Historical Perspective

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

My Dad and I have a running debate about whether there’s reason for hope these days or not. In general, not in specific. We buck all kinds of generational assumptions by him being the one who believes there’s hope, and me being the one who’s starting to think everyone’s soul would be better off not having Earth as an option anymore.

I know, I know.

But hope isn’t dead yet. Though, if I’m going to reference that post, I think one of the things that limits my capacity for hope is the simplicity of the possible solutions that humanity ignores. It’s not like solutions that improve quality of existence tenfold aren’t mind-numbingly obvious. They don’t require some revelatory genius to come down from on high and overthink through the possibilities. Most of them, in fact, are derived from lessons regularly taught to kindergarteners. Don’t hit people. Even if they hit you first. I know, there’s a whole book about this. But seriously, world leaders. Get a library card.

But something occurred to me when posting on the APDA forum the other day (though they’ve hidden all the interesting posts now, including the one I’m referencing… I guess it was only a matter of time before the future leaders of America got really uptight about their collegiate privacy), and then again this morning when I was researching melanoma (I have an itchy raised mole that’s started to twinge and hurt). We’re really in the dark ages here. I mean, yes, the dark ages were really in the dark ages, but we will seem like that to future generations.*

*-if we make it that far

The point is that we laugh and scoff and carry on about medieval humans, or the ancient cultures, or really even the 1950’s. We still haven’t paid attention in kindergarten any better than any of those people, but our advanced (if completely schizophrenic) science and super-fast transportation (that produces at least a million corpses a year as a byproduct) make us feel all superior.

If we are actually superior, it is only by the slimmest of margins. And with a full vision of history, those margins flatten to near-invisibility. Yes, the internet is a way better way of communicating than the Pony Express. But to what end? Has the bottom-line changed? We can share more information faster, but we’re still killing and maiming and ruining lives. The rich still own the poor. Most people work incredibly hard their whole lives for nothing other than to pad the coffers of some overlord, or to kill people in said overlord’s name.


So how do we get from here to there? Science still has many things completely bass-ackwards, and has lost its own ability to question itself thoroughly in becoming a new blindly-accepted religion, but it’s hard to deny that science has advanced since, say, 1352. How did that happen?

People had to (A) question their assumptions and (B) take their observations more seriously.

Science really advanced, at its core, through improvement of medicine and technology. The pressures in play were people dying and things being prohibitively inefficient. And people observed that just wishin’ and hopin’ and prayin’ for things wasn’t getting the job done. They needed applied thought and experimentation.

Experimentation. There’s a concept we could really benefit from in philosophy, politics, diplomacy. Whatever happened to the scientific method? Most international actions are justified by precedent, tradition, and principles that are universal to playground bullies. What about something different for a change? Testing various possibilities to see what a new outcome would look like? Replacing current methods of conflict resolution with, say, a best-of-seven chess series? Just to see if that reduces strife in any way.

I’m obviously getting carried away here. Even if an agreement to play chess would save a million lives, no one’s going to actually do it. That would just be crazy-talk. The macho principles of status quo leaders and words like “realism” and “realpolitik” and “real stupid” make sure that hope stays well out of reach for those who care in this world.

The overarching point is that we have all the tools we need to fix everything. They’re located between the crowns of our heads and the roofs of our mouths, and despite all evidence to the contrary, we all have them. The only thing we need on top of that is the will. The will to do something differently, to change it up, to take a leap of faith while banking on the unprecedented and almost incomprehensible ability of the human perspective to adapt and change. And the only evidence for all this faith and hope anyone should need is a history book. Look at what we can do now that we couldn’t do then. Are you really telling me we couldn’t apply that progress to improvements in peace, equality, and spiritual fulfillment?

You gotta want it. It’s our only hope.


The Market Will Sell

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Strangers on a Train, Tags: , ,

Every month, almost like clockwork, the Powell Street BART station will change over its entire advertising schema. It’s not quite the changing of the guard, but it’s at least as colorful. In addition to the standard raft of billboards throughout the station, there is a large floor advertisement actually matted atop the base of the escalators. It’s one of those things that really blew me away the first time I saw it and has now become entirely commonplace.

