Do I regret what happened?
Well, I’ll put it this way: I don’t regret taking a sabbatical, and I especially don’t regret the stands that I took.
My only hope, as I speak to you in this interview today, is that I can continue to rectify the damage I did to the relationships with my family and my friends, including my mother and my little cousin Nicki. Thank God that little trooper still loves me.
So how did I get to this point? Well, first, I hope you’re keeping an open mind. It’s the only way you may fully understand my story. If you use your cognitive bias to portray my words to your target audience as half-truths, that’s okay. I accept that. I tried to fight such bias for a long time, but I realize now that I can’t control it. Right now, I’ll bet about half of your audience thinks I’m crazy, and the other half thinks I’m a genius.
A couple of weeks ago, I abandoned a comfortable life, with a good family, a job, and some financial security, because I was angry at the world and disillusioned about my life. I needed change. I never told a solitary soul I was leaving home, not even my family, only because I didn’t want interference. A retreat from the harsh realities of this world, and the harsh realities of my life - a life full of missed opportunities, regret, and fond memories long passed, was necessary for my mental health.
Well, what ended up happening was certainly no vacation. It was a journey that changed everything. Not in any literal shape-shifting sense that tipped the Earth on its axis or disrupted the space-time continuum, but in a transgressive, existential sense.
But then, as you know, I went on a pretty epic rant in Chicago that you’ve seen on the invisible wavelengths of information, entertainment, and decadence of the internet. It made me famous to a substantial number of people.
And then, my fame (or infamy) grew, and more insane shit happened.
Finally, a few days ago, this one particular group of degenerates caused me to snap, and I did something virtually the entire world has now seen. Obviously, it’s why you asked me to do this little chat with you today. A few weeks ago, I was just James Matthew Edwards, a simple, hard-working guy from New Jersey. Now, I’m James Matthew Edwards, the internet antihero with the bland name. It’s really astounding how your life can change so quickly in this technology-dependent world.
For you to fully understand why I did what I did, I think it’s important for you to understand my life experience - including my family, the relationships I’ve had, my education in and out of the classroom, the existential battles I’ve fought within myself, and the enlightening and laborious lessons I’ve learned about America. I’ve always been a deep thinker, and my quest for life’s truths have sometimes driven me to madness. That quest centers on a question I had been asking myself for nearly two decades:
How do you want to be remembered?
I had to answer this question. I had to find meaning in it. Unfortunately, to adequately answer it, I had to abandon my insipid existence. Along my journey, a lot of my preconceived notions and lessons I learned about life and living in America, both good and bad, were reinforced and confirmed. Although I ended up pissing off a lot of people, I hope the story I am about to tell you today will not only provide some context, but also inspire your viewers. Most importantly, though, I inspired me. I stopped fighting my existential battles, and I reaffirmed to myself why life is worth living. The tortured, jaded soul buried deep within my flesh and bone was eradicated, and a new man emerged.
How do you want to be remembered?
If you had asked me a few weeks ago, I’d have told you I’d be remembered as nothing. Nada. Zip. People considered ‘something’ in this world are either filthy rich, have won a championship or prestigious award, were the Draconian dictators of a nation, or peacemakers immortalized in urban legends or fairy tales. It’s all a byproduct of a vain, cruel world that will have zero sympathy for you if you either fail to adapt to it or accept it. And I was among those that had failed to adapt.
So, I guess you could say that because of that, I ended up snapping. Why? Well, a big part of the reason was that my disillusionment about America and 21st-century life came to a head when I witnessed a bunch of brainwashed drones reiterate to me why the country I love and have been angry at for quite a while is on the brink of internal destruction. It just happened to manifest itself several times in the last couple of weeks, as I’ll describe to you as my story goes on.
