ELF: It’s a device used so one doesn’t shite himself?

MATTESON: No, it’s like a sex thing. For pleasure.

MATTY ELF: So, you named my sword, the very weapon that might bring an end to Corypheus’s evil reign over Thedas, after something that goes in one’s anus?

MATTESON: Yeah…. The handle kind of looks like a butt plug, so, you know… I thought it was funny.

MATTY ELF: I don’t mean to speak out of turn, Matteson. You are, after all, my maker. But morale is pretty low. Some of the men, myself included, wonder how seriously you’re taking this quest.

MATTESON: I could see why this troubles you. I promise to take the game, er, quest more seriously.

MATTY ELF: So you won’t position me behind my horse so it looks like I’m fornicating with him anymore?

MATTESON: I will not. Done doing that. Promise. Not funny.

MATTY ELF: One last question. Is your wife home?

MATTESON: No, she’s not actually.

MATTY ELF: Then may we resume the “quest” to take Cassandra to Ye Olde Bone Yard, if you know what I mean?

MATTESON: Um. Okay.

***

Matteson Perry’s first book will be published by Scribner in 2016. He sometimes uses Twitter.

These days, it seems that every time I turn on the Internet, I am faced with someone making the snap judgment that someone else is a racist. These accusations are sometimes justified, but they often seem to be based on specious evidence, like that the person accused had the nerve to be critical of Suge Knight’s murderous tendencies.

Classifying people as racists based on incomplete evidence is counterproductive for a fairly obvious reason: it serves to dilute the accusation. If you call everyone a racist, the word loses its power, and actual progress is prevented. It is the modern-day version of the boy who cries wolf.

What’s not as obvious, perhaps, is what that wolf-crying says about the boy doing it.

**

A few weeks ago, before this year’s Super Bowl, I eavesdropped on a Twitter battle over the behavior of the Seattle Seahawks’ star running back, Marshawn Lynch, who was stonewalling members of the media during his league-mandated interviews. After reading the transcript of Lynch’s press conference, a writer covering the Super Bowl (I’ll call him Sportswriter A) tweeted that he was eagerly anticipating “the Marshawn-to-English translation.”

The comprehensibility of Lynch’s statement is debatable. On the one hand, Lynch drops lines like, “So y’all can go and make up whatever y’all want to make up because I don’t say enough to put anything out on me. But I’ll come to y’all’s event and you can shove cameras and microphones down my throat. And when I’m at home in my environment, I don’t see y’all.”

On the other, the gist of Lynch’s statement is pretty clear, and anything unintelligible could reasonably be chalked up to the fact that the transcript appears to be taken verbatim. (As it turns out, almost none of us would like to hear exactly what we say in the course of a day. There are far more sentence fragments than we’d like.)

Soon after Sportswriter A’s Tweet, another sportswriter (Sportswriter B) tweeted that Sportswriter A was both a “bigot” and “racist.” His take: that Sportswriter A was calling Lynch’s statements unintelligible because of Lynch’s blackness, and thus, Lynch’s status as lesser-than.

And this is where things get sticky. Because it is possible that Sportswriter A was being a bigot and a racist. But it is also possible that Sportswriter A was being hard on people from Oakland who adopt Southern vernacular. (Lynch’s statement contains 22 uses of “y’all.”) Or that Sportswriter A went for an easy joke. Or that Sportswriter A genuinely didn’t understand what Lynch said. We don’t know what motivated his comment.

Some people would probably make the case that it doesn’t matter—that when it comes to racism, grenades are better than sniper rifles, because the intent is to eliminate racism wherever it is. On its surface, this might seem to make sense: we are trying to move toward a race-blind place, and snuffing out even the hint of racism would seem to be progress—it would mean that we are shepherding in a more gentle and tolerant world. But in cases like these, I don’t think grenades are signs of progress. In fact, I think they’re the opposite: they show off the darkest sides of their users. How do I know this?

Because I do it, too.

