Obligatory Uber Book Update

Categories: A Day in the Life, Quick Updates, Telling Stories, Tags: , ,

It’s strangely unsettling writing a book without a title. Both American Dream On and The Best of All Possible Worlds were titles before they had any other content whatsoever. And Loosely Based was entitled on 12 June 2001 (as a working title that later became permanent), 17 days after I started that project. Which I guess gives me three days to come up with a title for this. It seems like there should be such fertile ground for the intersection of Uber and New Orleans, but I’ve just got nothing so far. It remains the Uber Book for the time being.

Here’s the status of the book, so far, posted here for the all-important public self-accountability that helps fuel my writing projects and make their deadlines real, as well as for my own process/posterity:
-Fourteen days of work.
-Five chapters (sections?) complete.
-12,421 words (~50 pages by normal metrics).
-Roughly maybe 10% of the book complete? Though this puts it on an unsettlingly long pace (~500 pages), but I guess overwriting and editing down is a good idea.
-Pace: 887 words/day (~3.5 pages/day).
-102 days till deadline.
-102,895 words at current pace by deadline (~412 pages).
-26 identified, usable vignettes that could still become chapters/sections.

It’s also weird to be writing non-fiction. And writing during the day. Though I’m writing in the guest room, which has a blackout curtain in the light, and no one is home during the day, so the effect is pretty much all the same. I also lost a lot of writing time from being sick for a good part of the last fortnight, so the pace should pick up.

Where the magic happens.

Where the magic happens.


Don’t Stand for It

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

American hero Colin Kaepernick.

American hero Colin Kaepernick.

During the Iraq War, I made an effort not to stand for the United States’ national anthem while it played. The context for this was almost always sports games, because even though ESPN Radio (which I listen to a lot between Uber drives these days, while the NPR station is playing jazz and I’m waiting for the BBC World Service to come on) insisted (before this past week) on shouting down any caller who brought up politics, sports have been insidiously intertwined with politics for decades in this country. We have military nights, we have anthems before everything, we have the ongoing extra displays of patriotism since 9/11. Like so many elements of our society, we are made to forget that the default setting of what we perceive as normal is, itself, a political statement. We live in a deeply politicized reality, one where every student is made to swear unwavering loyalty to a piece of cloth every morning in a ritual that, were it discovered in North Korea, we would lampoon as the result of creepy brainwashing.

I say “made an effort not to stand” because there were a couple of times during that war that I can recall reluctantly and awkwardly standing, because I didn’t want to make the person I was attending the game with uncomfortable. In light of Colin Kaepernick’s brave public protest (ironically being called a “stand” in many quarters, which I can’t reconcile enough to invoke), I feel even more ashamed than I did at the time about these compromises. I at least a couple times went to the bathroom during the anthem at these times rather than do my customary sit, often when attending the game with just one friend, often someone more conservative, and I just didn’t want to get into the difficult debate in that moment. And, frankly, it’s not just this piece of cowardice that demonstrates to me the difficulty of Kapernick’s incredible protest. It’s the fact that during most of my Iraq War seatings, I was accompanied by others who joined me in the protest. My wife at the time, and two of our very good friends. I’m not even sure we even talked about it specifically or that thoroughly. I’m sure I discussed it with my wife at some point, but it felt like an organic thing. But it’s way easier to sit as a group of four than solo. Admittedly, I also did this when I attended baseball games by myself.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the anthem and the adoration of the flag, turning my back on the ceremony at times during high school and rolling my eyes and sighing awkwardly, hands buried in pockets, during sports game ceremonies both before and since Iraq. Kaepernick has reminded me that the Iraq War, while poignantly awful in American history, was by no means the only thing warranting this small silent signal of resistance. And deep down, I knew that. I just got tired of the angsty separation from the rest of the crowd, the terse comments from a handful of people, the (at least twice) slaps from older gentlemen accompanied by “get up!” (this only happened when I was alone). No one ever tried to engage me in why I was doing what I was doing. And only once did I see someone else in a ballpark joining me in the (lack of) move, though admittedly sitting while everyone else is standing can make it hard to see (except at Oakland baseball games, where attendees are few and far between).

The anthem stands for might-makes-right, it stands for the notion that a piece of cloth is more important than human life, it stands for the idea that all manner of human violence is worth it if our empire prospers. It is, even before people started talking this week about the grotesque verse taking joy in the death of freed slaves, the embodiment of what I object to about the American Empire. Glorying in war, the utilization of war as a means for our own advancement, the prioritization of cloth over life. And its universal proliferation before sporting events, before gatherings and conventions and convocations is, like the pledge, a little piece of ongoing indoctrination into this militaristic value set before every little ceremony. Kill for your flag. This is what’s important.

During the Iraq protest, I had dreams of starting a campaign that I would call Don’t Stand for It. Mostly, I was lonely and wanted more people to sit with me, because it felt like the right kind of protest that was small but powerful and well matched with what was being protested. It’s an anthem of war, so let’s not honor that during one of our many aggressive, ongoing, deeply unjust wars of imperialism. My follow-through on these kinds of campaigns is notoriously bad, so I can’t really lament not registering that website or starting that campaign – it wouldn’t have gotten more than a handful of supporters anyway.

This is what makes Kaepernick’s protest so inspiring and exciting. He has the platform to broadcast his message, the power to get people to join with him. He has reminded me that I was just copping out during all those Pelicans games, that the arc of American injustice is long and bends towards the flag. It took momentous bravery for him to make this statement, in a year when he wasn’t even assured a starting position on his own team, at a time in our media culture when he knew he was deliberately putting himself in the crosshairs of every zealous racist, warmonger, so-called patriot, and conservative in the nation. He knew exactly what kind of firestorm of criticism and anger would beset him and he sat, alone, regardless. This is what heroism looks like.

As has been well documented in the American media, much of the predictable backlash to Kaepernick’s sitting has been unadulterated racism, newly distilled in the resurgently open bigotry that accompanies many factions of Trump supporters and the opponents of Black Lives Matter. But the mainstream backlash is more insidious – the commentators on ESPN alleging irony that Kaepernick is “protesting a symbol of his right to protest” and saying that he is “disrespecting veterans who are fighting for his right to protest like this”. It’s one of the most knee-jerk, rote, and incorrect assumptions about our flag, anthem, and military: that they have something to do with our freedom. If you can even get past the initial issue that tools of mass-coercion and imperialism can ever be about freedom, even if that “freedom” is coming on the back of oppression of those both outside this country and locked up in this one.

America has faced nothing remotely like an existential threat since World War II. Arguably that war and the Civil War were vaguely existential threats – I could make a pretty good case that neither of them were, but I don’t want to get into that right now, since it’s irrelevant to my main point and my thoughts on WWII are already pretty polarizing. Yes, there are a few WWII veterans still around. But setting those folks aside for the moment, the veterans being most virulently defended in the media against protests like Kaepernick’s fought in wars that were unadulterated, naked imperialism that had nothing to do with defending American freedom. In Korea and Vietnam, the fight against popular communist leaders was packaged as pro-freedom, even though said leaders would have won national democratic elections in their respective countries. Ditto countless covert military operations in Cambodia and half of Latin America. Then we have Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq again, Libya, the unending war to kill everyone in every country who disagrees with US foreign policy. These are not responses to existential threats or really threats at all – they are self-justifying pursuits of oil, business interests, and the notion that American hegemony is the natural order of the planet. You can think it’s noble if you want that people voluntarily sacrifice their time, energy, and livelihood to sign up to kill for their country (I don’t). But it’s just incorrect to say that they do so to “defend our freedom”. Had we fought zero wars since WWII, we would have exactly the same freedom we do now. In fact, I would argue, much more freedom, because there would not be people in the rest of the world who want to exact revenge on America and its people for the violence it enacted on them, their family, and their country.

Of course, most of those folks in the military didn’t feel like it was much of a voluntary choice. Our military is comprised of disproportionately poor individuals, disproportionately minority individuals, those deprived of opportunity at every turn who were both indoctrinated to believe that killing for your flag is noble and often misled into thinking they’d be safer and better compensated for their sacrifice. No wonder, then, that #VeteransforKaepernick has caught fire on the Internet, that (as in every era) it is veterans of these awful wars who are often the first to rally behind those against the next war. American soldiers return to the nation shattered, traumatized, and suicidal. And most of them seem to understand that Kaepernick’s protest helps honor their loss by trying to prevent the next generation from having to endure it.

Of course, Kaepernick’s protest is not primarily about war, though these realities are a fitting response to the obnoxious mainstream argument saying that his protest is well-intentioned, but he picked the wrong means (I have yet to hear one suggested alternative means, needless to say). It’s about Black Lives Matter, increasingly becoming the most important movement of our generation in America. A movement that has renewed a national conversation about our nation’s historical and ongoing oppression of a race that has endured slavery, slaughter, mass-incarceration, and minimization every day of America’s history. His protest is helping pivot the movement to the spotlight in a moment that is not just the week after another horrific police execution of an innocent Black citizen. He is helping to raise the issue with every week of the nation’s most popular sport, reminding the national audience that the Black players they revere each Sunday are of the same race as those they (at least de facto) support incarcerating and gunning down seven days a week.

Colin Kaepernick’s protest is everything a protest should be. It’s risky and brave, it’s targeted and precise, it’s powerful and profound. Every day, more people are sitting with him, agreeing that Black Lives Matter and that our anthem and flag are not more important than oppressed human lives. Next time the anthem plays, don’t stand for it. Thank you, Colin, for reminding me, for reminding all of us, what truly matters.


Watching (Mariners) Baseball is Bad for My (Mental) Health

Categories: A Day in the Life, Let's Go M's, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , ,

This is getting old.

This is getting old.

I write here a lot about competitiveness. So much so, apparently, that I wrote two posts entitled “Winning and Losing” on this blog, both mostly about RUDU, both in 2010, two posts separated by That Summer. You can read them, one from March 2010 and one from November 2010.

I also write a lot about the Mariners, hapless though they are. When people from Seattle get into my Uber (this happens a lot, especially lately, including a night where two parties from Seattle were in the car in a span of four trips), I describe myself as a “long-suffering Mariners fan”. This immediately establishes my credibility with these individuals, because just describing oneself as a Mariners fan doesn’t indicate that one has really truly committed to the experience. It’s about the suffering. In an ideal world (i.e. 2001), maybe that wouldn’t be true. But just like a Yankees fan identifies conceptually with swagger and a Red Sox fan with redemption, so does a Mariners fan identify with the inevitability of disaster. Even 2001 ended that way, as I misdocumented in 2014. And as I wrote about just about a month ago when Griffey entered the Hall of Fame, maybe 1995 was the only exception to the disaster narrative, since losing the ALCS was so beyond our wildest dreams that it counted as a total success. That said, though, there is something deviously Sisyphean about even that year. Without it, the Mariners would have left for Tampa and we would have been released from our torment forever. Instead, that year preserved our ability to watch this team roll a boulder up a hill, just past the tipping point, and scream “wait till next year” as it went back down the other side.

Am I being too fatalistic? It’s being drummed into me, just like the hope is being drummed out. Last night, the Mariners lost a baseball game in Chicago by the score of 7-6, blowing a 6-3 lead and surrendering the winning run in the bottom of the 9th. It was deja vu all over again. On Sunday, they blew a 6-3 lead over the Milwaukee Brewers entirely in the 9th, losing by a score of 7-6. Last Tuesday, they coughed up two runs in the bottom of the 8th to lose a game to the Angels (who’d lost 11 straight prior to the game) by a score of 7-6. And on the last day of July, they mounted a 6-0 lead in the first three innings against the Cubs, only to lose a walk-off in the bottom of the 12th by a score of … wait for it … 7-6.

Reader, I watched every inning of all of these games.

I have been thinking it’s a privilege of my new flexible schedule and plan that I can be invested in a Mariners season where the games count and the M’s are contenders. Because, despite the 4 gut-punchers (all in the last four weeks, mind you! and two in the last six days!) listed above, the Mariners are playing meaningful baseball in late August. They remain just 7.5 behind Texas in the AL West and 3 games out in the Wild Card, mostly behind a bevy of AL East teams destined to take games from each other and leave a slot open for a non-East team, probably. Of course, had they won just two of those four 7-6 losses, they’d be 5.5 out and 1 back, respectively. And all four? Well, then they’d be in playoff position, with a bit of a lead, and just 3.5 behind the Rangers.

The Mariners have the longest streak in baseball without visiting the playoffs, a stat made possible by the recent success of the Pirates and Blue Jays. Since setting a record for wins in 2001, their embarrassing 5-game exit from the ALCS against the Yankees is our last taste of October baseball. Call it the curse of 9/11. So many things in my life could go by that name.

And it felt like this could be the year to turn it around. I even intimated as much in that post about Griffey, that in ’95 it was Griffey’s return from injury that was the spark and this year, the return of Felix could mean the same. A week later, I briefly gave up on this scenario after the first of those 7-6 disasters. That was objectively the worst of the four – the only one they led 6-0 and the one in which they lost in extra innings after giving up 3 in the 9th with a 6-3 lead and their closer on the hill. They changed closers after that game and August started out amazing despite the last game in July feeling like a negative turning point. They opened August 14-5, which was close to the best record in the game that month, keeping pace with the red-hot Rangers and scratching to within a game of playoff position.

Since then, including two 7-6 blown games, they’re 1-4, dropping a series to the Yankees and losing 3 in a row. The magic seems to be off.

If past years are an indication, I will stop watching them now, giving up on them after just one too many echoey losses, they will start winning in my absence, they will pull me back in, and I will tune in just in time to watch them just miss the playoffs in some sort of epic-tragic way.

This is a privileged and silly problem to have, being a Mariners fan. Compared to being a Syrian refugee or a homeless American or anyone who doesn’t have time for baseball, it’s embarrassing to even worry or complain about. Part of me wants to delete this post, because it’s not about something that has a chance at changing those larger problems. Of course, part of me also recognizes that I depress the heck out of people when I only post about those things and that itself has a slight counter-productivity in some ways.

I think I summed it up best at the start of the 2015 season:

Sports are objectively stupid. They take valuable energy and resources away from fixing our problems, offering little beyond the value of pure entertainment, already an overrated pursuit in our society. I have made my peace with the fact that baseball is wasteful and unhelpful and still I love it and can’t help myself. I will always pursue it, always invest time and emotion and energy better suited for nobler things into the crack of the bat and the dive of the catch and the eruption of tens of thousands as a ball clears a wall. It’s silly. It’s nostalgic and beautiful and heart-rending and strategic, but it’s also silly.