Anyway, December ’07 is devoted to Kaiser Permanente’s “Thrive” campaign. They have rolled out a holiday-oriented theme that, in line with most of the Thrive stuff, seems to believe that health is just a matter of positive thinking and maybe a smattering of vegetables and exercise. An interesting approach from medical providers. But given that they benefit the most from people not using their services, I suppose it works.

So each ad is different, which is a refreshing change from the iPod ads which all run together, or the earlier Sony Reader ads which literally had two different designs that they repeated about twelve times each. All seem to resolve around holiday cheer and vacation, with the running theme of “Time to [blank]”. Time to Relax. Looks nice. Time to Forgive. Cute, especially with a youngish couple kissing and making up, with the kissing neatly cloaked behind a balloon. Time to Illuminate, with the politically correct menorah. After all, there’s another with a Christmas tree. Time to Thrust. Wait, what?

Even a double-take assures the mind that it is indeed “Time to Thrust”. Part of the reaffirmation is that the image is entirely below the waist, with a headless female figure standing barefoot atop a notably taller headless male figure’s shoes, facing him. Oh, wait, hold on… “Time to Trust”. And – oh my goodness – it’s a young child with an adult.

You really have no idea how disturbing I found this ad to be. There is massive blurriness behind the area of the T, R, and U in what (apparently) is really saying “Trust”. But it’s really hard to see. And then there’s the factor that the whole ad campaign is punctuated with Thrive, neatly started with the THR letter combination. And of course the below-the-waist cross-gender shot. Yeah, there’s really no way on Earth this was unintentional.

But you can feel sheepish enough, Kaiser, for evoking encouragement of pelvic movement on your health-promotion ad series (insert overly obvious joke here). But in a presumed (when one really examines it fully and objectively, not quickly and assumptively) father-and-daughter combo? This just breaks new ground of inappropriateness. And frankly, it’s ultimately disturbing. After all, the message is that it’s time to trust. But if it’s time to thrust, the trust couldn’t be more misplaced. Between the adult male and the female child. Could it really get any more subliminally despicable?

You can say whatever you will about the use of sex in advertising just being the market solving. After all, I was reading about another example just yesterday. But when Kaiser’s invoking pedophilia, I get a little worried. Though I guess they got what they really wanted. Someone’s talking about it. Instead of spending my time relating details of my life or the latest revelation about what’s going on, I’m talking about an inappropriate ad on the subway.

What, exactly, has the market solved lately?


Wasted Weekend

Categories: A Day in the Life, Quick Updates, Video Games Killed the Free Time, Tags: , ,

I am so frustrated. With myself.

I often think that the answer to everything is time. Time heals all things, right? Wrong, I know, but at least time should give one the time to do things. This seems almost tautological.

But I surmise that the way time is distributed prevents one from using it properly or effectively. There’s that old issue of distribution again. And honestly, I don’t have much to say beyond a reaffirmation of that last post. I don’t think time in the seat and working are values. I think that we should all be thinking. But when so much time is consigned to the proverbial seat, it gets very hard to want to do anything else with the rest of one’s time. So it gets overly wasted.

This is a common pattern, and one that I usually dig myself out of. After all, I just got things together to put out a quiz about 2 weeks ago. I shouldn’t be riding myself too hard. I think that I was telling myself about that productivity in justifying my utter squandrance of time yesterday. And now it’s Sunday night again, late. Very late. And we know all about Sunday night.

Is this blog getting too self-referential? I think it’s part of the larger story of this telling. It’s all related somehow. It’s all interwoven, interconnected. Like this overwhelming series of tubes.

Emily and I made a list of to-do’s today, though we only really got going into the day around 2:30 in the afternoon. We knocked off several, even got a Christmas tree and put it up. We cleaned the house. Got cat food. Washed and put away the dishes. Figured out where we’d be going to the dentist.

But the most important things remain uncrossed from this list. And just the idea of making a list, let alone a list as long as this (30+ tasks) of bland duties for the maintenance of life (very few are at all creative or interesting) is exhausting. I get run down very quickly by life’s repetitions and mundanities and upkeep. I think I kept my spirits up today, but the list is sitting there, making me a little nauseous.