For the longest time, I was conforming to the ‘norms’ of modern society. How do you define society, though? No one really knows how to answer that. The problem is that - too many people arrogantly think they know, and they use this invisible code to enforce arbitrary rules that benefit only themselves. For years, I tried to be one of those people, and it ended up jading me. Because I got so jaded, I failed to take responsibility for my shortcomings, and the time in which my youthful dreams, ambitions, and potential would die a slow and painful death was quickly racing towards reality.
I’m twenty-eight now, but my path towards disillusionment began when my perception of society – which, really, is shared by millions - began taking shape around the time I reached double-digits in age. When you’re young, you’re asked incessantly by family, friends, and teachers what you want to do with your life. If I didn’t adequately answer the question, I risked ‘disrespecting my elders’ - which, according to my parents, is one of the worst transgressions one can commit. And I never could give a straight answer. As time passed, I learned that most of these ‘elders’, along with society’s shallow, self-serving populace - including government, media, and communal social circles - are know-it-all pricks who unrepentantly guilt-trip you for several reasons. If you don’t work for and get high-level benefits from a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate; if you haven’t become a doctor, lawyer, or college professor; if you haven’t bought an opulent three-bedroom, three-bath house in the suburbs; or if you haven’t gotten married and had two children by the age of thirty, you’ve wrought an unforgivable contravention against your elders’ fragile egos. They don’t give two fucks about you. They just care about making themselves feel sanctimonious, so they can brag to their friends and colleagues about how they have a friend or blood relative who attained grand success before any of their friends or colleagues could say the same. You feel forced into a position where you need to do something meaningful - so others will be proud of you and not embarrassed by you. You’re encouraged to control your destiny, but you aren’t defining what your destiny is.
To summarize, what we know as ‘society’ is a race to make as much money as possible, attain as much fame as possible, and most of all, please other people.
And, if you don’t conform to these arbitrary societal expectations, you’re a waste of talent. A loser. Then, you become either a psycho - or a fuck-up.
I already was a fuck-up.
And recently, I temporarily became a total psycho.
My life used to consist of three tedious eight-hour elements. Element one was work, where I did nothing but stare at a computer monitor, breathe, and speak into a headset. Element two was at home, where I stared at a television screen and laptop monitor while navigating through a smartphone. Element three was sleep, where I had nightmares about recycling and repeating the first two elements.
Element one nearly killed me inside. For the last year and more, I forced myself to work a job I hated with a passion. I worked in a call center for Richard George, a major financial investment firm that was once investigated for fraud, money laundering, and unethical business practices by the greedy swine that gleam into cameras and teleprompters with a straight face and recite fabricated statements proclaiming adoration and respect for the gullible spoiled, entitled rich brats they pretend to give a shit about. I only dealt with this cesspool of corruption and phony compassion on a poverty-level wage because at least I got paid every two weeks. Not that it mattered much. Bills and student loans liquidated much of each paycheck before the full pixilation of the direct deposit appeared on my bank’s smartphone app.
Because I hated this job so much, there was only one way for me to pass eight hours of soul-sucking time faster during work: daydreaming about what I really wanted to do with my life –writing a novel about America. It is a novel I want to challenge the establishment, bring awareness to government corruption, and to implore people to stop being conceited, vain prototypes of a repulsive, decadent society. Along my journey, I began writing the novel as a piecemeal of statements based on my preconceived notions about the American dream and the American reality. After what I experienced, though, hundreds of pages worth of golden material are now waiting to be translated from brain to paper, and, well, I lived attempting to inspire people, albeit with some pretty… salient results.
A lot of my preconceived notions about life formed during my early twenties. I graduated summa cum laude with a 4.0 GPA and a bachelor’s degree in communications, but it was after I graduated that I learned the truth: all a bachelor’s degree earns you nowadays is a framed piece of paper you can wipe your ass with! Part of the job description of a university president is, at commencement ceremonies, to recite those scripted little tidbits wishing good luck and feigning pride in all the students that they robotically recite while forcing bright, wide smiles. What they really should say is: “You’re all fucked. Good luck!” All bachelor’s degrees get you these days is millions of years of debt and a shit job, not prestige. Then, either you continue your education and sink deeper into debt, or your life becomes an amalgamation of stress, anger, and adversity. You’re scammed into thinking you have a bright future, but - your future is one in which you remain financially dependent on your parents even when you have children of your own. I was supposed to be a filmmaker, or a historian. Instead, I got stuck at RG because I couldn’t get a damn job in the fields I studied! A sick joke executed to perfection. Such is life in America these days.