But last night, I was mulling over whether this is really such a good use of time and mental energy. Ceding so much of my emotional investment to a team like the Mariners feels like flipping a slightly tails-heavy coin each day and walking around being really upset if it comes up tails. Of course, I’m awfully elated when it comes up heads. But is it really necessary for a manic-depressive to sign up for an additional emotional binary in each of his days for the duration of the warmer months of the year?

Yes, I’m watching the game tonight. Why do you ask?



Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

I am looking around the room and there is a little mug half-full of orange juice and don’t even get me started on where the mug came from because it’s another memento that should have died in the fire, the fire that never was. And I think a lot about this trend, this policy of not seeing drinks as a binding contract, something that must be finished; I’ve never felt that way about plates or meals but somehow always have felt that way about drinks but she doesn’t, which is completely fine of course, little collections of Coke and water and OJ to be dumped out in the sink when they’ve grown too stale, and bang, it takes me back to a little girl in a movie and the phrase “It’s contaminated.” The contaminated drawn out in the overly scripted way that smart children use to simulate being less smart children who don’t know a word or can’t get it out properly, the fake-child cheese that I definitely remember pulling out on occasion in early acting gigs because how could you not. And I remember where this comes from, the movie Signs, the movie I saw on my first or second night in New Orleans (I could look this up and will in a minute), the night I had concluded, we had concluded let’s be honest, that New Orleans was not for me (us), that this city that was so vaunted and talked up was really just a hall-of-fame for drinking for frat antics, for the kind of life that I (we) had rejected so early in college, which was why I (we) spent my (our) whole time debating instead. New Orleans was such a washout (oh God, that pun, really Storey, do you even listen to yourself sometimes?) that we had given up on it on night #1 (night #2? don’t look, it’s too painful) and said “Do you want to just see a movie?” and the other had been so relieved that we didn’t have to spend another night trying to make Bourbon Street work for us and we really thoroughly enjoyed the movie, even though it was maybe just slightly too scary for her and we walked out into a warm night under what I remember being a fullish moon and thinking that we would be able to get through anything together because we could jointly make decisions like this, of course. And now I know better, not about her frankly, because fuck that, but about New Orleans, that we were so unprepared to look for the real gems of the city, that the meme of Bourbon Street being The Place To Go is just silly and of course what any 23-year-old would know, but it’s not real, it’s not true, it’s not enough, and we could have seen so much more then just before the storm, before both storms, ha ha, not funny, how can you even compare, but there it is, and that theater became Canal Place, the same general location in the same mall, but nicer, more mealy and sit-downy and with overly fancy food and there will always be two reasons you don’t like going there, even though it’s where you took refuge in extreme moments of anger because you don’t cut yourself and you really try not to hit your head, just those two times really, so instead you do things like going to places where the memory is there. And you can ask, reasonably, well why the hell come to New Orleans and it’s like, don’t you understand this whole country is haunted? Because that’s what you try to do when you love someone, you take them everywhere, to places of memory, to new places, like some feral animal trying to mark your territory with the scent of love because you’re so damn happy to have it or so damn proud or you just want the whole country, planet, all your friends to smell like that person or because you don’t even think of it because that’s just who you are and what you do and what you love and you want to share share share everything and no one is there on your shoulder saying to reserve this place just in case, even though you remember wishing you’d done that in high school, though strangely that set of pilgrimages was to go back everywhere and make a new untainted memory except for perhaps that damn tree that you could never return to because really, there are limits to these things, aren’t there? Aren’t there? Where are the limits? Other than the limits that you can set yourself that you somehow miraculously manage to follow, while driving altogether too fast past Mardi Gras World, never ever Googling the day after blocking and never ever Googling the guy before because you know what kind of retinal damage would be done, that honestly the spots from the head-banging are nothing compared to that kind of injury, what you have to try to live up to and never can because you don’t have a chance in hell. And you tried so hard to block out all knowledge, but you couldn’t and there was a wedding on the day you were goddamned going to a wedding, you’ve got to be kidding me, and you couldn’t pull your eyes off of that one fast enough, no way, nohow, and are you really contemplating going to the Ballpark in Arlington (or whatever corporate bullshit name they’re calling it these days) ALONE, what kind of idiot are you really? That was that same trip, just a few days later (you could look up exactly how many, but don’t, not yet), and you want to spend three days there alone just because the Mariners are in a pennant race and they’re chasing Texas and you have a flexible schedule now in part to do things exactly like that, but are you thinking about this really, thoroughly? But then again, is it any different than anything else, really? Than the mugs and cups and glasses and papers and pictures and books and stuffed animals and posters and furniture and clothes and clothes and clothes that you literally surround yourself with? Really? Even your friends, your most supportive friends who have been so helpful and tried so hard trip over things all the damn time, because how can they not? When your whole life is a minefield and they want to be closer to you than seventy-five feet, they’re going to hit mines, them and especially her, her who is trying so hard it hurts, who you are desperately trying to repave places with her scent instead, but you have that sneaking suspicion in the back of your mind, put it away, no, it will be different this time, won’t it? Won’t it? You haven’t earned relating to this character enough, isn’t that why this book is in your life, this book you relate to more than you can almost ever remember relating to anything, isn’t it here to show you how much harder things would have to be to earn this kind of self-hate, this kind of self-doubt, this kind of aversion to everything. Or is that just more self-hate talking, that even your misery isn’t sufficiently earned because it’s so inferior to someone else’s misery, imagining the Damage Olympics and you’re up there with all your limbs intact and all your privileges strong and everyone’s laughing at you and your pain like you are the equivalent of the fat swimmer whose father was on your Olympic Committee so you got to go and party and finish last and expose corruption in your country for a day before American corruption stole the headlines back where they belonged. Why can’t you get out of your head? Why can’t you just You know, deep down, it’s something to do with your memory and its vividness, angels and demons, the curse of being able to imagine settings and recall them, plus of course the obsession with documentation (you could look up so much, just scratch that itch now, it’s nothing like Googling, the great unforgivable divide that you’ve honored all these years, it’s just your own archive, c’mon), after all even DFW took himself into electro-convulsive eventually, but of course that also killed him, just about literally, because it nuked his talent and he couldn’t work and this is just one of the many cautionary tales you dredge up when your friends pound you so hard to just go to therapy, just talk to someone, what’s the worst that can happen, we are insufficiently equipped to help you with this, your family is, your girlfriend sure as heck is (what are you trying to do to her, anyway, and are you really going to post this diatribe really in public where she and everyone can read it, really, what kind of catharsis will that give her, honestly, are you trying to kill everyone here?)? And it’s like well, the worst that can happen is you take your brain away through various chemical and electrical means and it’s a little silly to care so much about me getting through all this if the brain isn’t going to be intact, isn’t it, because that’s basically all that matters, it houses all these feelings and the belief that life is So Serious which after all is what may have separated you from all these people in the first place and made it unlivable, in the end that’s what it comes down to, isn’t it? That you care so much, too much, and that’s not meant to sound like the job-interview weakness, oh I Just Work Too Hard and Care Too Much, it’s the same kind of aggressive honesty that DFW talks about in Infinite Jest, no one actually wants that level of stifling, insecurity-bound self-reverberating honesty because it’s too much to be confronted by everything that’s going on behind someone’s eyes when they really spill it all out, there’s a reason that spill-your-guts is a cliche, because they are bloody ugly entrails and no one wants to see those and there’s a reason we have a visceral reaction to seeing and smelling that, our animal nature kicks in and says this is Wrong, I must Get Away, nature is upside-down when I can see innards and after all they are called innards for a reason, use the language you love so much you idiot. There is nowhere to run to, really, unless maybe you just move to Kazakhstan or somewhere else that isn’t contaminated (“It’s contaminated!”), burning all your stuff right before, I mean all your stuff, really, and shutting down pictures and memories and Facebook, you just go and it would look a little like the monastery plan in 2011 (God, how this book has made you re-look at that idea in a new and entrail-colored light) and you could go an volunteer somewhere and just try to cleanse all the memory away without actually excising it chemically, waiting to get old and senile and only have the memory of what’s in front of you. She would come with you, if that’s what you needed, you know she would, and isn’t that enough, maybe, to make it worth it, to know for sure? Or are you just another idiot human who believes there is a test for faith out there, you don’t need to read a book as brilliant as this one to know that faith is not there to be tested, that the whole notion of that is wrong, that this is the PTSD talking like it always does, the loudest and most explosive voice in the room, shouting down the reasonable elements because it is always behaving like the wounded animal it is. And like, yes, we get it, you need balm for your wounds and you just want to be heard, but maybe let someone else talk sometimes, maybe let someone else have the floor, we haven’t heard from Hope in a while, over there in the corner, smiling shyly at all these boorish injured guys in the room, don’t you have something to contribute to this discussion? And Hope looks down meekly, then looks up, and she admits that she just has the same platitudes and cliches that she’s always had, but maybe if you say them enough, they’ll work, and her voice tilts up at the end and almost squeaks, almost fades out, and you go over and try to hug her to the point where you’re almost crushing the wind out of her, and this is the problem with Hope, you can’t hold on to her like this or you’ll kill her, so you back off sheepishly and grab the back of your hot neck with a hand and then some other angry voice takes the floor and she just shrugs at you like she doesn’t even resent you almost strangling her with your embrace just now and you know Distraction will have the floor soon, the same Distraction that almost took over that dark desperate night in your dorm room in the Castle, the pulsing music of Cholmondoley’s blaring up and urging you to do drugs, to go to the equivalent of Bourbon Street that you have access to, to join the throng and the slippery phrase “self-medicate” because this is one of the real, tangible reasons that your memory is so much stronger and clearer and brighter and they have ways of fixing that. That every night you ferry people along their corridors of this decision, sometimes coaching them through the little memories that pop up and poke through, like the leg of an alien in the grass, just a glimpse that startles and the music is almost that dramatic in the background, whenever there’s a reference, an image, something you Did Not Google but have to see anyway, the world really does move beneath you, and for the wrong reasons and that shot of adrenaline shoots from your heart (sure, adrenaline is probably not literally stored in the heart, I guess it’s a jolt of blood or something) and jams in your brain and briefly fogs everything on landing and then it becomes clear, all too clear, so much clarity, and you just can’t wait anymore, you have to remember even clearly, distilled, like the vodka you won’t have, clear as a damn bell, what you were thinking at that moment, it will feel good to scratch the bite (mosquitoes, everything I own is a souvenir of Liberia), to watch it swell in size three times, because sometimes then it pops and the poisonous pus emerges and you can start to heal, yeah right, ha ha, have you even been paying attention?

31 July – 9 August 2002



Ryan Lochte’s America

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,


By now, you know the news that Ryan Lochte, whose claim of being robbed at gunpoint with friends overwhelmed Olympic coverage in Rio for days, was lying. He made the whole thing up, claiming to be pulled over by armed Brazilian thugs as a cover for being an American thug who beat up a bathroom and urinated outside. He underestimated a lot of things in this process, including the power of surveillance, the sophistication of the Brazilian government and people, and the intelligence of everyone. But the main thing he overestimated, as do most Americans spending any time outside the confines of this nation’s borders, was American Exceptionalism.

No better poster-boy could be imagined for American Exceptionalism, and for that at least, I guess we should be grateful to Lochte. For he shows us our true selves, as we really are: entitled, spoiled, lazy, violent, and willing to use words and the presumption of our innocence to manipulate, mislead, and ultimately abuse others. A gas station in Rio de Janeiro did not appear to him as a real place worthy of respect, merely as an obstacle to be destroyed when it did not suit his immediate wants. The people of Rio did not seem worthy of respect, so he made up a story that perpetuated dangerous stereotypes about their city. Even his friends were not deemed deserving his loyalty, so he fled the city before they could catch up to him. At every turn, the momentary whim and reputational superiority of Ryan Lochte were all that mattered.

Of course, he got caught. And the reason for his incredulity about this, the reason he could make such uncalculated and boneheaded decisions in the first place, is because of a more insidious part of American Exceptionalism. It’s not just the audacity to do and say and be things that no one else is allowed to. It’s the further insult of assuming everyone loves you for it.

It’s a tiny bit understandable why a star Olympic athlete would think this way. After all, he’s surrounded by a glorifying and grateful nation, where reporters ask him questions no harder than “Were you happy after winning the gold medal?” Everywhere he goes, he’s admired for his physique, his athletic achievements, his contributions to our country. So perhaps it’s easy then to think he’d be untouchable, that all he’d have to do after a night of roughing up some facilities in Rio is make up a plausible-sounding lie about those dangerous natives and their treacherous ways. But if we miss the larger point of Lochte here, we do ourselves a mighty disservice. His need to be the victim, to be the one in danger and protected, when he was in fact the threat: this is the beating dark heart of American Exceptionalism.

It is through our wailing victimhood that we attempt to curry the favor of a subservient planet. Even though we use more resources than anyone, even though we accumulate more wealth at the expense of literally everyone else, you must feel bad for the poor, poor American people. It is us, not you, who knows what it truly means to suffer. We are the ones who are attacked, who are victimized, who are in need of recompense and now. And we actually believe that the rest of the world goes along with this prioritization. How else to explain reporting on terror attacks abroad where the headline is that one American was killed, and only the subhead mentions the 63 others dead? How else to explain our endless citation of 9/11 as a reason to permanently, endlessly bomb tens of other countries? To reserve the right to bomb any of them, at any time, including any civilians who make the mistake of being in the same square mile as a suspected “terrorist”?

Of course the Emperor, like Lochte himself in the pool, has no clothes. Mercifully the rest of the world, when not being bullied into a vote at the UN at least, sees through the pitiable attempts of Americans to grab the title of most wronged people. They have their surveillance cameras out, they talk to their police, they are willing to ask slightly more probing questions than “was it just awful for you to go through that?” The world can see Americans for the brash bullies that we are, hogging everything and complaining that we don’t get more.

So the next time someone asks “why they hate us,” think of Ryan Lochte. Think of what you would think of this flag-draped American hero were you not from the same country he is. The man is an unrepentant, muscular, unthinking model of the way we put ourselves out into the world. We expect to cruise through it on charm, good looks, and the envy of others. They aren’t buying it anymore. They’ve caught us on tape, desecrating their land, disrespecting their people. And they’re going to call us out.

Maybe we should spend less time going for the gold. Maybe we’d be better off thinking about the weight on others’ shoulders first before trying to adorn our own.


It’s Not Fermi

Categories: A Day in the Life, Hypothetically Speaking, Tags: ,


The other day, I was talking online to someone with whom I disagree about everything about the Fermi Paradox. “Talking online” here, as used, is a euphemism for “commenting on each other’s Facebook posts”. The Fermi Paradox wrestles with the consternating observed reality that while the universe mathematically must be simply teeming with intelligent life, we haven’t found any yet. Why is this the case?