And yet I waste so much time. So much. Utterly thrown away. I mean, yes, we all need recreation, but do I really need to play so many hours of video games? Really? How much does it take to recoup what work has taken away from me? Why does it seem like I never catch up?

It’s worse in December and late November. ‘Tis the nature of my current employ. I know it’ll be like this for a while, and I can get through it. Who starts a project in December anyway? But still, it’s got me down tonight.

This is chaff. But it’s important to put it on the board. Some day, I will have methods of discipline that do not compromise my need to avoid spending too much time on rote maintenance. Until then, this is how it is.

Future me, I hope you’re kicking me now for not knowing the answer, not because I remind you of you.



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

On my way into work this morning, I nearly finished the latest book I’m reading, Paradise by the late Donald Barthelme. I will finish it on the train home tonight, just two days after finishing the last book I read, The Quiet Girl. Hopefully I will not be in Orinda at the time.

The book is short and has fairly big type and is pretty much a novella, so it’s not like this rapidity is a reflection of anything other than that. I guess it’s also an engagingly quick read. Up next is the longest book I will probably ever read, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, checking in at over a thousand pages. I’m looking forward to it, I think, even though Wallace probably annoys me at least as much as he impresses me. I suspect I would hate him in person. But if I’d grown up with him, I’d have infinite admiration for him. Life is often all a matter of perspective. See also friends may just be assholes you like.

But this (length of books and time to read them, not DFWallace’s personality) got me thinking about my own writing and how many words it takes to convey something. I think it was my Dad who told me early on that a standard of “making it” as a writer was writing one’s first million words. I think he got this from his grandmother Hemme, who he writes about in his most recent post. I haven’t really sat down and calculated where I am on my own road to a million, but I suspect I might be getting close. It depends on what counts. E-mails? That would clinch it for sure. The Legend of Enutrof? That would certainly help. The website counts, and Introspection alone probably gets me up there. I should do a count.

But then it occurred to me, as my train approached Powell, that writing is not a matter of actually writing a million words. Probably there are no more than few thousand words actually in play, no matter how many millions one “writes”. What writing is (and I think this has hit me before, but not as clearly) is a matter of distribution. One is not creating, per se, so much as allocating. One could go a step further to reveal that one is simply allocating letters and punctuation… distributing not from a pool of a few thousand so much as about forty. The realization doesn’t really translate to Chinese, but is probably viable for everyone else. Even if it’s just words and not symbols, it’s an incredible thought that what matters is the distribution, and one is not making new stuff.

It’s incredible in part because it’s the story of our planet at this time (and probably for the last few centuries). There were probably times when distribution of resources was not the central question of humanity… times when communities were extremely isolated and lived on the edge of extinction at all times. When a drought hit, people died. There were real shortages.

Those times are long gone, replaced by a heartening era in which we are not shy what we need, but we simulate that idea through mismanaged distribution. This is not revelatory, but I feel like it needs to be broadcast on all the radio stations at infinite volume for a week or so. Then maybe people would get it. Would understand. No one starves on this planet for any reason other than distribution. And a load of people are starving, starving literally to death, every day. Thousands. Because of distribution.

Mismanaged distribution’s partner in crime in this enterprise of starving and otherwise abusing people is the myth of ownership. The concept that we somehow possess things, or should, even though we all are on a one-way train off this planet forever, and will leave with nothing in tow. My friend Russ is continually mindblown that people are willing to pay $1 for pixelated “gifts” on Facebook to send to each other, when there is no reality or purpose to these items. He and I both spent years of our life subscribing at a $10-$15/month clip to an online role-playing game where we bartered in all manner of fake goods that were no more than the transmitted image of pixels. Both of these are stunning emblems for the entire reality of ownership on Earth… it’s just a collective illusion that we partake in which has no lasting value or meaning.

Ownership, as a limited and controlled concept, does have some practical benefits. It can be very hard to share the whole world all at once without drawing some lines and dividing things up. I think it’s possible, but we’re not there yet. However, that doesn’t mean that a redistribution project the size of the world is not in order. The point is that once we look through all the economic nonsense people proliferate on this planet, we see that all any item or its possession really is, in reality, is a collective agreement to suspend disbelief. We all hold hands and together just agree that such and such will be the value of a dollar, that this person deserves to live in that house, that this country belongs to those people. There are strong assertions, as well as threats and use of violence, backing these things up. But really, at their fundamental core, is the willingness to go along with the suspension of disbelief. Forget the invisible hand, it’s the whole invisible enchilada. Who says we’re not a nation of believers anymore?