Although you may not believe it, I love America. I really do. But in college, I started learning that America is no longer the ‘United States’. Instead, we now have the Liberal States of America and the Conservative States of America, which operate at the expense of everything right and great about the so-called ‘greatest country on earth.’ My cynicism about this great country of ours began developing, however, when I discovered that one of the greatest American values is a lie. Young Americans are told that if you work hard enough, you can attain anything you want in life. What you really should be told is if you work hard enough, you can attain anything you want if and only if you know the ‘right’ people - and if you are born into wealth and privilege, you can be hired for a job by some powerful family connection even if you are dangerously unqualified. Hard work doesn’t pay off these days, and many people either empathize with that statement - or they acridly dismiss it as pretext even though they’ve never placed themselves in the victim’s shoes.
In recent years, to attempt to channel my anger into a positive, I began dreaming about traveling - partly for fun, but also to get inspiration for my novel. And this leads to where I want to begin the story of my journey.
Bored shitless one Tuesday morning at work, waiting for the next round of filthy rich swine to call and complain about the pennies of interest they felt they were being gypped out of, I planned potential routes for a road trip. I’d never traveled further than Washington D.C. in my life, so my destination choices were places a lot farther away from New Jersey. My first choice was Chicago, but I also thought, what if I went to Canada instead? How different from America would Canada look? How cool would it be to see speed limit signs in kilometers? Would people actually…ya know, treat each other with kindness and respect? Would I want to live there?
Regardless, the trip would have served as an escape from the adversity of everyday life, especially the inevitable drama that comes with human interaction. Recently, I broke up with my girlfriend, Dana, and because I no longer had to blow money on this failed relationship, I had the personal and financial freedom to take a vacation on my terms and my terms alone. It was supposed to take place a couple of weeks from today, but of course, my “vacation” already happened.
So, later that Tuesday, I made the final decision to drive to Canada. When I scribbled down an itinerary on a blank piece of paper, I felt exultant - a veritable state of nirvana that only comes to those who think positively.
Amid my chicken-scratching, I felt a firm tap on my right shoulder.
Startled, I looked back, and there was Michelle. She was my supervisor, but she might as well be Attila the Hun. Or Lucifer. Or whoever the evilest woman in history was. The sight of that late thirty-something dirty blonde with a face that accentuated every crevasse, curve, and jut of her skeleton made my heart stop.
“Why are you on the internet?” she asked sternly, her voice inflecting higher with each syllable, and sounding like the captain of a high school cheerleading squad. “What’s your explanation for using the internet on company time, which you know is a violation of Richard George’s employee conduct policies?” She sounded so formal, like a judge in court reciting legal mumbo jumbo. This insecure, arrogant former lawyer was about to channel all the bitterness and resentment from her previously failed career, combine it with the abhorrence she reserved in her heart just for me, and vociferously unleash it with a verbal firestorm of impeccable pronunciation and terminology.
As her bloodshot hazel eyes fixated on mine, I began thinking about how grateful I was that I hadn’t turned out like that conceited curmudgeon. I just wish the most mentally tough, physically strong, and bravest man I’ll ever know in my life were next to me at that moment, giving me advice.
How do you want to be remembered?
My father, Douglas, passed away of cancer a few months ago. Goddamn, I miss him. It’s because of his teachings that I only temporarily went psycho, but to be sure, his absence accelerated my path to near-clinical insanity.
