The Year In Crying At Your Desk

Enough about how technology is changing us, for now. It’s the end of the calendar year, and we’re consumed with the attendant complicated feelings of the holiday season, as well as settling accounts before the 13 changes to 14. And in that tally of the year soon to lapse, we look back. We remember. We write year-end reviews.

One opportunity that talked-to-death technology has afforded us, in ways that our parents never experienced, is the peculiar phenomenon of surreptitiously consuming Internet content while at one’s place of employment, and then being emotionally moved to the point of perhaps betraying the fact that one is not reviewing a spreadsheet but instead watching a video or scrolling down a listicle.

And not to say that everyone experiences such a thing at the same time or in the same way, but this then is a look back at the year of crying at your desk.

Some people are better at crying at things than other people. I am one of those people. Crying, at Bridge To Bridge To Terabithia or Old Yeller, that’s kids’ stuff. The movie scene that I have most wept at is the final scene of A Christmas Story, the very final scene, when Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon sit on the couch as the children sleep and look quietly out the picture window as the snow falls in the night. There’s nothing sad about that. It is just a perfect moment of peace and contentment that is the rarest of creatures in the non-movie world, and at that point I am heaving sobs. Because, I’m still waiting.

Any TV commercial that consists of a montage of people being fine, being the finest to each other (like this recent one) is also a trigger for me. There is a genre for ads like that. Let’s call it “sadvertising,” as some have called it, though it’s not a new thing at all, and it’s not really sad! It’s not really sad at all. It’s a vision of some idealized life that you may or may not be lucky enough to experience in real life. It’s a time-worn trope for advertising. The new thing is that we do not watch them on TV but they get memed out in dribs and drabs, and we watch them at our desks, and QED.

This is why I’m bad at watching TV, and this is why I present myself as an authority when it comes to crying at things, at your desk or otherwise.

It is necessary to say that obviously not everyone has a desk, let alone the opportunity to spend what hopefully is lunch or other non-work time to fart around on the Internet during the work day. For that reason, consider desk-crying as a useful shorthand for “consuming digital content that causes one to involuntarily engage in some level of crying while in the presence of others.” Can you desk-cry if you are taking a break while telecommuting from your local café? Of course. Maybe that’s even better, because those other people are freakin’ strangers, and that means maximal awkwardness. Can you desk-cry while working from home? Most likely not, unless there is an actual stranger there with you—a repairman, that cute guy/girl from the bar last night, a burglar. Can you desk-cry from the floor of a tool and die factory? No, not unless you want to get fired and also beaten. But let’s just accept this as a thing that exists, and be happy/sad for those for whom it does not.

Oh, there was a real good one that rolled out around mid-year, I Forgot My Phone. This one was not an advert, but it made the rounds with the appropriate amount of “crying at my desk.” We’re going to label this one as sui generis as it doesn’t really fit into any of the categories described herein, but it is a colossal work, capturing the dark reflection of the Zeitgeist at just the right time. I personally did not cry so hard that I had to turn my head from my desk and fake like I was having an allergy attack, but the dislocation captured in the piece was worth a tear running down the cheek. The power of it is not some obvious tragedy, or tragedy forestalled, but the complicity that comes with the realization that the level of culpability of the viewer will not effect any change in personal behavior with regards to the viewer’s personal hand-held device, and that’s a pretty heavy, existential tearing up. We’re not crying (at our desks) at the sad story or for that poor lady. We’re crying at the innocence lost and the ways the world changes that we’re not only powerless to stop but complicit in. Nice fuckin’ job.

In the course of looking for the desk-crying finest of the past year, I informally polled friends as to the what had them all choked up inappropriately. Many of their suggestions appear herein, but one friend suggested something that needs to be hashed out. “The story from last week about having to have rape insurance in Michigan.” “Oh yes, but that’s not what I mean by crying at your desk,” I replied. “I was at my desk. I cried,” she insisted. And well she should, as it is a brutally inhuman bit of code from one of the dumber laboratories of democracy. This is another distinction I’d like to make—desk-crying and real crying are different things. Crying at the Michigan law, or at the Newton shootings or 9/11 or some other horrible thing, that’s real crying, evinced by a certain amount of personal loss. When you cry because of really cute photos of a toddler and a puppy, you’re essentially crying at some terribly moving thing that has nothing to do with your personal life. That is some desk crying. (And yes, the Michigan law does have something to do with everyone’s life, as it’s yet another exhibit of the world getting shittier.)

Is there a stigma to desk-crying? Well, people judge, so of course there is. There is a stigma to that hat you wear to work. But generally we don’t let this stigma get to us. Think: the plural of stigma is stigmata, and crying is almost exactly like stigmata, but from your eyes, and with salty water instead of blood.

Even though the Internet runs on cats, when it comes to desk crying, dogs are the household pet of choice. Just last week, photos of a boy running into traffic to save a dog ran on Huffington Post. This is an example of a popular subcategory of desk-crying content: dogs in peril. Dogs being rescued from ice flows, from cardboard boxes, from puppy mills, and just plain old dogs being rescued from
being abandoned
. (Is there a listicle for that? Yes. There is a listicle for everything, silly.) And even though this is from last year, I’m including this story of a dog being rescued a mile out in the water after its owner was killed in a car crash because, can you believe it?

The unspoken law of the dog-in-peril posts is that the dog must survive. Not that the tears would not flow like wine in stories about dogs not surviving, but that would be a whole different thing. We suppress the tears at our desks not at the unkind fate befalling man’s best friend, but rather at the happy ending.