Said person pointed me in the direction of the so-called Great Filter, which says that one of the nine steps necessary for widespread intelligent intergalactic contact must be missing. Which seems pretty bogus given that most of the things they think might be missing are things like star-systems with conventionally considered habitable planets (which are everywhere) or cellular life. This last always strikes me as a failure in imagination – just because we are cellular life, why would all life be cellular? We reproduce sexually, but not even all life we observe does that. Why would anything we observe locally be a universal in a universe so big we literally can’t even fathom it?

Regardless, the one that I might buy in the Great Filter is that the universe is unexplorably huge. This is one of two arguments that resolve the Fermi Paradox that I find pretty compelling. And as a believer in an intentionally designed universe, I do think that many (all?) planets are left in deliberate isolation so that they can’t interfere with each other, which also plays into my belief about reincarnation on different planets (never the same one twice), which could conceivably get awkward if the planets were mixing and matching. It’s worth noting that our understanding of the speed of light as an upper limit on travel has never really been breached, despite our desire to hypothesize wildly infeasible solutions to the problem. Which kind of explains how people can believe that just buying a new kind of lightbulb will solve global climate change, not, y’know, the death of capitalism and nothing short of that.

After all, if I were going to design a planet with the intent to convey that it is both part of a vast and larger whole, but that said whole was not to distract them from solving problems at home, what better way than to show them the stars but not let them get very far into them? So that their imagination could conceive that much more and greater than themselves was out there, but that running away was not the way to fix things? If you have a better way of demonstrating that, let me know.

The other solution I’m drawn to, of course, is the so-called Zoo Hypothesis, which states that we are under deliberate quarantine and observation by some individual or confederation of alien life. This actually kind of fits pretty well with the unbridgeable distances idea – we’re not meant to get out and about just yet, until we meet certain standards of decency (that old thorny issue of not beating each other about the head and torso comes to mind). It’s kind of funny that we can envision the Prime Directive as a standard for a hypothetical Star Trek, but be less inclined to think we would be subject to this law as applied by a more advanced star fleet patrolling the galaxy. Of course, they never really honor said Directive in Star Trek and we humans have real trouble imagining anything more advanced than we are being possible (a sick sort of extension of American Exceptionalism, really), so maybe we never really spend a lot of time seriously engaging with the real notion of leaving species alone until they figure things out to a certain level for themselves. It’s important to note that I don’t think this means the people raving about abductions and even crop circles are accurate – quarantine would mean actually quarantined under the auspices of a civilization sufficiently advanced to get here and put that protocol in place. The red-line I envision being somewhere about three solar-system-lengths out – surely observation technology would be sufficiently advanced by that point. Unless we’re the only intelligent species that thinks sophisticated surveillance is an important technological advancement.

But the needly one that everyone seems most drawn to as an answer to the Fermi Paradox is that we all kill ourselves before we can get very far. This was a really popular pick during the Cold War, for obvious reasons, and is resurging in trendiness as we face climate change and terrorism and the relaunch of Full House on television. And it’s one that I don’t find terribly compelling, if for no other reason than our own shortcomings in imagination again (we really think we represent the smartest species when we mostly apply technology to killing each other?). And then there’s the slightly more interesting offshoot of this, that we entertain ourselves into irrelevance – that about the time we can create compelling VR, we’d rather plug ourselves into that than either venture out of the solar system or solve our actually real problems. (Indeed, perhaps the most compelling argument against us being in a VR simulator right now is that so many of us are so unhappy.)

I have recently discovered the most compelling evidence I can for this sad and fatalistic solution to the Paradox. Apparently, some guy, working alone in a lab (literally), has been experimenting with creating artificial black holes. You know, black holes? Those things that are the most terrifying concept you ever heard of before a Clinton supporter described their vision of Donald Trump? The things that literally swallow everything that crosses their path, including light, never to relinquish it again?

It’s almost like the guy was sitting down one day and contemplating how to cause the most harm possible. Large Hadron Collider? Nah, insulates the chain-reaction too well! Genetically engineer fifty Hitlers? Not dangerous enough! Fracking? Destroys things so slowly! I know, we’ll try to recreate the thing that grows infinitely and eats everything, shrouding it in vanished darkness! What could possibly go wrong?

To be fair, it turns out that he’s only tried to create a sonic simulation of black holes, not the light-eating ones that actually patrol the universe. And it’s only a few microns in size. But given that we basically don’t understand where black holes come from or why and only know that they create unfathomable destruction and chaos, maybe we should consider self-restraint just this one single time? Our insatiable curiosity may be why we became intelligent in the first place, but even a cat knows when to say when by comparison to this. My new leading theory is that all those black holes out there were created by super-smart scientists who had no mental filter whatsoever, living in societies like ours so in love with their shiny new science that they killed philosophy off altogether. We’ll just create a small black hole, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.

In the end, hubris is the real killer. It takes enormous strength to decide what we won’t do and stick to it.


From Here to There

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, Marching to New Orleans, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

She gets in the car and laughs. I confirm that it’s for Jimmy and she says yes and shakes her head in ongoing amusement. I ask her what and she says “He got it exactly right. Jimmy described you exactly.” And I ask her what she means by this and she says “A white guy with long hair. That’s what you are.”

We head toward her destination, an apartment all but under the freeway, the area within two blocks of which I advise tourists not to drive alone. This is a decently long way from the riverside Tchoupatoulis apartment where I picked her up, worlds away in New Orleanian perception. We have time for a longer talk, Friday night traffic being what it is likely to be. I’m just getting underway with my night.

She talks about how she’s sick and it’s hard to be sick in the summer. But she doesn’t think she’s that sick and she won’t be for long. Her boyfriend’s been sick and got her sick, a little, but she’s fighting it off, but she apologizes for her voice, which is just a touch scratchy and punctuated by little sniffles. She says she just had a long nap and is feeling better.

She asks me some standard origin questions and I ask if she’s from here and she say she is, but spent a lot of time in Houston, after the storm. Her brother was still there, until he died. She does not say how. She talks about her brother’s kids and her brother’s young wife and how it was sudden and she’s thankful that her sister-in-law keeps in touch with this side of the family, because they don’t always and those children are her family, too. How her other brother signed up for the army shortly after and her own mother tried to forbid it. She couldn’t stand to lose another boy, her other boy, so soon, but it was not her choice to make.

“You know, from the beginning, he’s just always been about Call of Duty. That’s his whole life, he’s always playing and so into it. He’s always wanted to live like that. So we prayed for him and sent him on his way.” He is, apparently, in Afghanistan at the moment. They don’t hear from him too often and their mother can’t even stand to think about it.

She talks about her own kids, about their father, about how his new girlfriend and her new boyfriend all pitch in to raise them, it’s a family affair. She is currently going from the house with the father and the kids to the house with the boyfriend, or possibly the other way, but I end up being pretty sure it’s the former by the end of the ride when she starts criticizing her boyfriend’s taste in housing locations. As we turn under the highway, there are two police cars boxing in a third non-police car, lights aglow, and she almost reflexively flinches, doing it in a verbal way I can catch without even checking my blindspot. She starts in again about the location, too close to the freeway, too close to where the cops are always looking to make trouble. I think about her brother, a cop of a kind in a foreign land, called into the recruiting office by the siren call of Call of Duty.

I think of Pokemon lures and who designed Call of Duty and what it was designed for. I think of the unsuspecting quest for entertainment and how it traps us into decisions that, by the end, feel like destiny. I don’t choose to share this line of self-interrogation with her, don’t need to sound like that about these military recruitment games being designed as well, military recruitment. It’s bad enough to think your brother is risking everything out of a sense of fulfilling what he always enjoyed most without thinking someone manipulated him into it. Best not worry about that until he comes home. Or doesn’t.

We have had time, if briefly, to cross over my own relationship history, my own uncertainty about having children, the fear of the future I rarely had until my divorce. She seems certain that these things work out, that they will always be better in surprising ways than you expect. A level of certainty I dare not try to convey about her own siblings, especially with one lost so recently. I wonder if I am the fretting mother, or would be, and I wonder what I would do with a child who wanted to play Call of Duty all the time, and it becomes overwhelming, the inability to be sure of anything. The phrase “that’s why they play the game” bubbles up into my mind, meaning at least two things in this context.

We are at not-Jimmy’s house, just out of sight of the spinning blue lights of the cop cars. The highway looms dark and ominous above, punctuated by engine revs and tire squeals. She mentions again how he wishes he would move, but there is inertia and the rent is cheap over here. I wish her and all her family the best, her brother in Afghanistan, sister and sister-in-law in Houston, her kids and her dead brother’s kids and Jimmy and not-Jimmy, whose name I never learned. She shakes my hand, finally giving me her name for the first time, asking me for mine. She hopes I have a safe night.

I pull away from the curb slowly, envisioning what it is like to realize life is not like a video game, as I give Jimmy 5 stars and wait for the next ping to take me in a new direction.



It Can’t Happen Here

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,


Long-time readers will know that I am really frustrated by American exceptionalism. Heck, short-time readers will probably realize this. You should also be frustrated by American exceptionalism. It blinds us to understanding deeper realities about ourselves and how we interact with the rest of the world, in addition to upsetting everyone else on the planet who cannot claim to be part of this allegedly exceptional super-country. Think how much you personally love it when other people claim to be part of a group that’s innately superior to any group you could ever be a part of. Feels pretty bad, doesn’t it?

American exceptionalism is also deeply rooted in a belief about our somehow non-transient nature. Forget how dangerous it is for any individual person to start thinking of themselves as a permanent corporeal entity. Thinking of our country the same way is just uniformed about the nature of the world. The Roman Empire, which made it about five times as long as the USA, felt they were exceptional, invincible, and permanent. It’s a common misconception that the successful have about themselves, from Bernie Madoff to Lehman Brothers to Alexander the Great to Napoleon. And believing that you and your movement are forever helps convince other people to follow you, often blindly, often into oblivion. Being more circumspect about one’s chances at permanence and one’s real role in an ever-changing world certainly looks weaker at first blush, but carries the added bonus of being grounded in reality.

The place where this is most coming home to roost in 2016 is the story we Americans tell ourselves about false-flag operations in other countries, but never in our own. Almost immediately upon news breaking of the coup in Turkey (and the realization that it would probably fail), the Western media began questioning the official story and purporting that Erdogan had made the whole thing up, created a theatrical imitation of a coup, killed a few hundred people to sell the story, and packaged it for media consumption. All of this as a pretense for a despotic crackdown on rights and freedoms that would follow, cementing his (Islamist) stranglehold on power.

This treatment of international news got almost immediate echoes a few days later when WikiLeaks published a trove of e-mails from the DNC demonstrating that Bernie Sanders was not given a fair chance of winning the Democratic primaries and that key party brass was with Hillary Clinton all along. The biggest news story for me is that anyone thought this was news, but it was at least nice to be able to hold up the evidence to DNC apologists who claimed that Clinton won the primaries fairly. Almost upon release of the documents, however, DNC proponents and major media outlets circled the wagons to release the rumor that Russia was the hacker that had made this possible, that Russia was manipulating the US election, that shady nefarious Soviet, er, Russian forces sought to control the government through an imperius curse or similar.

By today, August 1st, US media simply reports these swirly false-flag rumors as factually true. Oh sure, they throw in an allegedly with scare-quotes occasionally, like the “alleged” mass-murderer who was caught on fifteen cameras blowing people away. And my issue with this isn’t what you might think. Erdogan probably did stage the so-called coup attempt. The Russians probably did hack the DNC. But you know what else? It happens here too!

Now I’m not trying to dredge up 9/11 specifically, because once you start talking about 9/11 and false-flag in the same sentence, people immediately call the men with the white coats and stop listening. That can be another discussion for another time. But it is aggravating beyond all belief that the American public and American media so willingly look at practically every foreign government action as shady theater intended to manipulate their public, but presume that nothing like that could ever be perpetrated by their government. JFK, MLK, and RFK were all shot by exactly the lone nut we caught and no one else ever! Every instance of American aggression was prompted by an initiation of aggression by some other much weaker power who just expected we wouldn’t hit back! Everything announced from the Oval Office or the Pentagon is completely as it seems!

The problem is that even if you wanted to believe this exceptionalist fairy tale, it’s demonstrably false. No government in history has been so obsessed with its own secrecy as the US of the last fifty years, sealing documents, shredding everything, and layering the blanket of national security to protect against anyone seeking to disinfect with sunlight. And despite this, the evidence that has leaked out is overwhelming. The battleship Maine, the Gulf of Tonkin, and possibly Pearl Harbor were all false-flag operations, done with the complicity or outright framing of the US government. Two decades of operations in Latin America were conducted by clandestine US operatives, usually propping up mass-murdering dictators at the expense of civilians seeking a greater voice in their governance. Even today, black sites, rendition, and unmanned bombings dominate US operations abroad, all laden in the don’t-ask don’t-tell policy of the contemporary American military. We beat the bad propaganda of the Vietnam era by refusing to count bodies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria, or anywhere else. When someone tries to force a body count, all men over the age of 14 are hastily labeled terrorist combatants, whether they were in a hospital, a school, or playing soccer in their yard.

This is the government that you think is incapable of false-flag operations? Really?!

It’s just taken for granted when you look at world politics that most of those governments are trying to consolidate power and quell dissent through the use of theatrical false-flag incidents. Yet you think the most powerful, greedy, and successful country on the planet is the one that’s immune to this kind of behavior?

I don’t think you have to go as big as 9/11, though feel free to if you want. The shootings of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge, both committed by ex-military personnel. An endless litany of “thwarted terrorist attacks” including the liquid one and the shoe one that categorically and permanently changed our airplane boarding operations. Committed by people without a third-grade level of preparation. When we know that the CIA and FBI are trying to infiltrate every group with even a whisper of “radicalization” to it. Banking crises and oil shocks and an endless series of disaster-capitalism events that enrich a few people at the expense of millions.

I’m not saying all these things are guaranteed to be iron-clad false-flag incidents. But I am saying it’s outrageous that we don’t, as a wider political audience, consider the possibility more frequently. Doesn’t it seems strange that we assume every other government is operating this way, hell, that every business pitch involves plants designed to manipulate the crowd into thinking a certain way, but the US government with its steadfast history of non-secret non-corrupt practices is the one shining exceptional beacon on the hill?

Maybe our exceptionalism narrative is the greatest false-flag narrative of all-time itself.


My Frustration Runneth Over

Categories: A Day in the Life, Metablogging, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , , ,

I may have spent too much of 2016 posting on Facebook about politics.