**

My moods vacillate according to the things that have happened to me on that day. Over the years, I’ve noticed something about those moods: they affect my worldview and my capacity for compassion. Let’s say, for example, that I am faced with a homeless person begging for change outside of a grocery store.

On days when I am feeling productive and whole and content, I am likely to view this homeless person as a tragic figure who was probably given little chance to succeed by a society that turned a blind eye to his education, his upbringing, and his psychological well-being. But on days when I am feeling unproductive and fragmented and frustrated with myself, I am likely to view the same person as a layabout—someone who ought to get his act together and find gainful employment.

This bit of self-awareness has helped my understanding of human behavior because I think most people wrestle with similarly dichotomous views of the world. This awareness also means that I can recognize when someone is behaving like the worst version of myself.

When faced with Sportswriter A’s joke about Marshawn Lynch, Sportswriter B had a choice in how he viewed Sportswriter A: he could see the good in Sportswriter A, or he could see the bad. He chose to see the bad. But he didn’t stop there—he went further, impugning Sportswriter A’s character by calling him a thing that is bound to cause damage to one’s reputation: he called him a racist.

This is not a progressive stance. This is not a loving approach to one’s fellow man.

It is also probably not representative of Sportswriter B’s entire worldview. Maybe he was having a bad day himself. Maybe his lunch wasn’t sitting well. Maybe he was on an airplane, and there was a baby screaming in his ear.

We can’t really know. We can, though, take a lesson from the entire exchange.

We live in an age of easy access to information. This has almost undoubtedly offered the prospect of progress, allowing us to bring light to dark places. The more we know about one another, the less fear we have of one another. But we also live in an age of easy dissemination. This doesn’t necessarily cause us to become malicious people, but it does amplify whatever maliciousness we may be prone to. This behavior is not limited to Sportswriter B, or to sportswriters, or to writers. We are all prone to these missteps, because we are all human, imperfect, and allowed to have Twitter accounts.

However, in our search for progress, we can guard against our imperfections by considering our accusations, by making sure those accusations are based on credible evidence, and by examining where the temptation to make those accusations comes from, before we make them.

Especially if we’re about to call someone a racist.

 ***

Paul Shirley is at work on his second book. He also tweets.

The following interview was recorded in an undisclosed area of the Mojave Desert on or about February 6, 2015.

PAUL MERRILL: Thank you for inviting me to your . . . hut, Coach Carroll.

PETE CARROLL: It’s a yurt.

PM: A what?

PC: A yurt. They were traditionally used by the nomads of central Asia, with whom I feel a spiritual kinship. They had a great deal on these at Costco, so I bought five of them. Here, have some tea.

PM: Thanks. [sips tea] Wow! That’s . . . a very interesting flavor.

PC: It’s called ayahuasca, a Peruvian tea used by shamans to cleanse their minds.

PM: Costco?

PC: Yep.

PM: Man, that place is great. Well, I just wanted to say how much I appreciate you sitting down with me for an interview so soon after the devastating Super Bowl loss.

PC: Who called it devastating?

PM: Well, pretty much everyone outside of New England. You’ve taken a lot of heat for calling a pass play on 2nd and goal, which lost the game for the Seahawks.

PC: Hey, if people want to believe that’s what happened, then I feel sorry for them.

PM: I’m afraid I don’t understand, coach.

PC: Do you really think I’d make that call in that situation?

PM: So . . . you’re saying you didn’t call that play?

PC: What I’m saying is that play never happened.

PM: Millions of people saw it happen live on television.

PC: And millions of people supposedly watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Do you seriously think they had that kind of technology in 1969?

PM: So you’re saying they faked the Super Bowl. Like they faked the moon landing.

PC: Ha! If only it were that easy. Son, what do you know about multiverses?

PM: Uh, I think there was a Dream Warriors album about them?

PC: Each nanosecond of history branches off into an infinite amount of parallel universes. One where the Allies won World War II and one where the Nazis did. One where Footloose is the greatest movie of all time and one that’s dark and scary, where Footloose doesn’t even exist. And sure, there’s a universe where I made a bonehead call that blew the Super Bowl. But that’s not my universe.

