Hello, situation normies! Longtime readers know that sometimes I use this space to tell stories about my dad. I call those pieces Larry stories because my dad was named Larry, and also because branding is an important way to set reader expectations. A typical Larry story inspires awe, joy, and sometimes, a really good crying session. But today’s story isn’t a Larry story. Today’s story is a Linda story. Linda is my mom. I love my mom very much, but as you’ll soon see, Linda is extra.
In the summer of 1993, Peter Steiner published a cartoon in The New Yorker that remains the quintessential joke about online anonymity to this day. The cartoon depicts two dogs sitting at a desktop computer. One dog tells the other dog: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
Steiner was way ahead of everyone else, especially me. When I wasn’t waiting on a dial-up modem, I spent the summer of 1993 learning to drive. Like most teenagers, my parents were my most influential teachers.
My father picked up where my driver’s education class left off. He taught me valuable lessons like how to merge onto LA’s freeways without pissing my pants, how to roll up to an In ‘N Out drive-thru like a pro, and how to navigate Southern California’s sprawl using a giant book called a Thomas Guide.
Rather than risking a ride with her teenage son behind the wheel, my mother preferred to outsource the job. She chose a local driving school that “guaranteed” its students would pass the DMV test on their first attempt. I learned a lot from that school, but I also learned a lot about what not to do by watching my mom drive.
Known as “Lead Foot Linda,” Mom drove the streets of Los Angeles like a bat out of hell. If you hesitated at a light, she’d lean on the horn. If you cut her off, she’d flip you the bird. At one point, there was a rumor in the Hollywood trades that Universal was thinking about replacing Burt Reynolds with my mom for a Smokey and the Bandit reboot.
By the time my sixteenth birthday rolled around in September, I felt comfortable behind the wheel. I knew what I was supposed to do, thanks to my driver’s education class, the driving school Mom hired, and Dad’s lessons. I also knew what not to do behind the wheel, thanks to Mom.
I passed the DMV test with flying colors! The freedom to come and go as I pleased was thrilling. Even better, the state of California had vested the power in me to choose the radio station. Most days, I chose KROQ and the Los Angeles freeways over the “information superhighway,” where Steiner’s anonymous cartoon dogs were likely learning the basics of internet trolling.
Gayle enters the chat
I can’t pinpoint the exact date, but somewhere around 2013 or 2014, I started sharing stories like the one you’re reading now on the internet. I chose Facebook as my distribution platform, even though Facebook is a terrible distribution platform, especially if you’re writing humorous, personal stories that are more likely to spark joy than outrage.
Everyone said they loved my Facebook stories, but I didn’t really believe them because that’s just the sort of thing your friends and family are supposed to say to encourage you. But I kept putting those stories on Facebook because doing so seemed like a good way to remind people, especially myself, that I was a writer who wrote things, even though most of the things I wrote in those days—novels and screenplays—wouldn’t see the light of day.
Eventually, I quit Facebook, mostly for mental health reasons. I put my funny, personal stories on a platform called TinyLetter, which is owned by an outfit called MailChimp, which you might remember from such true crime podcasts as Serial. But the chimps who control the mail stopped supporting TinyLetter, so I moved to Substack.
My goals on Substack were modest at first. “I just want a place to tell my stories,” I told Christina. But over the next two years, Situation Normal grew, and my ambitions for this project grew as well. First, I began selling my books to Situation Normal readers who were kind enough to buy them! Then, in the waning days of 2022, I switched on paid subscriptions. To my surprise (and delight), people began paying for Situation Normal, even though every single story was available to them free of charge!
“It’s not quite a business yet,” I told a friend recently, “but it’s not not-a-business.”
To encourage readers to commit to a paid subscription, Substack advises writers to offer subscriber benefits. I thought about giving away tote bags, or Situation Normal t-shirts, or signed copies of my tax returns. But since I’m new to the intersection of creativity and commerce, I decided to keep it simple. I currently offer intangible benefits because delivering those benefits doesn’t add much administrative work to Situation Normal. Like I said, it’s not quite a business, but it’s not not-a-business either.