Remember the dilemma I discussed ten days ago about working on entertaining quizzes for millions or serious books for a handful of people? That’s my only defense. Facebook is today’s version of standing on the soapbox in the town square: one immediately gets the attention and reaction of hundreds of people. And for a long-time APDA debater and coach, that means hundreds of people who are interested and interesting, with tons of practice discussing and arguing about issues in a serious (and sometimes snarky) way. It’s a perfect venue for jumping into the open forum.

Except, of course, it’s not a perfect venue. Because my ideas are not, generally speaking, popular. It could be reasonably said that I think most things most people are doing most of the time are in some way wrong. Doubly so for politicians. We live in an imperialist society that believes murdering other people is the best way to “get things done.” That action always trumps inaction, as long as that action comes in the form of a threat, a drone strike, or the spread of unfettered crony-corporate capitalism. A society that slaughters billions of animals for food and clothing, that believes its own citizens are the chosen people who deserve to rule in wealth and power because they happened to be born on American soil. There’s not a lot I look at and say “you know what, we’re doing that right!”

And people don’t like being told they’re wrong. Especially by someone whose opinion is the outlier, is the exception, is discordant with the chorus of self-aggrandizing societal voices that proclaim how America is the best that ever was, is, or will be. That mantric doctrine of our greatness is a great antidote to the self-criticism that is necessary for self-improvement. But it would hardly be fair for me to exhort everyone else to self-reflection without engaging in it myself from time to time. And at a certain point, I have to wonder what good is being done by pressing the shiny blue button to reach out to hundreds of over-educated people and poke them with a stick about this election and the related questions it raises. And it presents a really difficult set of quandaries. On the one hand, I believe in means and not ends, and the means of trying to provoke thought and get people to question themselves is one I believe in. On the other, if I’m not actually eliciting that reaction in much of anyone and am instead just hardening their resolve to fight me, then it seems like a bad use of time and energy. And one that demoralizes both me and those who disagree with me, which is hardly the point.

I would imagine this fatigue is not unique to me. I would guess that plenty of people with vastly more mainstream views have hit the point, perhaps repeatedly in 2016, where they just don’t know what good it is anymore to talk to other people about politics. My Dad and some of the more conspiratorially minded folks out there might argue that this is the carefully constructed reality of 2016 in America: make everyone lose interest in politics by putting up two thoroughly hated candidates and having them argue vitriolically like the whole world hangs in the balance. At a certain point, no one will even care. This is part of what fuels my conviction that about 5 people in each state (not literally) will vote by the end of it – the demoralization factor is just too high of facing another 100 days of intensifying outrage about ClinTrump. But I think my fatigue has a deeper tenor to it when coupled with the realization that no one outside of a narrow band of far-left fringers is embracing what I find to be the most important issues in 2016. Or issue really: let’s stop bombing the daylights out of everything that moves in other countries.

It is horrifying that we live in a nation that can indiscriminately bomb a hundred civilians that we’re allegedly trying to save in Syria and mention of this incident escapes both national conventions. Horrifying. If any other country did that to us, to our special American people, we’d be clamoring for their immediate death at both conventions. Oh wait, we are doing exactly that. Hey, in the end, maybe “they hate us for our freedom” is right after all. Since our definition of “our freedom” includes the right to kill anyone else in any other country at any time and not even notice.

So what is this post for? I guess just to blow off steam. To reach out to the few like-minded people (and there are a few, several even, since my snarky frustrated Facebook posts still get some likes and laughs and whatever emoji are out there to make us feel reaffirmed across the digital divide). To put on the record that if I stop posting where anyone can see or will regularly react, I still felt a certain way and was still upset and still registered my dissent somewhere in the ether. After all, everyone who disagrees with me thinks that voting is not the place for dissent and they sure seem to get frustrated when I use Facebook to voice it. Ultimately, what I’m realizing is that the centrist Democratic movement is just not interested in dissent at all. Just as America will always vilify the next enemy, often an enemy of our own literal creation, as the real biggest, most existential threat we’ve ever faced, so too will the pseudo-left always say that this next Republican nominee is the real biggest, most existentially threatening potential President.

The left is the Chicago Cubs of American politics, always having to wait till next year no matter how promising this year’s candidates seemed. We are Charlie Brown and the Democratic Party is Lucy and we keep waking up on the ground with a concussion wondering how the hell we fell for it.

So here I offer a series of lines I’ve almost posted on Facebook this week, every time choosing not to as I wonder “what’s the point?” and “am I doing more harm to my belief structure than good?” before choosing to let hard-core Democrats just revel in being Democrats in peace…

A note of warning: I am not trying to start a fight. If you are hard-left and dissatisfied with ClinTrump, read on. If you are able to be self-critical about the Democratic Party, proceed with caution. If you are just looking to revel in your love of Hillary and the American electoral system, you should probably go read Vox or Slate or the New York Times right now instead. Seriously. I am not trying to upset you. I am just trying to say this stuff somewhere, quietly, where the people who are open to this can hear me.

-I am so proud to live in a country where every President’s wife can dream of someday becoming President.

-There are plenty of reasons you can choose to prefer Clinton to Trump. Likelihood of starting World War III is not among them.

-Nothing makes it more clear that we need to update the Constitution than hearing every Democratic speech punctuate on “all men are created equal” while they nominate a woman to be President.

-The two major parties in America are obsessed with American greatness. One says America was great before we offered rights to most of our citizens. The other says this moment of unending war and maximum wealth inequality is the height of our greatness. I want a party that says we’re not great, we’ve never been great, and we’re going to have work very hard to even start being good.

-The Democrats lecturing American voters about how Trump is too crass and embarrassing to be President contrasts especially poorly with giving Bill Clinton a keynote address.

-To everyone who posted that outrage about the papers running a picture of Bill Clinton with the headline about Hillary Clinton winning the nomination: Hillary wasn’t even at the convention that day! Are they really going to run a grainy picture of her appearing on the jumbotron with that headline? She chose to make Bill the headliner of the night, to make him the story. You cannot choose to run almost entirely on your husband’s coattails and then feign outrage or claim sexism when the media parrots that narrative. This is why Hillary being the first woman President is so bad for feminism. It presents that image. And the only reasonable response is “well, the first woman President had to use this path to the Presidency,” which is an even worse message for feminism. And not a true one. Elizabeth Warren would have won this nomination in a landslide, and beaten Trump in an even bigger one.

-Facebook really needs to add “eyeroll” to their reaction-emoji slate.

-I’ve clicked on several articles which compare the DNC leaks issue to Watergate, wondering if someone has finally made the proper analogy. But they keep comparing Nixon to the leakers, not the DNC. It was the DNC trying to use every tool available to shut out their opponents and secure a particular election outcome. And if you say “but Bernie never had a chance,” how good do you think the Democrats’ chances were in 1972? Even if you’re right, that’s totally not the point. Nixon still resigned over attempting to rig an election he already had locked up.

-The Democrats really have entirely subsumed the Reagan Revolution mantle. Morning in America. War footing with Russia. Wealth inequality is a-okay. Thanks, Clintons.

-Democrats will always blame the left for everything. They are incapable of seeing flaws in their own series of centrist do-nothing warhawks. If Clinton loses to Trump, the left will be blamed. When Gore lost to Bush, they blamed Nader instead of blaming a candidate so uninspiring he couldn’t even carry his own home state. This is a formula for silencing the left. Democrats are not interested in allowing the left a seat at the table, only in taking them for granted, whipping them into submission, and shaming them for all of their own shortfalls. The Democrats could literally have nominated Mussolini’s ghost this year and all they would do if they lost is shame the left for not falling in line behind this year’s alleged savior.

-Literally nothing is less relevant than the party platform. Like any platform, the candidates just walk all over it.

-I still cannot fathom how the lesson we carry forward from 2008 is that Obama did a good job saving us from ourselves and not that capitalism creates existential disasters out of thin air. Any country less in love with itself would have let capitalism die, sobered up, and worked to develop a new system of ordering society. I would feel sad that 2008 was the one missed opportunity to make sweeping change and fix things, but I know that capitalism will offer many more such opportunities and soon.

-What every Democrat telling leftists to suck it up and wait for 2024 misses is that, if we have 16 solid years of Obama and Clinton, the left will have been utterly eradicated from the party by the end of that. Everyone will look at 2024 and say “well, we can’t risk a leftist – look how successful we’ve been with all these centrists!” There is no plan to eventually incorporate the progressive movement, just to assimilate it into centrism.

-It is hilarious to see Democrats taking credit for progress in the last eight years. I know many people love Obamacare and forget that it was a Republican-authored plan. But gay marriage had nothing to do with Democrats and all of the Democratic leadership disavowed it until the absolute 11th hour when it had already become inevitable. Change does not take place incrementally through political machinations. It is sweeping and it involves changing people’s hearts and minds. The civil rights movement did not quietly work in legislative halls, they took it to the streets and illustrated the injustice of the status quo. If Martin Luther King had taken the modern Democrats’ advice, we would still have Jim Crow, just a slightly milder version, and the Democrats would be shouting from the rooftops how great those slight rollbacks of Jim Crow were.

-Gay marriage is a vastly more radical idea than stopping war. It’s been around a lot less time as a concept and was far weirder to people when first proposed. Why is it just so unthinkable to both major parties that we would ever stop war? There are so many creative ways of influencing world events for the better that don’t involve murdering people. This is literally the only lesson that’s been clear in 6,000 years of human history. Why is it so damn hard for people to internalize?

I don’t know what image to use for this post, but posts should have an image to catch people’s eye on Facebook and Twitter. Which I’m not sure I even want to do, for reasons stated above. Even in quietly venting my frustration, I’m still thinking in terms of getting this out, at least to people who agree in whole or in part. Ah, the problem of being a person. So what image? Here, have a picture of Bernie looking like I feel:



The Surprising Nourishment of Human Connection

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, Marching to New Orleans, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , , ,


The world is a scary place. It’s always been a scary place, but 2016 is marking a transition where people in the traditionally sheltered and over-privileged “first world” (or “developed world” if you prefer) are having to feel the heat of its scariness as well. No longer are bombings and acts of violence something that happens “over there” in the bad neighborhoods or difficult countries, but the violence perpetuated by the leading countries in our world is coming home to roost. I say this not to celebrate the expansion of violence, but to put it into a context where we can understand it and start to unpack it. People all over America have grown weary of clicking on headlines about the latest mass shooting, the next terror threat or attack, the most recent bomb to go off in a country they may actually consider visiting, the late execution of an unarmed minority on the streets of our cities.

This is not going to be a primarily political post, but I wanted to start with that context because I think it’s especially pertinent in how we choose to respond to the burgeoning crisis of creeping violence in a world that should know better. It is easy to lose heart, to lose faith, to crawl back inside our living rooms and covers in fear. The major party candidates are courting and counting on that fear, both advocating stringent violent responses to every possible threat, real or perceived. There is little to no realistic hope that the years 2016-2020 will mark an era of peace and conciliation on the world stage. People are increasingly fearful, increasingly defensive, increasingly entrenched. So where to find hope?

For me, it’s been in the car.

I think it’s been surprising to a fair number of people that I’ve, for a time at least, walked away from the world of day jobs and the resume ladder to pursue modern day taxi driving through Uber. It’s surprised me, to be honest. And while I’ve spent my whole “career” looking for gigs that afford me the opportunity to work seriously on my writing and prioritize those goals, I can’t say as driving a taxi was even high on my “regular jobs” list of more mundane uses of time, like, say, postal worker (a two-year interest as a young child), or, say, hotel night manager.

Some of the appeal of Uber is more obvious and thus probably less surprising to those who know me best. It can be done primarily overnight, hours that I have always favored since I was first allowed to see them regularly. It has no direct manager or supervisor, as I have often butted heads with bosses, as have we all. It carries an utterly flexible schedule, offering the promise of time to write and pursue creative interests. And it doesn’t follow you home. Most day jobs, especially those high profile enough to be satisfying to serious people, carry substantial mission creep. In addition to their lengthy scheduled hours, there is endless mental and actual homework to be done, crowding out the ability to use any outside time for pursuits that are not sleep and recreation.

But the big surprise of Uber has been the actual satisfaction with the time spent driving. It’s not that I simply love driving, though night driving has always had a special place in my heart and it’s hard to argue with the scenery of historically gorgeous New Orleans. It’s the human connections that take place regularly while driving, while driving every night. And increasingly, in a world where I feel politically disheartened and depressed, this has been what sustains me. I get nightly reminders that people are fundamentally good, fundamentally interesting, fundamentally human. And I think that focusing on this reality and finding ways to remind ourselves of this key truth is one of the best ways to keep the best parts of our society going as we face the next few years.

Yes, there are plenty of people who are simply wasted. And I’ve had now three people drop the n-word in my car, the first two on the same night laden with violent threats and invective, the last one just last night, a semi-famous movie industry hack who added other racial slurs and gave me my first ever 1-star rating in revenge for me rating him that way (note to Uber: you need to fix the ability of riders to know that you down-rated them before they rate drivers). These experiences are disheartening: seven years in the Bay Area had almost convinced me that racism was largely vanquished in America, especially in the younger generations, but time in Jersey and New Orleans (along with all the horrible police shootings) has since corrected this gross misperception. People spill drinks in the car and don’t tell you, people rant and rave in their drunkenness, people spout drivel sometimes. But these experiences, combined, are the vast vast exceptions. Most people are amazing.

At least four or five times a night, every time that I drive, I have incredible conversations with people. And at least once a night, I have a really transcendent conversation, one that pushes past the typical initial small talk and into real human connection. I’m never going to see 95% of these people again, we’re never going to have more than the five to fifteen minutes we share on the quieting streets of 2:30 AM New Orleans, but we still manage to share intimate details of our lives, hopes, fears, and perceptions. It’s downright amazing.

There is an intimacy in a shared car ride that is hard to match in other environments in our society. And I manipulate the situation a bit by maintaining silence in the car unless people request music or unless efforts to strike up a conversation flag and the trip is going to be long. I have discussed my issues with our society requiring background noise in every environment before, and indeed many riders when I offer music say they just prefer the silence as a refreshing change from all their other experiences. But usually that little break from the bumping music of clubs and bars, the incessant beeping and blooping of our devices, that pause opens up the opportunity to reach out and talk about the things we don’t always discuss.

There is also the opportunity created specifically by strangers which is a fairly well documented phenomenon, but perhaps under-appreciated outside the context of professional therapy. It is precisely the fact that Uber riders are unaccountable to future interactions with me that makes it more likely for them to open up about specific grievances, troubles, or insights about the world and their lives. Granted, this avenue along with my whiteness also makes them guess I will be receptive to their racism, but that’s literally been three unfortunate rides out of 532 to date. In many more cases, however, it inclines them to open up about their relationship troubles, their proposed solutions for the ills of the world, their laments and dreams about their careers, their creative ideas. And those shared moments are solid gold. They are the fuel that keeps me going these days, not just to keep driving the lonely overnight hours in search of riders, but to continue to believe in the underlying goodness and progress of the human spirit.