PM: So the NFL . . . switched universes?

PC: Open your eyes, kid! The NFL can’t even wipe its own ass! You think it can manipulate timelines? There was only one man at the Super Bowl who had that power. My . . . apprentice.

PM: Bill Beli-

PC: Don’t say his name, you fool! Do you want to summon the dark spirit?

PM: No. Of course not.

PC: His power has grown greatly since I saw him last. He used to only be able to alter the air pressure inside of footballs. Now it seems my old friend has gained a hold on reality itself. He’s also put on a little weight.

PM: Not you though.

PC: Nope. The same pants size as college. My wife keeps me on a pretty strict diet.

PM: I see.

PC: Do you, Paul? Do you?

PM: I . . . no.

PC: That sinister wizard has his evil, fat fingers on the string that holds the fabric of the universe together. If he keeps pulling that thread, history as we know it will unravel like a pair of Costco pants. They seem like such a bargain, but in the end you really get what you pay for.

PM: So, can he be stopped?

PC: There is a timeline where we do nothing and the universe falls into chaos and implodes. And then there’s another, where I give you hallucinogenic tea that will help us on our spirit journey.

PM: You what now?

PC: Are you ready to go 1-0 this week?

PM: Why is the hut melting?

PC: It’s a yurt, son.

PM: Oh God.

PC: Fire walk with me, Paul. Fire walk with me.

(A loud buzzing sound is heard. Then, the recording ends abruptly.)

***

Paul Merrill lives in Seattle, former home of his beloved SuperSonics and current origin of his tweets.

Okay, here goes. I have been hearing about a little place called Heaven for practically my ENTIRE LIFE… how great it is, how hard to get into, etcetera and so on. So you can bet my expectations were high when I finally had the chance to check it out for myself. But now that I have, all I can say is, um, seriously???!!

The first thing I encountered upon leaving my mortal coil and having my soul raptured into the sky, or whatever (I am not really clear on the specifics of Heaven’s entrance policy), was a giant, glowing staircase. And this was kind of a red flag. I mean, it’s HEAVEN, how is there not an elevator??? Like, I didn’t spend my entire life resisting temptation and performing countless acts of selfless charity only to be forced into a workout climbing an endless celestial ladder towards the afterlife. Couldn’t they invest in an escalator or a moving walkway, at least? Although I do have to give props to my man Peter – I’d heard he’s supposed to be really tough, but he let me right past without any hassle, which makes me feel like he’s actually just a figurehead. Seriously though, dude, no ins and outs??!

Décor-wise, Heaven was pretty much what I’d been expecting… which is not necessarily a good thing. I will admit that the angels are pretty hot, especially if you’re into that metrosexual look. But the cherubs???! Talk about outdated. I would go so far as to say that the entire decorating scheme of Heaven needs to be reconsidered. Like, I get that the vibe they’re going for is classic and eternal, but there’s only so much white cloth a person can take before it starts to feel like being at a fundraiser in the Hamptons, minus all the Jews.

Another disappointing thing about Heaven… WHERE are all of the celebrities? Half of the appeal for me was getting to meet like Michael Jackson and James Dean. Or if they didn’t get in, at LEAST Mother Teresa. But the most famous person I have seen in all of Heaven is Michael Sweet from Stryper, and he’s not even dead.

So I asked to speak to the guy in charge, as is my RIGHT as a patron, and was TOTALLY SHUT DOWN. I mean, I get it, he’s busy lording over the known universe, giving out Grammys, and co-piloting Honda Civics… but come on. As I said, entry into Heaven cost me an ENTIRE LIFETIME of avoiding sin, denying my most basic desires day after day, and always always always being the stupid designated driver. For that price, I could have gotten something much better – like say, a FUN AND FULFILLING LIFE.

My advice? Make sure Heaven is really a place you want to go before you commit. Don’t be afraid to do a little research. I bet there are some really informative Yelp reviews for Purgatory and Hell.