Of course the ne plus ultra of desk-crying dog videos are the videos of dogs greeting vets returning from service. That collection of videos is just one example. Seemingly, every vet to return in the past twelve years had not only a dog but some sort of video recording device, and they are embroiled in a massive conspiracy to wring every last tear out of desk-crying Americans. And I applaud them for that (and their service, of course).

What is it that’s so wrenching about this? Is it imagining yourself as the vet, forced to be away from family (and dog) for so long? Is it imagining yourself as the dog, whose emotional reaction in each case can only be described as, “HOLY SHIT!! HOLY SHIT!!” Or is it just empathy, a monster dose of pure, un-stepped-on empathy?

Surely there must be some equivalent for cat videos, but as of press time, there is not. The response to diabolical cuteness is not crying, not so much.

This whole piece, this look back at the year in desk-crying, probably would make more sense as a series of animated gifs, or the captioned photos we now call “memes.” That’s the current trend, and there are sites that traffic in that business out there that you can find easily, by checking your Facebook feed, or any other feed, for that matter. These sites have found a way to monetize these bits of so-called “viral” content. That’s neat for them! I wish them the best. There’s nothing I like more while crying at my desk than realizing that someone’s business plan figured that a buck could be made off that.

Not every bit of desk crying content is yanking at your heartstrings with snapshots of the world working correctly. Sometimes, we cry because the content is sad. Very recently you might have seen this photoset, a recently widowed father recreating wedding photos with his young daughter, make the rounds amongst your acquaintances. Ouch.

We can all agree: death is scary! And when beloved figures pass away, be they public figures or not, some pretty moving content gets written. Take for example Laurie Anderson’s account of Lou Reed’s last moments. It’s not even a couple hundred words but it’s beautifully composed, and the story of his passing is so dignified and perfect that it’s hard to make it through on the umpteenth reread.

Last month New York newspaperman Peter Kaplan away suddenly. (Well, not suddenly, but his illness was not common knowledge.) Kaplan was not exactly a public figure, but he was well-known and respected inside the community generally responsible for filing well-composed copy in memory of the departed, so by the first week of December, all kinds of great (and by great, I mean uh-huh uh-huh) stuff coming accross the transom. And while it’s not fair to pick the best, David Carr and Tom Scocca on Kaplan’s funeral are both impossible to get through without a sniffle, and holy cow this one byJim Windoff is good.

Although I will argue that when we are moved by someone writing beautifully about the passing of someone (or even a dog named Duck) else, of course it is a moment of sadness but it’s also a moment of appreciation of the things that we aspire to be.

There are also those posts in which a photographer chronicles a loved one’s losing battle with cancer, which deserve mention as a subcatagory of the sad desk-cries, largely for the fact that they are just not fair. I mean, come on, this is about crying at your desk, not taking the day off for sobbing.

But I’m not being fair, because the most titanic and indelible (and overpopulated) bit of memetic desk-crying content of the year 2013 is, of course, Batkid. It was perhaps the greatest triumph of the Make-A-Wish-Foundation. Five-year-old Miles Scott, battling leukemia, wanted to be Batkid for the day. In planning the event, the Make-A-Wish-Foundation found the San Francisco Police Department and the Mayor’s office to be enthusiastic. The wish granted grew into a full day of Batkid (with Batman), saving San Francisco (and rapper Pitbull) from the Riddler and the Penguin, ultimately receiving the key to the city in front of 20,000 cheering fans, topped off with a supportive Vine from the President of the United States. That is some not-a-dry-eye-in-the-house stuff.

And ubiquitous! This story ran everywhere, all across the globe. There were rumblings of a backlash on the social media, namely on the grounds that it is unfair to single Miles out when there are so many other children with life-threatening illnesses, and I get that. We’ve all had/will have our experiences with this sort of thing, and very few of us get to see our ailing loved ones have an entire city stop to support them. But it’s not fair to resent Batkid, any more that it’s fair that anyone gets the big C. It was the most massive display of compassion I can remember. It was the day we all cried at our desks together.

And I’m certain that I missed your own personal favorite, the one that absolutely wrecked you and you had to pretend that you were sneezing and you buried your face in the kleenex and gritted your teeth until the tears subsided. Sorry about that. There’s just so much out there.

There’s not a single damn thing wrong with desk-crying. It’s uncomfortable and awkward, but I’d rather have a feeling than not. The mechanism of “emotional release” in having a good cry is debated in scientific literature, but you and I know it’s there, in the same way that we know that the need to actually cry, the bereavement kind, dwindles over time. Bad thing happens, and the amount and intensity of the sobbing diminishes over time. Bad thing happens, and you might be staring at a couple days, or a couple weeks, of breaking down. But it gets better.

And in the same way, when you get a good case of desk-crying, you share it. You tweet it, you throw it on Facebook (“I can’t even”), you call over your officemate, and then you feel better. You had feels, but you’ll feel better. There are more feels in your future. But you are not alone. It certainly doesn’t feel like it, but desk-crying is about hope. This is stuff shared by other people, shared with other people. Shared. Fellowship is part of the equation. And however it is in the future (wearable computers with retinal projection maybe?) that we will experience these little blips of socialized heart-swelling, the hitch in your breath that the world can provide such moments, those will be about hope too.

Brent Cox is all over the Internet.