There are a thousand ways in which technology has been blamed for pulling us apart, despite it shortening the distances of communication on our planet. We are absorbed with our mini pocket computers, we look down and not up, we argue anonymously or with our friends on Facebook when we could be making real memories. But I think Uber is a remarkable development that’s enabled us to restore some of those lost moments of true connection and even create the opportunity for previously impossible conversations. Yes, people have probably been having these chats with their taxi drivers for years, but it feels like there’s something about Uber and Lyft that makes it more likely. Perhaps it’s the human face that shows up on the app, transforming the driver into a real person. Maybe it’s the mutual-feedback system that triggers the urge for people to impress each other just a little bit, to reach out a tiny bit more. Indeed, the success in these operations overcoming the cardinal rule of our youth (don’t get in cars with strangers) is itself a giant exercise in restoring our faith in humanity. The world is not out to get you, with danger lurking at every turn. 99% of people are out there seeking to make your day better, to find something in common, to find a shared thought, belief, or feeling in the darkness.


The Kid in the Hall

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Let's Go M's, Tags: , ,


Any Mariners fan knows that 1995 was the most magical year of baseball in our history. The Mariners overcame a 13.5-game deficit (11.5 games on August 24th, with just over a month to go in the season) to catch the California Angels, beat them in a 1-game playoff, come back in the 11th inning to beat the Yankees in the franchise’s first playoff series ever, before finally coughing up the ALCS in 6 games. The comeback is perhaps the most legendary in baseball history, but it has a dirty little secret. While reputed as being a fundamentally miraculous turnaround, it coincided completely with the return of one legendary player from injury, who immediately transformed the team from a plucky .500 club to a team with a world-class centerpiece.

That same person ignited the first game that started the turnaround, which happened to be his first game back from an injury that had befallen him in May. He also scored the winning run in the Yankees series. And from today on, he’s a Hall of Famer.

Ken Griffey, Jr. is known for saving baseball in Seattle. The Kid, as he was called from day one in Seattle, debuted in April 1989 at the age of 19. I was 9 years old, living on the Oregon coast, and in my first full year of baseball fandom. I didn’t root primarily for the M’s at the time, but that season of hearing Dave Niehaus recite the dynamic accomplishments of the rookie was already helping turn me away from the team that would win the championship that season and to a lovable band of perennial losers. Of course, Griffey was determined to change the narrative in Seattle. He didn’t save baseball in the city, he created it.

He didn’t do it alone, surely. Edgar and Randy and all the guys had a big part to play in the 1990s Mariner squads that turned the tide of history for the club and kept them from moving to Tampa Bay, something that was all but a done deal midway through the ’95 campaign. But without Griffey, it’s hard to imagine any of that success. When he went down with his severe wrist injury that May, it seemed like fate was truly out to get the M’s. The 1994 strike had felled a team that had won 9 of their last 10 and was closing in on first, while Griffey was having a career year. Even 1995 was shortened by the strike, with the season getting off to a late start that made The Kid’s absence even more powerful. As soon as he came back, Refuse to Lose was born. So 1995 isn’t just the story of an unbelievable comeback. The comeback is made a little more believable by the infusion of one of the greatest of all-time.

It’s easy to see echoes of 1995 in 2016. Of course, as I’ve said in several of my “Let’s Go M’s” posts on this blog, it’s easy for a Mariners fan to see echoes of 1995 in every season. Once your team has overcome an 11.5 game deficit starting in late August, no lead in the standings feels insurmountable ever after. But after a hot start this year, the M’s have struggled mightily in midsummer, falling back to .500 after a year that promised to finally end our longest-in-baseball playoff drought. Of course, there’s a dirty little secret behind this collapse as well: the injury to Felix Hernandez.

On May 27 of this year (Griffey’s ’95 injury had taken place on May 26 when he crashed into a wall), Felix pitched his last game before going on the Disabled List with a calf injury. At the time, the M’s were 28-19, 1.5 games up on the Rangers in the AL West. In his absence, the team slumped back to .500, going 19-28, an exact mirror image of their hot start with Felix available. On Wednesday, he returned to action, with the team 47-47 and 7.5 games out of first (the team’s deficit peaked at … wait for it … 11.5 games). While his start was shaky, he overcame a rough first inning to keep the game close and the M’s were able to win on a walk-off in the bottom of the 11th. It was a game that looked so much like 1995, it gave me deja vu. The M’s went on to beat the Blue Jays 2-1 and 14-5 before slipping today. They’re 3-1 since Felix’s return and 31-20 overall with him on the roster. And the Rangers have been collapsing, not quite like the ’95 Angels, yet, but enough to let us in the door. Entering play today, the Mariners were just 5.5 out.

Am I reaching too hard for a narrative today, the day that Ken Griffey, Jr. was inducted into the Hall of Fame with the highest vote percentage in the history of the Hall? Perhaps. After all, Felix doesn’t play every day and there’s only so much impact any one pitcher can have on an entire season of games. But as The Kid surely knew in 1995, actual play is only a portion of a superstar’s impact on the team. They also teach and inspire their teammates. And their presence, their active placement on the roster and in the field, makes everyone else believe that greatness is possible. It’s easier to believe you can fight for that comeback when you know Felix is looking on from the dugout, that he’s going to be pitching every five days, that there’s always a chance.

It’s become fashionable in baseball this century to discredit such notions, to believe that baseball players are human beings on the field who are affected by emotions and momentum and environmental factors. I don’t know how these people explain Tiger Woods’ epic collapse that aligned with the collapse of his marriage and his public humiliation in the international media, nor even how they explain Griffey’s rapid deterioration when he left Seattle, let alone every change in approach made by players after trades, signings, and changes of all sorts. I think the real explanation is much more clear: baseball is still played by people, not robots. Sabermetrics may reveal some trends and statistical value where not previously seen, but the biggest determining factor in a player’s performance is still how they feel in that moment. And Griffey was a great not just for his stellar athletic ability. He was an all-time great for elevating everyone around him, making them better than themselves, making them want to be even better than that.

There are a million memories to recount of The Kid, none of which do full justice to him, and all of which are being covered by the mainstream media today as he goes into the Hall. Some I even discussed here when he retired as a Mariner in 2010. By all means, read everything you can about Griffey today.

The city of Seattle and the fans of the Mariners will never be able to do enough to thank Junior for all he did. But the best way to try might just be to make another storied comeback this year. The M’s made the playoffs just twice after he left the team, the first two years he was gone, inspiring the meme that M’s kept getting better without superstars. Randy Johnson was traded in 2000 and the M’s set a record for regular season wins the next year, after losing two Hall of Famers in back-to-back years. Of course, Ichiro had joined the team in 2001 at the peak of his career, so, y’know, we didn’t only lose future denizens of the Hall. But there’s a Mariners cap in Cooperstown, now and forever. My oh my.


The Putin Playbook

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , ,


“I always felt fine about Putin. I think that he’s a strong leader. He’s a powerful leader. … He’s actually got a popularity within his country. They respect him as a leader. … I would talk to him, I would get along with him. … He has absolutely no respect for President Obama.”
-Donald Trump, from two separate interviews, on Vladimir Putin

Donald J. Trump, Republican nominee for President, is not the second coming of Hitler. Sorry to disappoint, kids. I know Godwin’s Law says the first comparison we have to make is to Hitler, just as the Republicans themselves started drawing brushy mustaches on their Obama posters. And it’s not because it can’t happen here, because anything can happen here. We’re not special in America just because we were born into a rich country in love with its own image and alleged impact on the world. As the world’s leading exporter of imperialism and militarism, it’s certainly a stone’s throw to Hitler on a good day, so we should sure be vigilant.

But Trump’s model is a different strongman. One who is blonde, like him, like Hitler so desperately wanted to be. Vladimir Putin. Trump, like the Russian people, is obsessed with Vlad Putin.

Vladimir Putin may be the most authentically beloved leader among his or her domestic populous on the planet right now. While he has a strong and vocal group of dissenters, the Russians love the authority and respect he has restored to Rodina (the motherland, in Russian). They don’t care so much that he’s alienated a lot of foreign nations, for he’s done so by empowering Russia to be strong and independent, the idealized image of the nation fostered throughout the Communist years and well before. They love that he took back Crimea, love even more that no one was able to stop him. They like that he poses shirtless, does martial arts, purportedly wrestles bears to the ground between drinking sessions at his dacha. He exudes virility, strength, and power. What Trump wouldn’t obsess over such a figure?

But the biggest thing that Putin does best is push the envelope. For what greater test of power can there be than getting away with something more outrageous than anyone would have predicted you could? It’s all well and good to claim power in an atmosphere where you gladly offer concessions and make nice with other leaders at home and abroad. Quite another to demonstrate that power by doing something widely reviled and demonstrating that no one can stop you.

Well before he invaded Crimea, well before he praised Donald Trump as “brilliant,” Rutgers debaters Dave Reiss and Kyle Bomeisl wrote a case they wound up running in Maryland finals in 2010. The case was written in the midst of some minor spats between Putin and his puppet co-leader Dmitri Medvedev (speaking of wrestling bears – medved is Russian for bear) and proposed a hypothetical where Medvedev went so far as to publicly criticize Putin, which he did not do. The case we ran in Maryland finals was, in this hypothetical instance: “You are Vladimir Putin. Invite Medvedev to appear with you on national television. Then strangle him, on camera, with your bare hands.”

What the Maryland judging panel didn’t realize is that this was a serious suggestion and exactly in the wheelhouse of what Putin would do. For the lesson of the case was the same as the lesson of Putin’s entire presidency/prime ministership/presidency: get away with as much as you can. It will demonstrate that your enemies are powerless and make them look weak and terrified for trying to oppose you in the first place. It would be a whole new level for Putin to demonstrate that he could literally get away with murder.

This theory about Trump/Putin explains so many of the things that come out of the mouth of Trump and his cronies, so many things that otherwise baffle political pundits and observers. He’s not just a gaffe machine attempting to eclipse Joe Biden for foot-in-mouth moments. Because he doesn’t apologize for these gaffes or walk them back, almost ever. He’s just pushing the envelope as far across the table as he can reach, loudly testing the waters of how far he’s come and what he can get away with. Melania Trump lifting lines from Michelle Obama? Just a test. Claims about wall-building and Muslim-banning? Just tests. What can he get away with and still be popular, still be leading in the primary polls, still have a commanding presence on the world’s highest and most theatrical stage?

This is why people can seriously consider whether the whole thing is some master ruse: either a punt to old friend Hillary Clinton or a set-up for a shocking abdication between November and January (that theory must have died with the appointment of Mike Pence) or some kind of epic joke to demonstrate his superiority over the American people. Because this is not how we’re used to our serious politicians operating. We’re used to the pandering of the Clintons, the conciliation of Obama, the rallying cries of the Bushes, and the communicating of Reagan. We think politicians want them to like us and we forgot that the most popular people in high school were the ones who didn’t give a flying bleep what you thought of them. We have forgotten the first rule of affection: the less you show a desire to be liked, the more people crave your attention.

That said, Trump doesn’t always pull it off. He reacts defensively sometimes, a mistake Putin would never make. Putin’s response to accusations about small hands would not have been to awkwardly say there’s no problem there. He might have just leaked testimony from a former lover in some media outlet, or perhaps a nude picture of himself, doctored if necessary. He might have just ignored it and laughed off any future questions about it. Putin does not go out of his way to be loved. He shows his strength by pulling outrageous and unprecedented stunts, by speaking loudly and carrying a big stick.

Now, yes, this does not paint a very flattering picture of a Trump presidency. Keep in mind that all my efforts to both demonstrate the underestimated power of Trump to win votes and to compare him roughly equally to Clinton are not endorsements. They are not in any way, shape, or form, a desire to see Trump take the highest national office. But I do think it’s important that we realistically evaluate who Trump is, what he’s capable of, and what his intentions are for the nation.

Like Putin, Trump is an entertainer, a strongman, and an egotist. But he’s also a realist, one capable of measuring where the line ultimately is and ensuring that he doesn’t do something actually crazy and miscalculated. This is why Trump with his finger on the button doesn’t terrify me, any more than the existence of said button and egomaniacal American politicians always terrifies me. Putin has not nuked the US, or Ukraine, has not rebuilt the Iron Curtain, has not recreated the purges. He’s done some condemnable things, to be sure, but they’re within the range of normal US presidencies: invading some other countries, bombing still more, cracking down on some rights, possibly illicitly assassinating some citizens. All pretty par for what we expect from top-line world leaders these days.

Ultimately, though, the best check on Trump is one that truly does exist for Putin and pretty much anyone else who wants to win the beauty contests of contemporary elections in major world powers. Deep down, despite all the veneer of indifference to opinion and reaction, he cares very deeply about what people think. Donald J. Trump wants you to like him. Desperately. He has crafted an entire life around building an image, building up propaganda, and he really really wants you to think he’s cool. In that way, he’s almost indistinguishable from Hillary Clinton. He just knows that showing it less makes people like you more. Which is why he’s going to win in November.

Again, I don’t want this to happen. I also don’t want Hillary Clinton to win in November. Almost everyone I talk to agrees with this mutually assured disappointment. Except, of course, that it’s not assured. Just like in 1992, if everyone voted their conscience, for the candidate they truly truly truly wanted to win the White House, we would not be sending a Republican or a Democrat to the presidency this year. I think almost any moderately popular moderate could jump in the race right now, or in August (I know they literally couldn’t, because they wouldn’t get on the ballot in time), on a not-ClinTrump platform, and grab 300 electoral votes. Short of that, I think Gary Johnson or Jill Stein could each pull 20% and put the election in chaos. If one dropped out and endorsed the other, real third-party victory would be possible, if everyone actually voted and voted their heart.

Sadly, we’re too busy throwing around accusations of people being like Hitler (or of Benghazi), generating fear to insist that we vote for literally the second worst person we could imagine running for President. In that sense, this whole election cycle feels like it’s being run by Vladimir Putin on behalf of the two major parties. They are pushing the envelope as far as they can, offering up the two most hated people in American politics to demonstrate their stranglehold on power. We just keep taking it, eating up the lesser evil, believing in this false dichotomy and being surprised when things get worse. Wherever the line may be, I guess they haven’t found it yet. I sure wish we’d resist, though, so we’d start having candidates we didn’t have to compare to war-mongering power-addicts.