***

Liana Maeby’s first novel, South on Highland, will be out this summer. In the meantime, follow her on Twitter.

My two older brothers used to have a map of the United States hanging on a wall in their bedroom. I was jealous of it, the way little sisters can so easily be. The map was beautiful in its own right—a large and colorful representation of America. But the most fascinating thing about it was the colored plastic thumbtacks scattered across it.

I was not a particularly pesky little sister. I didn’t push limits or patience often, and I graciously accepted any bones of kindness thrown my way. I wanted to be included in their lives and, most especially, their favorite activities. If that meant being Miss Elizabeth for the millionth time instead of the golden-haired and glorious Hulk Hogan, so be it. I could compromise.

The map always remained off limits. Not for lack of effort on my part, though. I would point at it, eye it longingly, ask if I could move a tack. The answer was always no. Maybe because it was the item I coveted the most and they knew it. Possibly because they had some intricate reasoning behind the placement of thumbtacks and were afraid I would mess it up (I hoped so and I would not).

Whenever I could I would sneak into their room to look at it. Their world never felt more secret from mine than when I stood in front of the map. I wanted to understand what they were giving relevance to and why. What made one place deserve red and another blue? Was green better than yellow? I was only four or five, with no understanding of states, let alone cities, and just beginning to read. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what I loved about that map. I just knew I did.

But the only thing I loved more was the house we lived in.

**

When I was born my father was the caretaker for an Episcopal church. As part of his employment, he was provided with the caretaker’s home. His salary wasn’t much, but the massive old stone house with utilities included and room for a family of five, which more than made up for a lacking savings account.

The house had been a preschool at one point. In the mudroom, there were small cubbies with hooks that I loved to sit in. The mudroom opened to a sizeable backyard and to the right of it was an apartment complex where one of my brothers and I sometimes visited an elderly woman whose name I now forget. She would have us in to sit and talk with her. Sometimes give us pieces of candy we did not like, usually black licorice or cherry-flavored hard candies. The trade-off for our listening and pretending to enjoy our treats was access to large amounts of pavement to ride bikes and skateboards. We played unsupervised a lot. This was a perk for the two youngest, perhaps not so much for the eldest.

We moved out of the house I loved when I was five years old. The coveted map did not come with us.

I’m not sure what happened to it or whose decision it was to leave it behind. I learned to keep quiet about these kinds of disappointments because I could tell there were already enough present in this new, much smaller, home.

I think there is at least one moment in most children’s lives that they can clearly see, as adults, shifts everything. For me, it was the move. For my whole family, maybe, it was the move. There were a lot more fights and much fewer rooms to escape to when they happened. It was easiest when we were behaved. It was even easier when I stayed in my room and picked my own bedtime. Silence, however, is not always golden. I craved some guidance.

I wanted to create my own internal map littered with thumbtacks. I dissolved into books. I poured over the atlas at the school library. Destinations, book characters, favorite last sentences, dance moves, little-known facts about animals,. Each earned a place in my mind with a thumbtack. Most people try to figuratively find their place on the map and I was set on doing it literally. I wanted to understand as much of the world around me in order to pick my place in it. As I grew up, I went to those places—sometimes literally, sometimes just in my head—when life got difficult. The weekend my father went to jail. The first time I hurled “I hate you” at my mother. When depression settled in for a full year of college. When a professor called my writing “weird” in red pen at the top of my paper. I turned to the map in my brain for guidance about who I was and what I wanted.

**

As adults, we have never discussed the map that used to hang in my brothers’ bedroom. I’m not sure either of them remembers it.

One of my brothers is a parent now. I watch the way he carefully speaks to his son, the way he sets parameters and goals, and I think about the map again. Think about how my brother is explaining the thumbtacks to someone, finally.

***

Amanda Oliver lives in America, most of the time. She also tweets.

I don’t have many rules for how I live my life, but one of them is that I refrain from sending pictures of my dick to people.

Why?

Firstly, because I don’t really need to. I fail to see a scenario wherein sharing a picture of just my junk is going to get somebody to jump my bones.