He was a rugged but fair beacon of all that is righteous and genuine about humanity and the average American. He was the type that told you the truth straight to your face, and he never apologized for offending you. As aggressive as he got, though, he would never, ever get patronizing, passive-aggressive, or treat you like you didn’t matter. My father loved me, even though there were many times when I thought he didn’t. He never belittled me, no matter how angry he may have gotten, and his temper was ferocious.
And any time he ever sensed intimidation or fear in me, he’d recite his favorite phrase:
That’s most likely what he would have said to me if he were next to Michelle and me. Instead, I was reminded of another moment in which my use of the internet got me into trouble. Shortly after I entered high school, my parents purchased our first personal computer for the house. At the time, I was friends with an eighth-grader named Pete who lived right down the street from us. My parents knew his quite well, so they entrusted Pete’s mother to babysit me for a couple of hours after school each weekday. Pete was probably the only person I considered a ‘friend’ back then. I lacked the sufficient social skills to be ‘popular’, ‘liked’, or ‘accepted’ by different cliques in school, but Pete never judged me based on that criteria.
Pete’s parents were one of the first people I knew that purchased dial-up internet access, and I used to watch Pete talk to random people in online chat rooms - some with weird, humorous screen names - and I became utterly titillated by the possibility of forging a connection with a colored pixelated box on a screen. Back then, we didn’t have Skype, FaceTime or webcams, so when you communicated with a ‘person’ via instant message, you had no choice but to assume you were talking with a human.
Because I was desperate to improve my social skills, sense of humor, and wit, I entrusted those silly pixelated boxes. It was the best way I knew how to learn to be the ‘cool’ guy in social situations. Chat rooms were the perfect tool to practice human interaction, because not only were you never judged by your looks, your posture, or how you spoke, but you had room for error. If you typed something wrong or awkward-looking, you could always alter it before sending it. Most of all, you could enunciate your real thoughts without fear of retribution or scorn.
Bolstered by an unflinching desire to be more social, I pled with my Dad to get internet access for our new PC. After many begging fits, he finally relented, but only because he wanted to experiment with this ‘worldwide web of shit’, as he called it. My father placed stringent rules on my access: never give out personal information such as your name to a stranger without consulting him first, and never go online unless your homework is done. And it was important, considering my father’s temper, that I adhere to those rules, because it went without saying that committing transgressions, such as revealing my home address to an anonymous pop-up screen, would have resulted in a slow, painful death.
Well, on one balmy May afternoon towards the end of my freshman year, after a particularly rough day at school, I felt rebellious and desperate, so I decided to break my father’s rules. I returned home from school at 3:30, so I had an hour and a half window to navigate the chatrooms until my parents returned home at five. I soon struck up a conversation with the screen name ‘JessicaMarie1’ in one of those chat rooms for teenagers. JessicaMarie1 didn’t seem like one of those shady pornographic screen names like SuKmYDyk69 or some shit, so I figured she, or it, may be worth talking to. We began by chatting about music and movies, and as the conversation progressed, it became flirty. I totally lost track of the time.
Suddenly, at 5:05, my mind snapped back to reality when I felt the heavy stomping of my father’s size 14 feet. It was too late to shut down the computer and retreat to my room to pretend to do my homework, and it certainly wasn’t wise to concoct a lame excuse such as ‘I was using the computer to do homework’ to explain my actions. Seconds later, he was standing next to me. I knew I was fucked. My father, all 6’3 and 250 pounds of him, stood over me like a giant monster shadowing over the insignificant specs beneath, his blue eyes seemingly popping out of his aviator glasses like water bursting through a cracked dam. The beet-red cheeks of his perfectly clean-shaven face were expanding like a balloon, and his beach ball-sized beer belly was grazing my cheek. He angrily demanded for me to relinquish the computer mouse. Then, he slapped the computer’s power button with his index finger, and the monitor instantaneously turned black. Terrified, I froze, and attempted to cease all cognitive function so not to overreact; I couldn’t look my father in the eye for fear of his facial expression bringing me to tears. He wanted me to be the disciplined military man he was - a tough guy molded vicariously into his external image and his internal functions. This meant: don’t show emotion, and never make excuses.