For the past month, I’ve made it a practice to shout out new paid subscribers in my Wednesday posts. On the surface, a shout out is easy. But the way I manage the process leaves a lot to be desired. Basically, Substack sends me an email every time someone buys a paid subscription. I save those emails. When I sit down to write the Wednesday edition of Situation Normal, I comb through a jam-packed inbox filled with work stuff, hyperbolic political emails, and spam to find those important email notifications so that I can fulfill my promise to publicly recognize the generous people who support my work.
Obviously, managing my inbox isn’t my strong suit. Maybe that’s why I haven’t found a process that helps me safeguard against my biggest fear: forgetting to make good on my promise to publicly recognize the generous people who support my work.
This past Wednesday, my biggest fear came true. In the comments to the Wednesday edition of Situation Normal, a reader named Gayle called me out for failing to recognize her monetary contribution. Here’s part of what Gayle wrote in her comment:
I love your writing. I love all your stories. But when you listed the people that have paid for Situation Normal, you left my name out.. Not a good thing to do to paying people.
My heart skipped a beat when I read Gayle’s comment. I had fucked over a fan, which is objectively terrible, and also a really bad idea for an enterprise that’s not not-a-business, but working hard to become a business-business. When my heart resumed beating, it did so with the extra oomph that only anxiety can bring.
Consternation & Revelation
Unfortunately, I saw Gayle’s comment right as I was about to meet a friend for lunch. Technically, I could’ve used my phone to investigate Gayle’s accusation, but I didn’t want to be rude to my friend. Also, small screens, fat fingers, and the inadequacies of the mobile web experience make it difficult navigate the business end of my Substack.
So, I sat with my anxiety for a few hours. Talking to my friend about writing stuff and life stuff didn’t help my anxiety, but the conversation was a pleasant distraction. Then lunch ended, and my worst fears raced through my mind.
Had Gayle canceled her subscription?
Had she inspired others to cancel their subscriptions?
Was Gayle in the process of hiring a lawyer to sue my ass for shout out malpractice?
Those were the questions that raced through my mind as I sat in traffic on my way home. But those fear-based questions were punctuated by fact-based questions.
Could I contact Gayle and patch things up?
Aside from shouting out Gayle in the next Wednesday edition of Situation Normal, what else could I do to make it up to her?
Was Gayle actually a paid subscriber? I didn’t remember seeing an email from Substack about anyone named Gayle. I have a pretty good memory, and it’s not like I have that many paid subscribers at this point.
When I finally returned home, I raced past Christina and Mortimer, ran into my office, and fired up my computer. I was determined to get answers to the Gayle situation.
Once I logged into my Substack account, I typed the name “Gayle” into the subscriber search box. There was one result. Gayle was indeed a paid subscriber. I felt my heart sink because I knew I hadn’t shouted out anyone named Gayle.
Then I noticed something funny about Gayle’s account. Her email address looked familiar. Very familiar. Gayle’s email address was my mom’s email address! But for some reason my mom, whose name is Linda, had subscribed to my Substack using her middle name as an alias.
I called my mom in Las Vegas to get some answers. I asked her if she had left a comment on Situation Normal. She said that she had left a comment.
“But your handle is… Gayle?”
“It’s my middle name, Michael. You know that.”
“Yeah, mom, I know you’re middle name. What I don’t understand is why you’re using an alias for Situation Normal?”
At first, Mom tried to blame the Substack sign up process.
“You know how lousy I am with computers, Michael.”
That was true. Mom is lousy with computers, and really, all technology. But I know the Substack sign up process like the back of my hand. I had to call bullshit on Mom’s claim that this platform had somehow done her dirty.
“Substack didn’t pick your handle, Mom. You made a choice, and you typed in your middle name. Why?”
“Oh! That’s because I didn’t want people to know that it was your mom leaving comments.”
I pressed Linda, aka Gayle, aka Mom, to explain the rationale behind her ruse. Basically, she argued, if people see your mom leaving comments on your stories, they’ll assume that your work is the kind of material that only a mother could love. But if they see someone leaving comments who doesn’t appear to be related to the writer, they’ll assume that the material is good because strangers on the internet seem to like it.