And secondly, because I think my penis is unattractive. There is a reason that somebody dubbed the act of sex between a man and woman “Bumpin’ Uglies.” It’s that penises and vaginas are visually unappealing to anybody unless your mind is in the throes of a hormonal takeover.

This presents a strange challenge to men, who have only an ugly penis, and nothing else on a level playing field with breasts, which are, due also to hormonal instinct, glorious to look at, with or without the aid of an Instagram filter. Women also have appealing butts.

On several occasions, I have been lucky enough to receive pictures from women showcasing their naked breasts. It’s a treat, let me tell you, albeit a treat that is short-lived, since it brings with it a feeling of panic re: how you can possibly reciprocate such a gesture. And, truth is, dudes have got nothing. (I suspect this is why so many men go to Jared.)

This is why we send dick pics, I guess, unless you’re a guy who is onto some next-level Anthony Weiner weirdness. The masculine thing is to, if you cannot reciprocate, outdo. Dudes are all about overachieving. So we shill out photos of our purple-headed-yogurt-slingers in an attempt to match the glorious tit pic.

Anytime I receive a photo or am asked to provide one of myself, I remind myself that to fire back with a pic of my junk is not a good idea. (This is partially because when I receive a racy picture, I back it up on a cloud and two external hard drives, and am worried that the woman on the receiving end will behave in the same way—making my dick pic a permanent fixture that can be unleashed to the masses at any time I piss her off.)

I came into February 2015 having never taken a dick pic, and without the intention of ever doing so.

This did not last.

**

Last summer, I woke up one morning to a real-life nightmare: my penis had some sort of crazy looking rash on it.

I immediately freaked the hell out and scheduled an appointment with my doctor.

Then, of course, I logged onto WebMD to see which STD I had. I mean, it had to be an STD, right? Forget the fact that I—much to my chagrin—hadn’t been having unprotected sex, which is generally a prerequisite for that kind of thing. Using Google images, I ruled out a number of maladies, and narrowed it down to some potential penis pulverizing problems.

My leading contestant was that I had a yeast infection, a hypothesis I shared with my doctor whenever he had me whip my dick out and show him the visual atrocity that it had become.

He did not share my opinion, because “yeast infections are for women,”* but prescribed me an antifungal cream to apply to my smaller head twice daily for two weeks. If it didn’t work, I was to go to a dermatologist. Doc didn’t order an STD test on account of my depressingly inactive sex life, and for that same reason I didn’t take it upon myself to get one.

*Yeast infections are not at all exclusive to women.

When the cream didn’t start to work after a few days, I freaked out. I freaked out even worse when, after about a week-and-a-half of treatment, strange rashes broke out all over my thighs. I convinced myself that I had a systemic yeast infection—which is basically one that starts in the genital region and spreads throughout the rest of the body. In another couple days, rashes appeared on my feet, upper arms, and even torso, while my penis’s condition continued to deteriorate. At one point it looked like it had gotten terribly sunburnt and then started to peel.

I saw two more doctors over the next two months, both of whom hypothesized it was a rare fungal infection. I was prescribed a number of creams and a very strong by-mouth medication that was so hard on the body and liver that I was made to take blood tests for liver functionality. When I did, I was also tested for STDs, and found to be clean (srm5082@gmail.com, ladies). I also couldn’t drink for a month while on this medication, which was torturous.

I should also note that during this entire three-month ordeal, I was discouraged from having sex with anyone, lest I spread whatever I was burdened with. Not that I needed an excuse to keep on not pursuing women with any passion or outward interest, but it was nice to be able to blame my dry run on something tangible.

The mystery of what was wrong with Scott’s dick and body was finally solved a week after my doctor took a chunk of my afflicted thigh skin and biopsied it. By that time, my penis had miraculously healed itself, which made me the happiest boy on earth, or at least the happiest boy on earth who suspected he might be a leper.

Turns out, I have eczema.