If we were to redistribute, the starvation thing would go away, and the homelessness thing, and the lack of clothing (though really, when was the last time someone was at risk for a lack of clothing? I think that one’s been solved despite the famed food/clothing/shelter trifecta being so popular). Everyone could be on an equal footing, without the wealth and poverty.

I hear you economists in the back. You’re worried about incentives and motivation. Without a bunch of metal or paper that symbolizes the suspension of disbelief, how could we possibly have our food and shelter and… stuff?

First, about the stuff. We don’t need it. Really. I mean, I love the internet, but I’d trade it for the assurance that every person will get food and shelter. And medicine, probably. That’s about all we really need.

So how many people do we actually have to motivate? We need farmers for sure. And builders. Maybe not even builders at this point so much as building maintenance folks. Don’t we have enough buildings at this point? Clothing-makers. Clothes wear out, after all. People to get the resources that go into clothing, which is mostly back to the farmers. Doctors, I suppose. Teachers, I guess, but the curriculum needs some major changes.

Everyone else can be thinkers. Artists. Creators. Isn’t that what most of us ultimately want to do? That… and help people? (See above for how to help people.)

The rest, I must say, is just crap. Everything else. Which is not to say that what you’re doing (how many of you are doing one of the above things?) is crap, given the circumstances. The circumstances are also crap, and require adjustments. I work for Glide, a nonprofit that helps provide things for the victims of distribution. 90% of us here believe we are doing something the government should be doing, but isn’t, so they need us. We are desperately trying to put ourselves out of business. Until redistribution, it’s not going to happen though. So, yeah, what I’m doing is crap. We shouldn’t need it. We don’t need it. We need redistribution.

I am part of the problem. I buy stuff. I spend my time interested in and investing in crap. We all do it, unless we are a victim of distribution and instead can focus only on survival. It’s the sad result of a really powerful collective delusion.

Have I still not answered the motivation question? There are a lot of folks who would advocate that we should all be self-sufficient… everyone their own farmer, builder (or maintainer), sewer, doctor, and teacher. It’s feasible. It’s a stretch, it would take all someone’s time, it would be a half-step above the survival level, but it could be done.

However, as I often say, we’re not all alone on our own individual planets for a reason. We’re supposed to be in this together.

So I’m a firm believer in specialization. Everyone should be an expert at something. And if you’re worried that that’s not enough work, then everyone can take a rotation turn at whatever’s undesirable work. We’ll all pitch in on the farm with 20% of our time. Or get a choice of building, farming, or sewing for a third of our time. The rest of the time, we can think. Interact. Develop the higher arts. Ponder. Focus on what’s important. Unlearn fear, collective suspension of disbelief, and shortage.

I think enough people would be satisfied with being full-time farmers or builders or what have you, reveling in their extra-beneficial role to society and their friends, that we wouldn’t even need rotations. But it might take some time of taking turns first.

Maybe it sounds too simple. Communication and transportation would be severely limited. We could have some system for these things, maybe, although I’m not convinced they’re strictly necessary. It’s nice to see the world and to maintain contact with distant friends. They might be luxuries we could redevelop over time. But there’s something about all that movement that seems wasteful to me today. Maybe just in the transportation. Communication is always probably good. But one system and stick with it, not ever-slightly-better technology. At the point where we have instant communication, we can stop. Maybe we can keep the internet after all.

Until then, we are all (in some way) victims of distribution. No one is poor. No one has shortages. Everyone who suffers for basic needs does so because humanity is too selfish and stupid to break out of this mess. Collectively. Clinging to our illusions.

Maybe if I can redistribute a million more words, others will start redistributing everything else?

It’s just about all I’ve ever wanted out of this lifetime. That, and a Mariners jersey. We all have a long way to go.


Next Stop, Orinda

Categories: A Day in the Life, Strangers on a Train, Tags: ,

I am out of energy. Just plain out of gas.