The War at Home

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Shooting Gallery, Tags: , ,


As you probably know, twelve days ago, five police officers were shot dead in Dallas. Ten days later, three more were shot dead in Baton Rouge. The alleged killers were both immediately killed, Micah Xavier Johnson and Gavin Eugene Long (a.k.a. Cosmo Ausar Setepenra) respectively. It has been reported that neither are linked to any extremist militant group. This is not true.

In fact, they are both linked to the same extremist militant group: the United States military.

No, I’m not trying to imply or state that these shootings were authorized military operations, though the thought occurred to me more than once that such a thing was possible. Not that our government is incapable of such sinister covert operations, having conducted its business this way repeatedly in countries the world over for most of the last century and well into this one. But I think the explanation is a far simpler one in the instance of these starkly similar shootings. And as we are taught in science classes, simple explanations are often the truest.

The military teaches you that violence is the way to solve problems. That there are good guys with guns and bad guys with guns and that the good guys with guns are morally obligated to shoot the bad guys with guns.

I’ve talked about this concept before, how mass shootings writ large in our society are inspired by a society that routinely preaches violence and murder as the way of getting what we want. Most clearly and simply, perhaps, in Violence is About Violence (26 May 2014), one of my many posts in the wake of a shooting incident. But it’s a lot clearer and more obvious when the killers are actually ex-military, veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq respectively, and actually took aim at a uniformed military force they found to be the enemy, namely racist police departments.

I’m not saying this action is justified. No killing is ever justified in any circumstances and this killing is no different. But the people who agree most ardently that killing is justified, the breeding ground for the whole notion that killing can be and routinely is bathed in glory, as long as it’s done by the “right” people for the “right” reasons, that’s the military. The Marines and the Army, where these police shooters were radicalized, where they were trained to believe that might makes right, that killing is good, that the ends justify the means, that the correct response to violence is more violence. And at least in this battle, the enemy was wearing a clear and visible uniform, wasn’t vague and shadowy and uncertain like the purported enemy in Afghanistan or Iraq. Wasn’t dubious like the 56 civilians slaughtered by US forces just today in Syria. No, these cops were clearly wearing the uniform that affiliated them with a group that has been executing Black civilians in our society for decades and caught on camera consistently for the last three years.

Does such affiliation deserve the death penalty? Of course not. Does it deserve any violent retribution? Never. But these acts are never “senseless” in the way they are bemoaned in the media. All these actions carry their own internal logic and to deny that is to willfully wish for them to happen over and over again. To attempt not to understand, to push away awareness, is to condemn ourselves to a permanent state of societal self-mutilation. Folks that the US trained to kill for their notion of liberty and justice applied their interpretation of that cause to the war they saw unfolding at home. Little could be less surprising.

I am hoping that this is the last such incident, just as I am hoping that the police have shot their last victim, just as I am hoping that the US will unilaterally stop murdering civilians at home and abroad. But I have a deep-seated fear that none of this will stop until we can face and engage our own priorities as a nation and begin to unpack the overwhelming glorification of murder that we put on such an elevated pedestal in the United States. There are a lot of steps, large and small, that we could take. Apologizing for the wrongs of the past, from slavery to conquest, genocide to nuclear bombing, would be a great start. Committing to never repeat those same mistakes, even better. Determining to come together to expend our immense wealth and privilege as a country on something other than imperialism, perhaps the best.

We still have the capability of being the country we imagine ourselves to be. We just have to wake up from our delusions first. If we don’t wake ourselves up, we run the risk of being awoken far more rudely and, well, violently.


That’s Entertainment!

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Telling Stories, The Problem of Being a Person, Video Games Killed the Free Time, Tags: , , , ,


When I was in high school, I had a discussion with my father about a long-prior discussion he’d had about the state of the world in the mid-1970s. He mentioned, in passing, that his conversational partner of the time had said what people really needed in the world was to laugh more. He then echoed this sentiment, circa 1997, as an obvious truth of the universe. My mind immediately went to the somewhat moderate bullies of my high school, the jocks and the idiots, and everyone I knew who seemed to make laughing a key priority of their existence. I thought laughter was, if anything, overrated in a very serious world. Being a bit stubborn and prone to engaging wherever possible in a keen argument, I intimated that the great problem with the world is that everyone needed to laugh less.

I raise this issue now not to pick or resurrect a generational fight two decades in the making, nor to pick on my Dad, with whom I agree about more things than I’d argue most of my (or any?) age agree with their fathers. But I think this moment of discord speaks to a larger perspective on the world that has changed, perhaps since the 60s or 70s, perhaps even more recently, about the nature of entertainment and its influence on our world, or the world of contemporary America as it now stands, embarrelled in choppy waters and facing what almost everyone can universally regard as a rather steep cliff, with barely any water in the fall to soften the rocky crags below. Far more recently than 1997, my father predicted that this summer would look a lot like the summer of 1968, the least stable of his lifetime to date. Halfway through the summer, that seems like a pretty safe prediction, as news of attacks, shootings, coups, and executions compete for headlines daily as we rush headlong into an election where the major party candidates make Nixon and Humphrey look like popular young gentlemen you’d want to bring home to the parents.

So what’s trending? Pokemon Go!

It is a sign of age, diving into my late 30s, that many of my friends have taken to the waves of the Internet to literally decry the children gathering on their lawns to play this latest video game to capture the American imagination. And also a sign of my generation that a nearly equal quantity are regaling us with stories of their own particular lawn catches. I am not here to moralize about the perils of Pokemon Go. While I am not playing (I just missed Pokemon as a phenomenon the first time around, entering college when it hit the streets. And the last thing I need is another excuse to haul out the smartphone [begrudgingly purchased for Uber] in public.), I definitely understand the appeal. And more importantly, it’s the first video game since Dance Dance Revolution that is getting its players off the couch and into something resembling physical shape. And the first ever (unless you count its natural predecessor Ingress, and nobody but Brandzy does count Ingress) that gets people out of the living room and into the real, living, breathing world where they might interact with other real people.

So, is Pokemon Go a giant scheme designed to replace our outrage with police killings, mass shootings, and an endless upward cycle of violence against seemingly everyone with, well, the digital equivalent of dogfighting? Or, perhaps more accurately, a dogfighting-themed scavenger hunt? Is the timing of its release sufficient to mollify a public fomenting with the desire to rebel, replacing the revolution with the placid need to “catch ’em all”? After all, the game is insidiously embedded in a very real and very corporate world, wherein savvy companies have already latched onto their geographic placement in the game to win friends and influence people.

I am inclined to believe that the release of illusory pocket monsters into the world is largely coincidental with the second coming of 1968 as it arrives on American shores nearly a half-century later. But I’m also inclined to believe that there are no coincidences.

Pokemon Go is just another aspect of our cultural obsession with entertainment. There was a time, I believe, when art was separable from entertainment in a real way, when politics also enjoyed a distance from the desire for laughter. It is hard to imagine what such a separation would truly look like at this moment, when the entire orientation of Internet culture around social media has turned us like plants toward the sun, seeking fulfillment and sustenance purely from the notion of being amused. Our educational system is rapidly trying to catch up, bringing games and electronics into the classroom by the armload in an effort to compete on the giant entertainment battlefield. Maybe everyone in the 70s really did decide that we all just needed to laugh more and they spent the next four decades making it so, ensuring that the concept of entertainment seeped into every element of our waking life, so we would judge each decision by how much comic relief it brought to our brain.

No wonder, then, that the major popular outlets of news in the last 15 years have all become comedy shows. That the nightly anchors of my childhood: Rather, Jenkins, and Brokaw (admittedly problematic in their universal conservative white maleness) were replaced with the guffaws and antics of Stewart and his many descendants. That Obama himself gets the most attention for the White House Correspondents Dinner, far more widely beheld than another boring dramatic turn at memorializing victims of a mass shooting. Indeed, I think the main reason so many of my friends are missing the fact that Trump should be considered the runaway favorite in the 2016 general election is that he is so much more entertaining than his counterpart Clinton. Since televisions became widely held items in American households, this is the metric that explains most every choice the general election populous has made at the quadrennial ballot box. I guess one could argue that Dukakis was more entertaining than Bush the elder in 1988, but in retrospect that was mostly at his own expense, so perhaps doesn’t count. And I don’t know exactly what to do with either of Nixon’s victories – his runs against Humphrey and McGovern were surely races to the bottom in terms of entertainment. But there are no other imaginable exceptions since the Nixon-Kennedy debates opened the television era: the more entertaining candidate always wins, which I think does more to explain the success of all the two-term Presidents since Nixon than any other single theory. Say what you will about Reagan, Bill Clinton, Bush the younger, and Obama, but they are all highly successful entertainers.

There’s a reason I have total confidence that Trump will win this November, barring assassination or other unforeseeable but still seemingly almost predictable upheaval. He is, like Reagan before him, an entertainer by trade. More than anything else that Donald Trump is or isn’t, he is a showman. And whatever the truth value of her given statements may be on a given day, the most salient and consistent critique that can be leveled against Hillary Clinton the candidate is her inability to entertain. Her most ardent supporters have tried to turn this into a strength in recent months, with a cascade of thinkpieces on how her wonky, unaffectionate demeanor is exactly what we should want in the White House. Little good this will do her after debates against Trump when the latter could literally roar, a la Russell Crowe’s Gladiator, a fitting avatar of our contemporary culture, “Are you not entertained?!” You can practically see the thumbs turning down on Clinton in the crowd, condemning her to political death at the hands of the latest champion of a very amused mob.

It is perhaps some small solace to my readers that I go on to believe that Trump is not the second coming of Hitler so much as the second coming of Vaudeville. Or, at worst, I guess L. Ron Hubbard, who called his shot about making a fortune on an invented religion and then put it into practice. Hitler wrote Mein Kampf as his declaration of intention. Trump said he’d try to run as a fiscal conservative and a social liberal on a ticket with Oprah Winfrey. No, the meme about him saying Republicans were dumb and easy to persuade isn’t true. It seems believable because he knows everyone is easy to persuade with enough money and entertainment value, even the Clintons themselves, as he will bring up even more in future debates.

Please don’t confuse my adamance about the future Trump presidency with support. I have no interest in seeing a Trump presidency, though I also have no interest in seeing a Clinton presidency. As I told Alex’s mother the night before last, I think either president would make the first six years of the Obama administration look glorious and I think those years were truly awful. I am not reveling in the future success of Trump, but I am trying to understand and explain its potency so others might harness that understanding to do some kind of counterbalancing good.

This struggle with entertainment as the dominant currency of our society and its potential battle with more serious, sober reflections on change is one that has impacted key aspects of my own life, and especially this website. While I never came up with the idea for Pokemon Go (like Uber, these ideas required a level of accuracy for GPS technology that doesn’t really predate the last five years and I think few people knew would be a certainty until then), I have concocted some virally entertaining quizzes over the years, the first couple of which were extremely well timed with the advent of Web 1.0 media like blogs, MySpace, and GeoCities. These quizzes first hit the scene when I was trying to promote my first novel and write my second, as well as make my way through life with day jobs in the so-called real world. Tired from my commute and the stresses of work, I would contemplate writing fiction that would be read by a few hundred or a quiz that would be seen by more than a million people within its first year. One would be laden with meaning that I found important to impart, the other would be infused with what little meaning I could stick between the layers of entertainment. My choice was usually clear: at least the entertainment would be absorbed by the masses. It wasn’t until quitting jobs entirely in 2009 that I could really get back to writing fiction seriously. And if my life hadn’t fallen apart at the end of that period, maybe I would have found some success then. At the same time, most of the folks who read American Dream On agreed on its biggest critique: too dark, not entertaining enough. My mother observed that I have a great talent for making people laugh in real life; why couldn’t I bring that over into my writing?

We’ll leave to the side, for now, that perhaps the primary theme of American Dream On is that our obsession with entertainment, along with the pursuit of money, is literally killing everyone.

I don’t think Trump or Pokemon Go will literally kill everyone, nor will terrorists nor the police. Though all four will probably take their cut of lives, with Pokemon Go being by far the most innocuous. And not even all the pokemon in the world will be enough to distract us from the blood taken by other forces in the world, at least not for more than a few hours at a time. And unfortunately, the structural differences between Trump’s eventual killings and the police’s ongoing murders and the terrorists’ showy acts of slaughter and Pokemon Go will continue to fade. It’s all packaged entertainment, destruction put out like a press release, neat little explanations and video and unfolding mystery to unravel like a video game. What is this latest killer’s motive? Where will Trump bomb next? Which terror group will claim responsibility for the latest attack? How did the police try to cover up their latest racist execution?

And the slew of reporters will trail after, with their graphics team and sound folks making it all as polished as the latest app to hit our phones. And we’ll take it all in, and I’ll try to write about it in a way that is just flippant and distant enough to be entertaining too. It’s not just our currency anymore, it’s our literal language, because every use of time, every decision to read or watch something is in competition with catching another Pokemon or playing a game on Facebook or downloading something more amusing. And increasingly the only way to change anything might be to win the entertainment wars first and use that to do good. Because holding the mirror up to society isn’t getting people to take things more seriously these days – it’s reminding us of selfies.

If you’ll excuse me, I should probably go work on another quiz. I wonder if “Which police shooting victim are you?” is still too macabre to be entertaining. Maybe it’s the best way we can get more people to say their names.


Top Twenty Questions I Get Driving Uber in New Orleans

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, Marching to New Orleans, Quick Updates, Tags: , , ,


In approximate order of frequency:

1. Are you from New Orleans originally?
2. Where are you from originally?
3. How long have you been driving Uber?
4. Busy night?
5. Are you doing Uber full time or do you have another job?
6. Where do you go out in New Orleans?
7. What’s the best place to hear jazz / eat seafood / drink in New Orleans?
8. How do you like living in New Orleans?
9. Were you here during Katrina?
10. If I want to add another stop, do I have to call another Uber?
11. How late are things going at [pickup location]?
12. Is Bourbon Street always like this?
13. Are things still happening on Frenchmen Street right now?
14. Can we stop to pick up water / alcohol / cigarettes / snacks?
15. Does it always rain like this in New Orleans?
16. How do you deal with the humidity here?
17. Do you have an aux cord?
18. Are there really no open container laws in New Orleans?
19. Do you mind if we have five / six people in this car?
20. Can you pull over so my friend can throw up?


Deconstructing the Constitution

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

Don't let the wigs fool you.  These guys were radical hooligans!  They were also all white men, so, y'know, maybe change is good.

Don’t let the wigs fool you. These guys were radical hooligans! They were also all white men, so, y’know, maybe change is good.