On the one hand, Mom’s strategy seemed like something out of the dark art of public relations, where perception is reality, and faking it until you make it is the order of the day. But on the other hand, Mom, aka Linda, aka Gayle appeared to be trolling me, and I didn’t see how back-handed trolling compliments helped my cause.
“Mom, I don’t understand. I gave you a shout out a few weeks ago when you bought an annual subscription.”
“I know you did, but you didn’t include me on the list of subscribers this week.”
That list included 16 new paid subscribers—the biggest gain in Situation Normal’s brief commercial history. As it happened, two of those paid subscribers were my sister, Allison, and her partner, Craig. Maybe, I thought, Mom felt excluded because the most recent list included two members of the family. But when I raised the possibility that there was some jealousy at work here, Mom doubled-down on her demand.
“I just wanted another shout out.”
“But, Mom, shout outs are only for new paid subscribers. It’s a one shout out per customer kind of deal.”
Mom said she understood the Situation Normal shout out policy, but then she reiterated that she should’ve been included in the most recent list—for some reason. So maybe she didn’t actually understand the Situation Normal shout out policy, or maybe she just didn’t care, or maybe my mom thinks the rules just don’t apply to her??
I’m not sure what the answer is, to be honest. But the rest of our conversation was amicable, even if it left me bewildered. As I hung up the phone, I thought, Peter Steiner was right: on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog. But, I realized, there’s an important corollary to Steiner’s famous cartoon: none of the dogs on the internet know their moms are trolls.
A few words about Linda “Gayle” Estrin
I’ve never really thought about my mom as an internet troll, but that’s only because she sucks at the internet. Not that I’m not throwing shade at my mom when I say that. Mom regularly tells everyone she knows that she doesn’t understand the internet. Internet ignorance was actually her first defense when I called her out for leaving the comment that set this whole story in motion. But beyond that specific incident, Mom’s observable behaviors in the digital world back up her self-described Luddite status. Some examples:
Mom signs her text messages and Facebook posts. Even though we’ve explained countless times that she doesn’t need to sign texts and Facebook posts, she continues the practice because “what do I know about any of this internet shit.”
Despite repeated warnings about malware and spyware, Mom will download anything that even remotely looks like a Mahjong game because “what do I know about this internet shit.”
Mom sometimes wishes people happy birthday on Facebook by adding poop emojis—💩💩💩—to her posts because “what do I know about this internet shit.”
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. If left to her own devices, Mom wouldn’t be able to connect any of her devices to the internet.
But it takes more than being tech savvy to troll people online. You also have to have the spirit of the troll—a reckless devil may care attitude that inspires you to do it for the lolz. On that front, I had to admit that Mom had always shown signs of trolling. Some examples:
There’s the aforementioned reckless driving, including a notorious incident when Mom told a Missouri state trooper that she was speeding through the Show-Me state because “Missouri is fucking boring.” Mom, who clearly had zero fucks to give, was going more than 100 miles per hour on the highway that day, but thankfully Dad talked the trooper into writing a ticket instead of arresting Mom for reckless driving.
There’s the time Mom found out that Christina makes more money than me and responded by telling my wife that she “married beneath her.”
There’s the time Mom called me to recommend a novel because “reading it will help you write a better novel.”
“Gayle’s” passive-aggressive Situation Normal comment, including that last sentence in praise of a lady who thinks I’m evil.
Kangaroo group chat court
“Am I nuts, or is my mom trolling me?” I asked Christina.
“Technically, both can be true,” Christina said. “But I think your mom is trolling you.”
Christina didn’t say another word about my sanity, and I didn’t ask. Still, we were both puzzled by the disconnect between Mom’s inclination to troll on the one hand, and her lack of tech savviness on the other hand.
I decided to text Allison and Craig to see what they made of the situation. But in the interest of fairness to Mom, aka Linda, aka Gayle, I didn’t use the word “troll.” I wanted Craig and Allison to reach their own conclusions about Mom’s trolling.