Yes, eczema, one of the most common skin maladies in the world. And it took three doctors and multiple treatments to figure it out. (Thanks, Obama.) My doctor told me I would be dealing with this annoying skin issue for the rest of my life, and prescribed me a steroid cream and many refills, telling me to use it on the rashy areas, but to do so sparingly. Steroids are tough on the skin, and if used too often over a certain period of time, will essentially make your skin very thin. (And I don’t have thick skin to start with. I’ll cry if you look at me the wrong way.)

I picked my cream up at the pharmacy and went home, happy that I finally knew what was going on, even if it was going to be a lifelong annoyance wherein my skin tags will likely frighten and/or repulse some people.

But this story is not done. Recently, I had another eczema breakout on my dick.

**

This time, it looked even worse than ever before, to a darkly laughable extent. Also, it was itchy as hell. I was strolling around New York City doing The Silly Walk in an effort to keep my eczema-addled mushroom head from rubbing painfully against my jeans.

I was moisturizing like crazy on the old hog, but that didn’t do a thing, and, after a couple of days, I realized I probably needed to seek some professional advice.

I didn’t call my doctor to ask what I should do, because he would want me to come in for an appointment so I could give him a $20 co-pay to look at my junk and tell me what to rub on it. And I’m frugal.

So I did the next best thing:

I called my mom, who is a registered nurse.

When she picked up, I jumped right into it:

“Yeah, so, the eczema is back on my dick in a really big way. I was wondering—can I put the steroid cream on there? I assume that’s not safe, but if I can, I would like to, because this isn’t fun to look at.”

This is strangely normal for my mom and I. She’s used to me talking and writing about really awkward, inappropriate and often sexual things.

However, it is not par for the course for Marlow, the woman my mom goes to weekly for pedicures.

Which is where my mom was when I called her.

And I was on speakerphone.

And Marlow’s 16-year-old daughter was in the room.

“Scott, you’re on speaker,” mom said.

Sometimes when crazy stuff happens, it’s best to just roll with it and hope for the best.

“Hm. Okay,” I said. “Well, can I put the cream on there or not? And if I do, will it make it bigger and stronger?”

Mom told me she’d call me back when she got home.

“Send me a picture. I want to see how bad it is,” she said.

And later that day, I broke my “No Dick Pics” rule.

***

Scott Muska lives in New York. He writes frequently for Playboy.com. He is followable on Twitter.

If you’re learning how to write, most of the advice you’ll get is pretty standard. Show, don’t tell. Make sure every word is there for a reason. Stop chewing on your sleeve and look at the board. But my most recent writing teacher told me something I never expected to hear: he said that if I didn’t like a book, I probably shouldn’t finish it.

This was the opposite of everything I’d been told about how to consume literature. This teacher’s predecessors told me that a good book required patience, effort, and attention to every word. They made me think that if I didn’t like a classic, I was destined for a life spent attending monster truck rallies, and saying “seen” when I meant “saw.”

Now I’m stuck trying to figure out who’s right. I tend to be pretty patient with books, but I’m far more fickle when it comes to movies and TV. As a frequent viewer of both the silver screen and the small screen, part of me finds this new perspective pretty compelling.

Like most people, I don’t have a lot of extra time, but Netflix, HBO GO, and all of their dastardly time-draining cousins give me extra options. When tens of thousands of titles are an app-click away, why should I sink time into something I know I don’t like? I’m no Roger Ebert, but I think I’m a fairly educated and thoughtful viewer. When I don’t feel obligated to finish something, I don’t have to worry about where it ranks on the IMDB Top 250. I can let my own opinion reign.

Case in point: I’ve tried to watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (#85) twice, but have bailed both times. I think it’s one of the most contrived and self-consciously quirky films out there, and if someone forced me to watch the damn thing again, I could point to evidence that would, I think, support my opinion. I don’t care that the critical consensus puts me in a very small minority.