“Tell me why you’re on the internet during homework time?” he asked in his loud, bellowing baritone that sounded like the echo of a church organ.
“I…I’m sorry,” I nervously mumbled. “I lost track of the time.”
“Yeah, right,” he snapped.
“I’m serious, Dad,” I stressed. “I…I got into a conversation with this girl…”
“Are you sure it was a girl?”
“Her name was Jessica.”
“Based on what?”
“Her screen name,” I spluttered. My heart was bubbling like a bar of soap inside a boiling-hot oven. Before becoming a cop, my father was a sergeant in the Marine Corps, where not only was he taught discipline, honor, and respect, but how to not take shit from anyone. As a cop, he learned the fine art of distinguishing truth-tellers and liars, and he became great at it. It impresses me to this day. Bullshitting my father was impossible. You could place 999 honest, integrity-laden people and one pathological liar in a room, and he’d instantaneously identify the liar.
“Oh, I see,” he retorted. “We had this discussion when we signed up for the net, didn’t we? You realize how many scumbags and shysters in this world create screen names like that to scam people? Huh, James?”
“You knew, but you did it anyway,” he snapped. “Imagine if you had given out our address and phone number! Some serial killer could show up at our door and murder us! Do you want that?”
Formulating any reply was impossible. None would satisfy him.
“At some point in history,” my Dad griped, “this is how we’ll all be communicating, and it makes me sick to my goddamn stomach.”
“Why are Pete and his brothers allowed to do it?” I asked, foolishly defiant.
“Because Pete’s parents are morons!” my father bellowed so loudly the walls shook. “And I’m a moron for allowing this! Shit, I’m going to have a little talk with his father later.”
“This is not the time to talk back, James. This is a betrayal of trust. You begged me for the privilege of internet access, and I relented because I trusted you would use this privilege responsibly and adhere to the strict guidelines your mother and I placed on you - which are in place for a reason, James! I’d better not see you chatting on the web during homework time again!” he said while pointing his finger in my face. “If I catch you again, I’m canceling our internet service! Permanently! I mean it!”
“Okay, Dad. I understand.”
“Look at me and say it!”
“Look at me! Now!”
Looking into his eyes and fighting back tears, I once again told him I understood. After he took a deep breath, he smiled, thanked me, patted me on the shoulder, and offered to bring me a soda. He knew the exact moment to move on from a tough situation. He was the perfect communicator.
“Listen, I’m going to ask you an honest question,” he said – calmly as he pulled up a folding chair stationed near the desk, unfolded it, and placed it in front of me. Sitting down, he leaned forward. “Do you want to be remembered as the kid that got scammed by some random asshole on the internet and dragged to a dark alley and shot? Do you want to be remembered as that gullible moron? Do you want to be remembered as a statistic?”
And then, it came, like a bolt of lightning crashing into my brainstem:
“How do you want to be remembered, James?”
On the inside, my blood boiled, and my heart pounded out a thousand beats at once. On the outside, I let out a light chuckle. Suddenly, the chuckle became overdubbed by Michelle’s loud, conceited teenage cheerleader-type voice howling into my ear, promptly ending my daydream and sending shockwaves throughout my body, directing me to posture myself perfectly and not appear to be zoned out in a blissful dream world. And I had to sit there, listen and keep my mouth shut. Otherwise, the direst consequences were in store for me, like a biblical firestorm of verbal fury she would not hesitate to unleash.
How do you want to be remembered?
If I dropped dead of a heart attack right then and there, I’d be remembered as the one Michelle drove to an early death.
And you know what? In a sick, twisted way, I kind of wish she had. Michelle was one of the ones that caused me to snap. Michelle, along with a myriad of other factors, both realistically and existentially, caused this whole chain of events of the past two weeks.