Craig was the first one to respond to my text, but he didn’t call my mom a troll. To be fair to Craig, he’s a lovely person who is new to our family. As such, Craig can always be counted on to go with the kindest possible interpretation of weird family dynamics. Here’s what Craig wrote:
I love that she used a fake name. That’s amazing. Just take in how awesome it is that your mom subscribed to your newsletter with a fake name. It’s like out of sight!
Craig had a good point. When another writer’s mom uses a fake name to sign up for their newsletter, it’s hilarious, but when my mom does the same thing, it raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions. If I could somehow step back and see this situation objectively, I could find the humor in this episode. While I was trying to do just that, Allison replied to my text. Here’s what my sister wrote:
[She signed up under a fake name] so she could make shitty comments! It’s brilliant. Also, she is not allowed to say she doesn’t understand the internet ever again if she is able to troll someone!
There it was, the T-word. The verdict was in. My mom is an internet troll, and I am her target, I guess.
Situation Normal readers beware!
Initially, I had reservations about writing this story. For one thing, it doesn’t paint me in a flattering light. After all, writing a story about how your mom played the long game to troll you in the comments section of your own newsletter isn’t exactly a flex. Even worse, I’m calling my mom a troll. And yeah, OK, she is a troll, but it’s one thing to share that with your wife, your sister, and your sister’s partner, and it’s something else entirely to share that information with thousands of strangers on the internet.
But Christina and Craig both argued in favor of sharing this story. Basically, Christina and Craig thought it would make a lot of people laugh because moms who are extra, especially when it comes to their relationships with their kids, are a nearly universal theme. Also, Christina and Craig argued, writing this story would give Mom, aka, Linda, aka Gayle the attention she was craving.
That last argument didn’t sit well with me. I’m far from the internet’s greatest troll hunter—obviously!—but I do know this: you’re not supposed to feed the trolls. If I wrote this story, wouldn’t I be feeding a troll?
Then there was the larger Situation Normal community to consider. Everyday, this newsletter grows, and everyday I marvel at the fact that with the exception of my mom, I haven’t attracted any trolls. I’d like to keep the good vibes going for as a long as possible, but now that I know there’s a troll working the Situation Normal comments section, aren’t I obligated to say something?
I decided that the answers to both those questions was yes. I am feeding a troll, and I am obligated to warn this community about the shit that’s going down in the comments section. So, in the interest of relatable humor and community safety, I decided to write this story.
Consider this your warning, situation normies. Gayle, aka Linda, aka Michael’s mom, has entered the chat. She came here to troll and get some shout outs, and she’s all out of shout outs.
Situation Normal isn’t a business, but it’s not not-a-business. To support my work & receive ONE shout out, become a paid subscriber👇
Thanks for reading! No questions this week, but the comments are open. Just remember to play nice, especially you, Mom!
And if you enjoyed this story, please do me a huge favor and share it! Forward the email to a few friends, post it on social media, or press the button and see what happens👇
What a wonderful and hilarious column! I laughed out loud- many times ! And I think your Mom must be terrific and have an amazing sense of humor too. Probably where you got yours, apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. At any rate, this story convinced me to subscribe, seems pretty clear that effort deserves reward ! I have such a great mental image of your Mom’s comment to the state trooper, good that your Dad was there to save the situation. I am looking forward to more of your stories and, yes will share them to others. What a better place this world would be with more laughter and less hate! PS. I don’t really know exactly what an Internet Troll is but when I finish subscribing I’m going to ask Google to fill me in on the exact requirements, maybe I can have some Gayle fun too somewhere down the pike.
I thoroughly enjoyed this article, Michael! Your mom, who is of my generation, somewhat reminds me of my mom, who once asked a NYC policeman (as he was writing her a ticket) how many times he had to have sex with his mother to become a NYC policeman. She then turned to ten-year-old me and said, “don’t ever talk to a cop like that.”
Thank god that woman was never unleashed on the internet.
Say hi to your mom for me.