Today did its best possible job of getting me to eat my words. At least in some respects. In others, quite the other way, there was an air of affirmation for my distaste for time in the seat. But I had more than enough to do, legitimately, today. Even if it continues to be revealed how preposterous everything else is.

I really think everyone finds themself on the precarious edge of giving up completely or hanging on. 2008 could look very different indeed.

On my way home, I boarded a Pittsburg/Bay Point train (the yellow line, though sadly no one identifies BART routes by color) and promptly forgot that I was not on a Richmond train (the red line, and my homeward bound line). I also hit that very dozy stage of reading right around the last few stops, so I was in that warped sleepy/tense state of involuntary rest, equal parts fading and concerned about getting off at the right stop. Usually in this state (probably one in three evening BART rides are like this, varying wildly on the engrossingness of the present book), all I’m looking for when the train stops are the colors of the stations. Shiny red brick is 12th Street, blue brick is 19th, outside is MacArthur, dull yellow is Ashby, and dull red brick is my stop, (Downtown) Berkeley.

I was pretty sure I was hallucinating when I saw a second consecutive outside stop, but I figured I must have just dozed hard at MacArthur. I tensed up a little more, and then realized I was in a tunnel at speeds and surroundings much like the Transbay Tube. But could the train have reversed course? Was I in the tube again? Surely this was too long to be the route to Ashby…

I was fully awake when the conductor announced “Orinda”. I sheepishly shuffled off and waited for a reverse train, which turned out to be San Francisco-bound. I joked to myself about reading, dozing, and winding up back on Market Street. Maybe I’d head back to work just for kicks.

I didn’t. But I paid for the experience with ten minutes in the cold at MacArthur, waiting for another Richmond train.

This story isn’t that interesting, I realize. Who doesn’t have a fell-asleep-on-the-train story? Well, before tonight, I didn’t. And maybe that’s why it seems indicative of something. Things took on a different hue this day, one of oblivion. And oblivion didn’t look like the end of the world or torture, it just looked different. Like someone had put a BART station in Orinda. I mean, really, Orinda?

Last night I stayed up by myself (Emily seems holed up in Sacramento almost indefinitely) and played online poker and listened to Pandora. (The link indicates that this was not my cat. Though I also listened to her.) Pandora (the site, not the cat) seems to have finally honed my taste down to a science. A limited science – I think they repeat the same 30 or so songs for me – but I still have given thumbs-up to almost all of them. And the new ones soon get one. I am impressed.

A recent song they keep drumming up for me has reminded me why Matchbox-20 has spent its entire career on my auto-buy list until, somehow, this album. (I mean really, the last one [“More Than You Think You Are”] wasn’t that great before this. And then where did they go? Rob Thomas had to do his solo thing for approximately forever.)

The song is called “How Far We’ve Come” and (how out of the loop have I gotten with music?) it apparently went to #3 in the charts at some point this year. Also, apparently the album is mostly a rerelease of old stuff, so I don’t feel crazy not getting it yet.


But I believe the world is burning to the ground
oh well I guess we’re gonna find out
let’s see how far we’ve come
let’s see how far we’ve come
Well I, believe, it all, is coming to an end
oh well, I guess, we’re gonna pretend,
let’s see how far we’ve come
let’s see how far we’ve come

What if the world ended and nobody cared?

This post is as bad as I feel.


Existence is Futile?

Categories: A Day in the Life, Read it and Weep, Tags: ,

On the train into work this morning, I finished reading The Quiet Girl, Peter Hoeg’s first novel in about a decade. I adored the book (unsurprising given where Hoeg rates on my list of authors), but it was not flawless. Parts of it left me a bit cold. One part, in particular, was one of the passages I found least resonant in the history of literature.

To wit:

Shortly before Groucho Marx died, a journalist asked him to sum up existence. The great comedian had stripped the irony off his face like a latex mask; so close to the grave there was no time for anything less than the truth. “Most of us,” he said, “must try to compensate for our low intelligence with hard work. It’s all a matter of training.”

Really? Really? Groucho, you said that?

I’m on the verge of basically reinventing this post about the quest for challenge. That is not what I want to do here. There is something deeper or beyond calling to me at this moment.