I also wonder if combining options with selectivity raises the bar for creative types. Just like competition among Italian restaurants must lead to better pizza, more viewing options must lead to better cinema and TV, right? There’s no question that a video streamer, who has access to thousands of titles at a fixed price, is going to be much less patient than someone who committed to a $5 DVD rental (back when that was a thing) or a $12 movie ticket (which is still a thing, somehow). And filmmakers must know this. If Woody Allen understands he has just five or ten minutes to win me over, isn’t he going to work a little harder and, therefore, do a little better, than when he had me for the full hour and a half? You may not think so, if you’ve compared his old films to his new ones, but I guarantee you he feels more pressure than ever to make that very first scene count.

But that’s all theory. Then there’s the practice.

**

Welcome to my typical weeknight, when my iPhone and I (yes, it’s embarrassing to admit, but I watch most things on a five-inch screen) spend some quality time together before bed.

9:00 PM: Wide Awake (2006): a filmmaker documents his bout with insomnia

Cool! Maybe I’ll finally get some answers about the scientific consensus on counting sheep.

9:05 PM: There are millions of other insomniacs out there, ripe for the documenting, and I’m sure all of them are more interesting than this self-absorbed fool. Click.

9:10 PM: The Ref (1994): A cat burglar is forced to take a bickering, dysfunctional couple hostage on Christmas Eve

Kevin Spacey is a great actor! Denis Leary is a great comedian and human cigarette! Let’s do this.

9:30 PM: Did you know husbands want to have sex, and wives don’t? And that women always say the opposite of what they really mean? These hilarious insights will revolutionize the institution of marriage. Click.

9:35 PM: Transparent (TV Series, 2014): An LA family with serious boundary issues has its past and future unravel when a dramatic admission causes everyone’s secrets to spill out.

This show’s getting great reviews, and is going to win a bunch of awards. And Jan from The Office is in it, too! Looks like I’ve found my new series for the next couple of weeks.

10:05 PM: That was very good. I’ll watch the next one soon.

That was over three months ago, and I still haven’t watched the second episode of Transparent.

**

I don’t think this is exactly what my writing teacher had in mind. And it makes me wonder: What if Eternal Sunshine has the most glorious final hour in the history of cinema? What if I watched all of it, and everything I hated about the beginning fell into place? What if Jim Carrey suddenly becomes a good actor halfway through? Some say that the most satisfying films build themselves up calmly and methodically. If I were to get all film-criticky on you, I’d call it the “slow burn.” I’ve seen and enjoyed plenty of films just like that, but I fear I’ve missed out on a lot of them lately.

In other words: what if the changes they’re making to the pizza aren’t “better,” per se, but just more broadly appealing? What if they’re getting rid of the cheese and tomato sauce, and replacing it with chocolate bars and butter-cream frosting? Instant gratification doesn’t usually come from the highest-quality or most satisfying sources. But when I’m looking for a quick hook, I find myself gravitating toward easy entertainment rather than the challenging stuff. I can’t tell you how 12 Years A Slave is, because I’ve never seen it. But I’ve spent hours listening to Keith Morrison’s pulpy murder-mystery narration on “Dateline: A Pun With ‘Dead’ In It.” It goes down easily enough, but I’m hungry for something better as soon as it ends.

I just don’t know. Am I right to make quick judgments, potentially saving myself hours of misery? Or should I stick with my picks all the way through, as they’re meant to be watched? I’ll get back to you as soon as I watch Episode 2 of “Transparent.”

***

Dustin Petzold, As Not Seen On TV, can be found on Twitter.

Part I of “I Want My Best Friend Back.”

Part II of “I Want My Best Friend Back.”

***

A month passed and things were starting to calm down. I packed up our Koreatown apartment and brought Jane her things. It was almost as moving out of our apartment cured Jane. My sister was very optimistic. She started to see improvement in Jane in the following weeks. She was helping my sister and her boyfriend Dave with work around their house. Her mental state had definitely improved. Unfortunately, our hope was premature.

Jane eventually ran out of her prescriptions. My sister called me crying one night because Jane was outside screaming about domestic abuse, cyber crimes, and being held against her will. My sister called the police and they told her to take Jane to the emergency room. It took an hour, but she finally convinced Jane to get in her car.