It’s easy for us to forget that the founding fathers, now revered as the heart of a sage and long-lasting establishment, were actually a bunch of iconoclastic ruffians. I’ve discussed how they not only codified terrorism, but were actually basically terrorists themselves earlier, so no need to rehash that. It’s just become so easy for us to forget that they were, well, revolutionary. They were outside the normal bounds of their society, their beliefs were radical and different, and they similarly wanted to engender that same revolutionary spirit in future generations.

Instead, what happened in the wake of revolutionary fervor is what always happens: people forget that part of the revolutionary message is that spirit of ongoing change and instead settle down to revere every syllable uttered by that particular band of revolutionaries. This was never the intended message, but it became the message, especially by the time the dust settled on the Bill of Rights. People were so impressed and enamored with the ideas laid out by the early Americans that they forgot a core principle was a willingness to change and change and change again in exactly the same way that had first taken place. Many people can quote Jefferson’s line about renewing the tree of liberty with blood of patriots, but that gets mistaken as a call to violently defend Jefferson’s precise text rather than his real message of staying radically revolutionary in spirit, of always making changes.

Yes, some changes have been made in the 240 years since the Declaration of Independence. We took slavery out of the Constitution and even allowed women and eventually minorities the right to vote. Equality started to actually fan out to mean some semblance of equality among people, not white male landowners. But somewhere along the way, we completely lost sight of the notion that the Constitution was there to be changed, that it was written with specific procedures to make it a living document. Instead, we insisted on holding it up like any holy text: doctrinally perfect, to be interpreted perhaps, but never altered, never touched, only hallowed forever and ever amen.

It is bizarre that the calcification of the Constitution in our societal perception has coincided with revolutionary changes in the shape and nature of our society. We have become more diverse, more impacted by technology, more connected, more entertained. The social, technological, and economic changes of the last 16 years alone are breathtaking and beyond the average person’s full comprehension. And yet this time has brought the least legal change to our highest governing document, with the exception of a handful of Supreme Court cases that have upheld or struck down certain interpretations thereof. While the change brought about by some of these rulings has certainly been notable, it has only served to further crystallize the notion that the document they are interpreting is itself sacrosanct and that only these high priests we call justices are able to properly tease out any alterations in our understanding. This is not for mere mortals to take on.

We have amended the Constitution just once in the last 45 years. And that was to ratify an amendment originally proposed in 1789! It’s also the amendment of the 27 (17 since the Bill of Rights) that made the least tangible change, simply impacting the timing of pay raises for elected representatives. It is the amendment that is the most technical in our Constitution and the one that impacts by far the fewest people. It is barely an amendment at all, and it is one of the oldest ideas we’ve ratified. So leaving this very much aside, the last change we made was in 1971, dropping the voting age to 18 to match the Vietnam War draft. Those 45 years* are the longest streak of untouched time for our Constitution since its original ratification.

Perhaps worse, we haven’t even proposed an amendment since the 1992 technicality of the 27th amendment was ratified. That’s 24 years of total stagnation, without any formal process for change even being initiated. If we leave out the trivial ’92 amendment, we have to go back to a 1985 proposal to give DC representation in Congress. And before that was the Equal Rights Amendment, the 1979-1982 proposal that somehow failed. That was at least a sweeping potential change that would have fundamentally altered our understanding of our Constitution. And perhaps that’s why it failed despite being an obviously good idea. Maybe after 1971 and the demise of Vietnam, we gave up on change. Maybe that’s when our perceived duty to the original sacred text of America overrode the interest in making society better or, to coin a phrase, “more perfect”.

The founding fathers would not be happy with this state of affairs, folks.

It’s not just because they were revolutionary bandits, though that’s a big part of it that really cannot be said enough. They were the insurgents of their age, the rebels, the outlaws and outcasts. This simply needs to be understood by everyone trying to engage with American politics. But beyond that, they had the foresight to recognize that the world would change after their passing. In the wake of yet another mass-shooting in this country, many of my friends have again raised the rallying cry about how far 18th century muskets were from the semi-automatic weaponry available in today’s open market. This is true, but is only one example among thousands of critical things that they could not have anticipated. The state of our economy and corporations are surely beyond anything that Jefferson and Washington could have fathomed. Corporate personhood, the surveillance state, and even instant communication from radio to television to the internet, all would have dwarfed their imaginations. There is so much that they cannot keep up with. And this is a big part of why amendments were featured in the Constitution and taken seriously with a reasonable ratification process: they knew their own limitations in their ability to anticipate the challenges of the future.

Yes, we obviously need to eliminate or significantly overhaul the second amendment. That should be trivial at this point to anyone paying attention, unless we want to become a society where leaving one’s house carries a 1% risk, over time, of dying in a massacre. But we also need to think more broadly and sweepingly about the Constitution itself and what it does and doesn’t guarantee at this point. And imagine ourselves to be founders, or refounders, creating something more perfect that what we had before. Would the founding fathers really not have enshrined access to healthcare as a right in a world of today’s modern medicine? Would they not have taken steps toward codifying greater equality in a society so governed by scarcity, inequality, and corporate greed? And even if you don’t think they would have agreed with these principles, they surely would have wanted the radicals among us to speak up and stand up for them, to advocate radically altering the Constitution or even casting it aside altogether in favor of something, well, more perfect.

As long as we cling to the original verbiage of the Constitution like a holy and unalterable text, we will be beholden to looking at the world like it stopped in 1789, or at least in 1971. But the world didn’t stop there, it is living and evolving daily, just as the Constitution itself was intended to. You can’t simultaneously defend the America the founding fathers wanted and advocate prolonging this level of stagnation. They would be ashamed of you, ashamed of us. They changed far more in their time than Bernie Sanders would ever advocate. It is a disservice to the principles of this country, such as they are, to insist on not making significant and sweeping changes in our own time.


A Pilgrimage

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, Marching to New Orleans, Tags: , ,

Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos Parish Catholic Church in New Orleans.

Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos Parish Catholic Church in New Orleans.

On Saturday night, hours before the shooting in Orlando, I was driving for Uber. As I explained on Facebook at the top of the month, I have recently started driving for Uber while between jobs and possibly as the new quasi-full-time gig to enable more creative pursuits. The first step in getting back in a creative rhythm has been posting here more, which has itself been fueled by ideas from the many riders whose journey I help enable on a near-nightly basis while conducting this little experiment.

As I posted about in a later comment on that Facebook thread, these are the four key questions asked by the experiment:
1. Is this a sustainable way of replacing day job income?
2. Does this gig help facilitate a more creative/writing lifestyle?
3. Do I feel like I’m doing enough good? Or at least not doing harm?
4. Can I get a lot of writing material and inspiration out of the chance conversations that this gig creates?

So it’s Saturday, early evening, I’m just starting what I expect will be a long overnight shift and it’s not even dark out yet. It’s just after 5:00 PM and the French Quarter is crawling with tourists, locals, and attendees of the Creole Tomato Festival. I get a ping for a pickup at Cafe du Monde, the iconic open-air beignet restaurant, open 24 hours daily and boasting a line for many of them. I crawl slowly through the heavy traffic toward the green-and-white striped awnings.

A minute or so after pulling over, I’m greeted by what look to be three generations of women in the same family. The Uber was called by someone in her early twenties, while her mother and someone who could easily be her grandmother also pile in, the mother in the front seat and the others in back. However, the bespectacled potential grandmother is fully adorned in a spotless Catholic habit, modest shining cross at the center of a sea of black and white. She could have taken the veil later in life, but the dialogue later seemed as though she were a more distant relative of the great aunt ilk, while their status as family seemed almost undeniable.

They were relatively low-energy (a not uncommon trait of post-beignet du Monde pickups), but quite polite and clearly in awe of all the French Quarter had to offer in full bustle. I confirmed their destination as Canal and Broad Street, which already seemed of concern since the destination in the app just said “Canal Street, New Orleans” which is akin to saying “Main Street, USA”. They asked if I knew the whereabouts of the Seelos Church, which, through the nun’s particular accent, I couldn’t quite catch. I asked her to spell the location, but she said it was just on Canal and as long as we went up Canal, we’d find it. She said she thought it was near Broad or a little before. So off we went, slogging upstream through the Quarter like salmon climbing the waterless face of Hoover Dam. Once it became clear it could take us 30 minutes to reach Canal that way, I aborted (apologies for the turn of phrase, sister) and redirected eastward out of the Quarter to run back to the west and meet up with Canal around the freeway.

Once we hit Canal, it became pretty clear we’d misjudged the location of the church. A search revealed something about Dauphine Street, a fixture of the Quarter, and I despaired that we’d been just feet from it from the outset. They advised we redirect to Canal and Dauphine, but I pulled over and suggested we actually confirm the location of the church online before chasing more geese, already feeling a bit guilty I hadn’t done this in the first place. The youngest of the three pulled it up on her phone, discovered that there were two churches (a Seelos Shrine and a Seelos Parish) and after consultation about the relative locations, neither of which were remotely close to Canal Street, we opted for Seelos Parish as the more likely match. We were on a pilgrimage, it turned out, to where the nun had spent part of her early days, or at least visited decades prior. She said the church was very beautiful and she wished to see it again. It was clear in equal measure that her traveling companions were nonplussed about the church quest in their own right, but very much wanted the sister to feel fulfilled. We redirected in the direction of Seelos Parish, deep in the Marigny, and the sister confirmed that it had been close to the Mississippi as she recalled.

After a brief stint on the highway and a long stop-signy traverse through the Marigny, we pull up to a contrastingly glorious red brick church with a high steeple in the midst of a run-down neighborhood. Two robust heavy wood doors lie at the center and a sign on one side indicates that Saturday mass began two hours prior as it’s now just 6:00 PM. We’ve been on this adventure nearly an hour and the youngest is unsure the church is still accessible after the mass that must surely be over. She pops out to check the doors, crossing the street to the church, but finding no purchase on the unhandled wood doors. I’m just about to roll down the window to suggest she try around the side when a naked man rides by on a bicycle.

And then another. And a naked woman. And then a horde, hundreds long, of naked or nearly-naked bike riders.

After a gasp, the mother yells “Cover your eyes, sister,” a command which the latter ignores as we all half-stare at, half try to look away from the fleshy procession. The three of us in the car exchange periodic awkward expressions of disbelief, mine tending more toward the “that’s New Orleans” variety while the other two continually profess shock that such a thing can be happening. The awkwardness is pervasive for all of us, though when I steal a glance across the street through the flopping bodies, the shame/horror I see on the face of our stranded counterpart on the far sidewalk is enough to make anyone blush.

“Beautiful bodies, though,” murmurs the vaguely Caribbean accent of our elder pilgrim, prompting the mother to crack up in a mixture of nervousness and surprise. The nun, encouraged by this reaction, is then inspired to declare “The older you get, the more you see.” And then even I have to join in the laughter, because it’s all too real.

After the nearly interminable predominantly nude parade, the flashing lights of cop cars signal the tail of the bicycles, and the youngest of our cohort skips back across the street, looking older but otherwise no worse for the wear. She reports that the church is closed, deftly ignoring the 250+ unclothed elephants that just left the room. I suggest she try around the side, which she does, pausing only slightly at the notion of crossing this street again. Within minutes, she has discovered that it is indeed open for viewing and after a brief deliberation, they say it might be a while and they don’t need me to wait. I wish them a great night as they slowly exit the vehicle, still chuckling about this city of stark contrasts wedged between the waters of a sunken swamp.

Soon I was on my way, in search of the next person who needed to get to wherever they were going next.


The Problem is Poverty

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,


Domestically, we have one disease that kills more people than any other. That imprisons people in a life that falls short of their potential, that forces people into crime, addiction, homelessness, and illness. It’s a scourge upon men, women, and children, the very old, the very sick, the disempowered, disenfranchised, and marginalized. It has one cause: the lack of money in a capitalist system. It has every negative symptom you can imagine: from despair to death, and every form of ruin in between.

And yet the way we treat this disease, the way we tackle this malady, is categorically different than the way we approach everything else. There is no race for the cure to poverty, no attempt to stop poverty in its tracks before it starts, no effort to eradicate poverty entirely. Instead, we just try to patch up the symptoms for any given person and lift them out of it, getting them over it temporarily so others can be threshed back down to take their place. Maybe this is actually a bit more like how Americans view other diseases too, but it’s a devastatingly ineffective way to deal with any problem. To change this ineffectiveness, we need to acknowledge the structural factors that ensure the existence of poverty and recognize that only when those are altered or eliminated can we actually move the needle on poverty as a concept, not just move poverty around between different people.

My convictions about poverty being the root cause of all our domestic American ills doesn’t just stem from a predisposition against capitalism. It comes from almost a decade spent as a non-profiteer at various levels, in both direct service and administration. The problem we were treating was always poverty. Whether it manifest in addiction, abuse, hunger, or dropping out of school, the critical problem putting people in toxically stressful situations that led to bad impacts was always a lack of money. This is not to say that the rich cannot be addicted to drugs or commit physical violence or abuse, but that the reason that most people are susceptible to these things is because they are poor. Some people use drugs purely recreationally and lose control, but most people use drugs as a way of medicating their impossible financial situations, of finding some glimpse of happiness amidst the despair of their everyday world. Hunger, homelessness, lack of medical care, and other issues are more obviously and concretely the result of poverty. Crime and cycles of crime are almost entirely rooted in poverty. Yes, there are poor people who still resist the temptation to turn to crime and there are rich criminals, but most of the people rotting in American prisons were put there by cultural and societal cycles that left them with few to no viable opportunities to get ahead financially. The correlation between poverty and dropping out of high school is mammoth. Ditto the correlation between poverty and criminal conviction. Not least because the rich criminals can pay someone to keep them out of prison.

And where other problems exist, the way they manifest their harm is primarily through the vehicle of poverty. Far be it from me to say that various forms of oppression, from racism to sexism to homophobia to imperialism, don’t exist. But they manifest in one of two ways: violence or poverty. And violence is a very real issue and problem that is sometimes separate from poverty and trust me, as a pacifist I believe in stopping violence in all its forms. But at least we all recognize, codify laws, and work together to stand against violence (in all forms besides wars). There is not a major groundswell in society that says a certain amount of domestic or racist violence is super-necessary to a well-ordered society and the proper incentives. But we do make this argument about poverty all the time. Or at least, those defending capitalism do.

Other than violence, though, the fallout from racism, sexism, homophobia, and imperialism is primarily economic: it’s forcing people into poverty. Purveyors of these ‘isms deny jobs and opportunities to their targeted groups, deny them possible benefits or social programs that would lift them out, and generally demean their worth in a way that manifests in keeping them ensconced in poverty. There is still racism against Barack Obama and it’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t meaningfully reduce his ability to impact the world, because he’s kept himself out of poverty. Same with Michael Jordan or Oprah Winfrey or Neil deGrasse Tyson. Which is not to say that racism against them is still bad and something we should fight against, but they have largely been able to overcome its meaningful ability to negatively impact their life. Whereas the millions of their brothers and sisters who are being denied opportunities based on race do not enjoy this luxury.