If I were asked to sum up existence, I think I would say something about the challenge being to stay awake in a life where most everyone else seems to be asleep. Eventually one starts to lose the motivation for wakefulness, to wonder if sleep isn’t really vastly preferable, to ponder whether anything could even be done if everyone were awake all the time. One yawns. It’s a struggle. The struggle to keep caring, keep trying.

And maybe my summation is the same as Groucho’s, in some way. Maybe they’re flip sides of the same fence and Groucho really just had us all fooled. I feel like if I ever fool anyone, it’s with the notion that it really takes me a full day to do a full day’s work. You can do the math and check the post times. You know where I am now. And where I’ve been for many of these posts. And phone calls and e-mails and other things.

I can’t remember the last time I didn’t pace myself by trying to hold things back, to deliberately tank and sandbag in order to maintain a regular pace of tasks instead of finishing the race and just waiting around. Work is really no different than school in that way. Seneca was different, because it was live interaction… it was an entirely different world. Everything else, though, has been a struggle to avoid the debilitating feeling that one has to put time in the seat when there is absolutely nothing left to do and no reason to spend that time. So I make sure there are always a couple things waiting, and then get the little thrills of making sure I have just enough time to rush to complete whatever that is.

These are my highs. This is my drug. This is how I artificially maintain sanity in a world of impossibly low expectations.

I guess I often assume that everyone’s doing this, or something like it, unless I see glaring examples of their incompetence to the contrary. But I really don’t know. I have no idea. There are certainly some who I’ve talked to about doing this, but not many. It can be a dangerous topic to bring up when people are on the other side of the fence.


Of course there was another passage in the Hoeg book, less recent and thus probably harder to find, about how many have agreed that to the spiritually inclined, the world seems like an insane asylum, while asylums are tolerable or even pleasant. This, contrasting with the other passage, is one of the most resonant passages I’ve ever read. (Is it strange that I verbatim printed what I disagree with and am paraphrasing what I agree with? Maybe I’m still just an LO at heart.) Maybe this is why I want to go to Bhutan. And, linking the links, not that Bhutan is that perfect place, because I know there isn’t one. But maybe Bhutan is my comfortable madhouse.

When I told someone at work I wanted to go to Bhutan for a year and just think, he said it sounded very lazy of me. Lazier than working in America?! Surely there is nothing lazier than that.

(And here I should caveat against generalizations – there are people who work in physical labor in America who work “harder” in a day than most others ever work in their life. But still, how active is the mind in such cases? Also, we seem to have shipped most of those jobs to countries with less influence, maintaining America’s rank atop the lazy sector.)

And yet it’s often lazy in that exhausting way. That way that whenever you globally consider how many hours you’ve piddled away serving time in the seat, it becomes hard to even breathe. This pounded into my eardrums the other day. Life is not a drill. This is real, this is the one shot on this planet. What on Earth am I doing? Are most any of us doing?

This morning I gave Emily a ride to the train station for her day in Sacramento. On my way back up the hill, I cranked music and sang horribly at the top of my lungs and wound up in tears of humility in the face of existence. Of a sunrise. Of a morning. Of possibility and blessings. That was a scant four hours ago. Already I’m back ‘neath the weight of the prisons we entrap ourselves in, lined with ambivalent prison guards who play solitaire and smirk at what you care about.

The problem is our assumptions. Yes, they even go beyond the assumption of the shining challenge on the hill. We assume that there is an innate value to work (which may be true), but then we blindly accept society’s definition of work. Which is time in the seat for money. Which could be digging ditches or giving advice or playing games at a desk or playing games on a field or pretending to lead. Or solving the world’s problems. Or going to meetings. Or writing. Or reading. It’s freaking anything, regardless of whether it has work or value. But all of us (at least Americans, and I suspect this goes throughout most cultures) just can’t get over this strange predisposition that if someone gives you money to do something, it has value, and otherwise you’re slacking off. Even if the absolute reverse is actually completely true. Adam Smith, you have ruined all of our lives. The market solves nothing, except the problem of how to keep people in fear of being judged by their peers. A fear that keeps the wheels of meaningless currency spinning, and prevents people from pausing long enough to think about why everything they’ve ever been taught has been imparted with the intent to manipulate them.