Once there, Jane kept running out of the hospital and coming back. The nurse locked the door to her room but Jane banged on the door until someone opened it and she ran out the front doors to smoke a cigarette. Jane said she was fine, but that her prescriptions ran out and she just needed a refill. My sister told the nurse she was psychotic and a threat to herself. The nurse said, “Unless I hear her say she’s going to kill herself, we can’t put her on a 5150 hold.” (A “5150 hold” is an involuntary 72-hour psychiatric confinement.)

No one in that hospital wanted to deal with Jane, so they wrote her refills for Adderall and the other prescriptions she should absolutely not be taking and sent her home.

This happened a few more times. Until my sister couldn’t handle it anymore.

We finally got Jane to talk to a psychiatrist. She got an official diagnosis of severe bipolar disorder with psychotic tendencies. Yeah, no shit. We couldn’t talk to her about police, the government, or anything that could trigger her paranoia. She thought birds were secret government drones sent to gather information. The only secret information worth knowing at my sister’s house is what she puts in her scrambled eggs to make them so tasty (I think it’s rosemary).

Jane got an idea that my sister’s boyfriend Dave was trying to kill her and keeping her around for slave labor. He was actually offering her jobs around the house and at the soil yard to keep her busy. She refused to believe my sister and Dave were trying to help, so she called the police and reported Dave for beating her and my sister. The police showed up shortly after.

The town that my sister and her boyfriend live in is very small. The police knew Dave as a nice guy who doesn’t get into trouble. They talked to my sister and she tried to explain what was happening with Jane. Dave tried to convince the police that everything was fine. Jane ran outside drunkenly and told the police that Dave was growing a massive amount of weed in their yard and was keeping her in his house as a slave. They asked her if Dave tried to hit her, and she said not really, but she thought he was going to. The police were annoyed. Fortunately they observed Jane’s behavior and understood what my sister was trying to explain.

The days after that were tense. Jane decided she was going to move back to LA and live with Don—the man who had abused her and gave her drugs. My sister was in a bind because she wanted to help Jane, but she was at her wit’s end. How do you help someone who doesn’t want to be helped? But also, how do you help someone who doesn’t even think there’s anything wrong? My sister and I thought of Jane as our sister. We all grew up in Michigan together. Was letting her go back to Don being a bad friend? Were we enabling her?

The only thing I learned about addiction was from the show Intervention. I knew we had to let her go. Her wellbeing was beyond our control at this point. She didn’t want help. There was nothing left to do other than let her hit rock bottom.

Don drove five hours in a U-haul to pick Jane up. He was disturbingly excited to have his slave back. At this point her Stockholm Syndrome seemed impenetrable. Don egged her on, and believed that my sister and Dave were evil slave drivers.

Now, it’s been six months since she’s been back with Don. There are good days—when she comes over to my apartment to watch a movie, and there are terrible days—like when I found a noose in her closet. I’ve called the police three times after Jane called me inebriated, crying, and saying she wanted to die. The police haven’t helped a bit. In fact, they treat Jane like a criminal and believe Don when he says, “She’s just an addict, she’s fine.”

I’ve talked to social workers in mental health clinics and found places for Jane to go, but she refuses. I’ve attended Al-Anon meetings to find answers on what to do. I’ve talked to friends who have dealt with similar issues, and they tell me I’ve done all I can do.

Jane has alienated all her friendships by blaming us for not helping her. The majority of our conversations end with her telling me I’m a worthless friend because I don’t do anything to help her. I know it’s the alcohol or drugs or mental illness talking, but it hurts every time. I hoped that she would have been better by now, but it’s almost a year later and nothing has improved. Don was arrested for domestic violence a month ago, but the charges were dropped.

I gave Jane keys to my apartment and told her she can show up anytime she needs. She texts me often that she is being tortured and beaten and asks why I’m not helping. I usually respond with:

“I’ve tried everything, you won’t accept help.”

The response is always:

“Fuck off, you’re not my friend.”

***

Melissa Stetten is at work on her first book. She tweets from Twitter.