Put another way, poverty is the enforcement mechanism for most of the harm done by ‘isms. The hate and myopia of ‘isms is obviously wrong on face, but it would have few to no teeth without the ability to keep people impoverished. Statistics that prove racism persists as a problem in our society tend to use poverty as the driving force of their proof, showing that traditionally marginalized groups enjoy fewer economic opportunities and experience worse financial outcomes than their white male peers. This demonstrates that most of the harm done here manifests in poverty. If poverty didn’t exist, haters would lose a key tool, perhaps the biggest single tool, in their arsenal of oppression.

The problem with how we approach poverty is that we see it as an individual issue. We take each person as a stand-alone case of poverty and then try to treat their individual symptoms, while ignoring the obvious fact that they suffer from a widespread and entrenched epidemic. This would be roughly akin to treating each individual person with AIDS as their own new unique case, trying to conquer the disease anew with each patient. It would be inefficient, ineffective, and unconscionable to take this approach with disease, and yet we suffer under the delusion that poverty is largely a choice and that a heightened sense of personal responsibility can defeat it.

This belief is exacerbated not only by Republican values, but by the fact that some people do seem to be able to lift themselves out of poverty by sheer force of will. Many of our stories about this phenomenon are exaggerated and even apocryphal, fueling our delusional obsession with this as the only viable solution to the problem. We ignore the real role of luck in their stories, or the hidden advantages they had over others that enabled their rise from poverty. And then we tout these few exceptional examples as proof that anyone facing crippling poverty can overcome it easily, with a little pluck or grit or a well-timed tug on the old bootstrap. We are a nation obsessed with this belief structure because treating poverty this way if it were a disease would be too horrifyingly callous and impossible to face. It’s tantamount to holding the few people whose inoperable cancers suddenly go into remission as the exemplars of how to treat and fight cancer. “Everyone can go into remission if they just try hard enough!” This is the brand of medicine we advocate for a whole society of people being driven toward untimely death by poverty.

Not buying that poverty is like a disease? It’s fueled by environmental and hereditary factors with statistical correlations nearly as high as transmission rates of most communicable diseases. People are vastly more likely to live in poverty if they are surrounded by people in poverty, if they live in high-poverty neighborhoods, if their family members (especially parents) suffer from poverty. It does irreparable physical, mental, and emotional harm to its sufferers. It is growing and spreading. Even when some people are able to recover, others become infected. Having suffered poverty makes one more likely to suffer from it in the future (making it more like a degenerative or recurring disease than, say, the chicken pox). If left untreated, it often kills the host.

Unlike disease, though, our capitalist society structurally requires a certain number of people to suffer from poverty in order to function in the image its constructed of itself. Capitalism hinges on people being driven into terrible and abusive jobs because they fear the impacts of poverty. It also requires them to not really realize that those same jobs keep them entrenched in poverty, clinging to a belief that if they work long enough or hard enough in those positions, they will eventually escape. This is roughly akin to downing placebos in the hope that they will cure a terminal disease. It might make you feel a little better in the short-term, but it won’t save you from what’s actually hurting you.

And yet even if you believe that personal responsibility is somehow a factor in someone being in poverty, the placebo treatment is an idiotic way to approach it. For example, lung cancer is a disease that we largely feel most sufferers experience because of choices they made earlier in life, and thus they bear some responsibility for it. However, we don’t thus say that the only solution we will offer lung cancer sufferers is to pop placebos and hope they get better or magically enter remission. We still treat their case like the disease it is, still spend billions seeking a cure for their ailment.

And yet the cure to poverty is staring us in the face. Create a system that doesn’t allow people to be poor. Where a basic standard of living cannot be infringed, no matter what choices or decisions you make. Where you will have a place to live, clothes to wear, food to eat, treatment of disease, and a safe place to be, no matter what. Less the safety part, this is literally what we guarantee prisoners, those most marginalized and maligned in our society, people who most would agree really have chosen to do something terrible with their lives. It’s sadly ironic that we feel that prisoners deserve a basic minimum and it would be inhumane to deny them these items, but children born into poverty deserve no such similar safety net. And we wonder why so many of those children grow up to wind up in prison.

The only argument I’ve ever really heard against guaranteeing a basic quality of life to all is that it costs too much and that it reduces the incentive to work. I feel like the folks making these arguments miss basic facts about human psychology. People are actually much more able to work effectively and more motivated to do so when they are not doing so at metaphorical gunpoint. And forcing people to work against their will is the moral equivalent of slavery. Actually, it’s the literal definition of slavery! The fact that slavery made some sort of unjust economic system appear to function is not a valid argument for slavery as a system.

But does this system actually work? A great deal of government and virtually the entirety of the non-profit sector spends their time and money fighting the uphill, ineffective battle with poverty. Treating one person at a time, one situation at a time as though it’s not part of a larger preventable disease, these groups spend billions and billions of dollars trying to eradicate poverty in a wholly ineffective manner. This would be saved in a system without poverty. Then there’s the prison system and police forces. Yes, there’d still be some violence and you’d need a skeleton crew of these industries even without poverty. But over 90% of crime would be eliminated. Which also would drastically reduce one of our most expensive industries – the court system. When you start to think about all the mechanisms and spending we have in place to reactively try to fight back against the tide of poverty rather than prevent it in the first place, you have enough money to fund poverty prevention many times over.

It’s only our belief that people in poverty somehow deserve it and/or our belief that capitalism as currently structured is intractably inevitable that keep us from changing this system, saving money, and saving just about everyone in our society. Both of these claims, about desert and inevitability, are facially laughable. The biggest single factor in determining whether one is impoverished is whether one’s parents are impoverished, the textbook definition of an immutable characteristic. A massive portion of those in poverty are children who lack the agency to make any decisions about their fate. And systems of society change constantly. We are constantly tweaking and altering aspects of our society, large and small, and every monarchy, dictatorship, and tribal structure that came before was equally convinced that they were at the terminal arrangement of human affairs before the next tide of change swept in. We are imprisoning ourselves in a myopic, idiotic, unnecessary cycle of disease. That is worse for most of its victims than prison itself. What will it take for us to recognize this reality and start working actively to change it?


Bernie Sanders and the Future of American Democracy

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

When I was growing up in Oregon, I was an avid 4-Her. (That’s pronounced four-ae-cher, not four-her, if you’re not familiar with 4-H.) We had ducks, geese, rabbits, and chickens, and I would show them at the county fair every summer, especially the summer I was 12. During that year, we’d just formed the Beach Bunnies 4-H club after I’d spent a few years in a couple other clubs, and we won the coveted Herdsmanship Trophy at the Clatsop County Fair in what proved to be the only year of the club’s existence. And it was the only year we took Patty Duckworth to the fair.

Patty Duckworth is probably my favorite pet of all-time. She was our lone duck to survive an overnight raccoon attack that killed our three other ducks, including her brother, Patrick. She almost didn’t make it, living three months in our spare bathtub being nursed back to health as the skin on her neck re-grew and other wounds healed. This experience transformed her, making her believe that she was indeed a human just like us, that she belonged in the house, and giving her a taste, somehow, for rabbit food. She was a very attached animal, following me around all over the yard, constantly communicating, and showing some minimal PTSD by making warning quacks anytime anyone got near. We jokingly called her the guard-duck.

In the 1992 Clatsop County Fair, we entered her in the mallard category. There are generally two ways to show animals at the fair – entering them as examples of their breed (kind of like a dog show) and actually showing them, which is more about the presenter’s command of the animal and knowledge of how to work with their animal (which I guess is like a different kind of dog show). We did both with Patty that year, but her status as a mallard only mattered in the breed ribbon. She won a red ribbon, which roughly conforms to second place, for the female mallards.

The only trouble was, we soon thereafter found out that she wasn’t a mallard at all. She was a rouen, a similar but ultimately different breed. We’d been sold Patrick and Patty as mallard ducklings, but the distinctions in the yellow-brown balls of fluff they were at the time were probably lost on the farm store staff. Or maybe they just knew mallards were more popular since most folks haven’t heard of rouens. Rouens, in fairness, look very similar to mallards, including the distinctive green heads with little white collars on the males.

Bernie Sanders is a lot like Patty Duckworth. Not just in being one of my all-time favorites, but in being entered in the wrong category as a candidate. And like Patty, he earned a red ribbon. My liberal friends, tripping over each other to line up behind Hillary Clinton, have been maligning Bernie for everything he’s done lately, especially staying in the race, and even his allegedly poor showing in earning his narrow red ribbon to Hillary’s blue. I think this misses the real headline, which is that a rouen almost beat a mallard in a mallard contest. Bernie Sanders is not, nor has he ever been, a Democrat. He’s a Socialist. And he very nearly staged a successful takeover of the Democratic Party, despite having transparently joined for the sole purpose of doing just that. His near-victory* should not be processed as a crushing defeat so much as a very exciting signal to radicals, and a very scary one for traditional Democrats.

*It’s worth noting that he could still win the nomination, which is why he hasn’t dropped out. We have between now and Philadelphia for Hillary to get indicted. I don’t think it’s very likely, but if it happens, boy will all those liberals be glad that Bernie stayed in so Trump doesn’t win 47 states in November.

The Democrats have been a centrist party since Bill Clinton took them in that direction in 1992. No major nominee for the party in the intervening time could be confused for being leftist, let alone far-left, with the stated exception of Barack Obama, before we saw what his government actually looked like. The pattern of talking left but moving center-right has been well-established, underlined by the purported success of the Bill and Barack administrations, which actually amounted to sort of aimless rightward drift, with the notable exception of a few solid policies in Obama’s lame-duck half-term. The reforms to wage and hour laws and the reaching out to Iran and Cuba make me wonder what an actually progressive president could achieve. Sadly, there’s no way we’ll find out in the next four years unless Hillary gets indicted.

The craving people feel for a real progressive movement in politics is clear in more than just the Bernie movement. The success of Occupy that set the stage for Bernie, the advancement of Black Lives Matter, the brief but popular campaign of Howard Dean in 2004 (before he sold out), the immense popularity of who we thought Barack Obama would be, and the general rising disgust with a society built on debt and income inequality all speak to the potential power of a real progressive. And with a rising consciousness about climate change and real environmentalism, combined with the ongoing fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, it is becoming increasingly clear to many that capitalism is not compatible with progressive ideals. Indeed, that capitalism represents a very real destruction of human life, either as we know it or altogether, at least for the vast majority of eligible voters. It is painfully ironic that the only remaining messenger of this reality in the 2016 contest is himself perhaps the all-time poster-boy of capitalism, a charlatan and huckster who has crafted a lifetime of imagery around being the ultimate capitalist.

And, of course, his adherence to that message can be trusted about as much as anything Hillary pivots to in order to curry favor. The final general election choice being offered by the major parties is a race to the bottom between two inveterate liars, two individuals who embody self-aggrandizement and empowerment at the expense of all else, who radiate detestable self-promotion and opportunism, corruption and greed. One is popular because he was born into money, the other because she married into power. These twin titans of American folly are pitted against each other in a fear-fueled campaign to the death, one that opens with a near-majority of America probably hating both of them, 85% hating one of them, and this is before they throw the first real punch in their heads-up fracas.

If I were trying to disenfranchise an entire nation, to nullify hope and eliminate faith in politics for a whole country, I could not imagine two better candidates to wield the coffin-nails. I have quipped that by the end, about seven people will vote in each state.

That claim itself at this point is a bit of referendum on why we vote. Most of my cynical colleagues from various generations of APDA have insisted that people vote out of fear, not hope, despite what 2008’s turnout may say to the contrary. They insist there will be robust and enthusiastic turnout as people storm to the polls to reject Trump’s brand of bullying racist populism. I observe that Hillary is probably the most hated politician in America of the last two decades, so just as many fearful folks would turn out against her. But ultimately, I think this level of fear and exaggeration just leads to fatigue. Fatigue that does not inspire one to drive to the booth and pull the lever for the lesser evil. We shall, of course, unfortunately, find out.

I would say, today, that if it remains Trump vs. Clinton and remains a generally perceived two-person race (surely Gary Johnson and Jill Stein will exceed expectations, but probably not approach 10% each), that Trump’s about 62% to win. I don’t think the long race favors Clinton when she has to slog it out with someone who has made his life in show-business, someone who the camera and the soundbite favor, someone who has already made his living out of belittling people and remaking his image. They are both practiced liars, both skilled manipulators, but I think the fresher face to this particular scene has the edge, especially when Trump seems more in touch with the reality of 2016’s electorate and real financial situation. I don’t think it will be a slam dunk and I don’t think it’s guaranteed, but the Democrats are already underestimating Trump nearly as much as the Republicans did, and we all saw how that turned out.

(Incidentally, I still think, even as of today, that Paul Ryan has about a 30% chance of being the Republican nominee. It’s really up to the party how to proceed and they don’t have to follow their own rules. And Paul Ryan would beat Hillary Clinton in a Reaganesque landslide, if only because he’s totally avoided all the 2016 action and thus doesn’t symbolize this ugly year to voters.)

So what of people like me? Like so many of my friends, like so many people who know that the future is not capitalism but a turn toward something anti-corporate and truly progressive? Where do we go for help and hope, other than to the protest ballot for Jill Stein? Do we form our own party and start running for 2018 spots? Do we make sure to point out all of President Clinton’s flaws if she does get elected, relishing in yet 4-8 more years of being called a traitor every day and demanding too much of someone who allegedly represents us? When both parties insist on boxing out any voice we have despite the fact that we nearly took over a vaguely hostile centrist party, do we just give up on this groundswell of power and move on to knitting clubs and 4-H and other pursuits? Do we move to Europe?

I don’t really have an answer today. My Dad has insisted for twenty years that “there are no political solutions.” I’ve perhaps never been closer to agreeing with him. And yet the demographic trends point out that the balance of time favors the Bernie supporters and the real progressives, that this movement is only likely to grow more powerful over the next few years, not less. And more importantly, that power can’t help but be accelerated by a Trump or Clinton presidency, one that continues to pay off the cronies, the rich, the companies, and the greedy. Eventually, capitalism resolves to one person owning everything. The closer we get to that, the closer we get to either literally discarding democracy or witnessing some more serious backlash to capitalism within it.

There is a lot of reason to be hopeful about 2020, then, I guess, though it’s that kind of hope that involves thinking the war will be so bad that there must be a good peace settlement in four years. In the meantime, it might be a good time to unplug from all domestic political news entirely, lest you start believing all the impending insults and drama mean something to the real future of our country.

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