It’s looking like it may be hard for me to get through the rest of this day. Maybe I should put off doing one more essential task to up that last-minute thrill-factor. I’ve gotta feel something.


The Ants Go Marching

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

The ants came in from the cold this weekend.

We first saw them in Tracy on Friday morning. To be fair, Kaitlin, just turned 4, the youngest of my 4 nieces/nephews (why is there no communal gender-neutral term for such relations?) first saw them.

She let everyone know, right quick.

Now Kaitlin generally likes bugs. Loves them, in fact. Once demanded that her grandmother (Emily’s mom) pull over to the side of the road because she saw a rock out the window that looked like it would be bug-laden, ambled toward it, pried it up, and giggled uproariously at the creepy-crawlies below that confirmed her drive-by intuition. She then picked some up carefully, trying to identify and befriend them while her grandmother fretted behind her and made sure nothing was likely to bite or sting.

Not generally the child you’d first expect to let out a bloodcurdling scream at the sight of nearly microscopic ants.

One of the things I love about children is that they haven’t learned to lie yet. This is perhaps not altogether true … some children must learn to lie very early on to survive (and not just in the Nazi Empire, circa the 1940’s). And siblings probably introduce lying pretty quickly, because the whole blame game can foist responsibility aside and allow unfettered exploration. But the types of lies they still haven’t learned, especially at age 4, are those which spare feelings or stand on ceremony. They just plain call it like they see it, often with a refreshing matter-of-factness that adults obsessed with navigating expectations can’t fathom.

So I found a certain comedy in her continually reminding our host (my sister-in-law Colleen) that there were ants on the floor running about and this would make it hard to enter the kitchen. When Colleen had already been mortified at their presence and was doing her best to get rid of them. She certainly didn’t need a haranguing urgent chorus of “but there’s ants!” Maybe it’s cruel that I was so amused by this, but it’s also cruel that the solution was deemed to be to kill at least some of the ants. At least in that household there seems to be debate about the issue of whether or not to kill ants.

In our house (Emily’s & mine), there is no such debate. We returned home from Tracy to find that ants had run amok in our bathroom and kitchen, and thus it was time to haul out the cinnamon. Ants hate cinnamon, but it does them no actual harm, making it somewhat akin to putting up a wall of sour cream in whatever path you don’t want me to take. It’s the humane way to manage our tiny industrious friends, one that Em and I have been employing for years now. Inexact, but humane.

They seem to adjust their taste every year, but they’re always scouting around for something appetizing. In the pantry of the Big Blue House, they once unearthed a nearly full jar of sugar. They always seem to love cat food, though not this weekend. This weekend, they were obsessed with the coffee maker. Even when the trail had been siphoned back out the door by walls of cinnamon, the exiles on the coffee maker were frenzied over the blend of the day.

Thus, I have been relegated to going across the street to Nation’s to buy large cups of coffee to-go, supplanting my normal morning routine of brewing up a pot. It’s annoying, but it beats murder. Eventually, they will get bored and wander somewhere else. They’re fundamentally as fickle about food as the American public is about media.

There’s another metaphor in there somewhere too, maybe “The Ant and the Grasshopper”. Ants are mighty industrious and work harder and more communally than probably any being on the planet. But there’s something sad about those who used to be depicted as saving up for the winter while others played instead scavenging indoors for the winter. And in urban settings, they have no alternative… there’s no arable land left for ants in the cities. So it makes perfect sense. But somehow, the old fable doesn’t play quite as well with the ants inviting the rueful winter grasshopper into a raid of the cat food bowl.

I haven’t always viewed ants so compassionately. In grade school, living in Oregon, I used to be one of those kids who killed ants recreationally. Not often, maybe not even more than once or twice, because I did feel incredible remorse about it. But I recall a specific incident, related to one of my favorite backyard activities in those days, which was playing with the hose.

We lived in view of the ocean, so the dirt on our acre and a half of rural Oregon was all sand. This made water-play ideal, and I would either wet down an area or just leave a steady trickle on as I developed my creation. And then I would form peaks and valleys, lakes, rivers, and oceans, and countries between. It was an outgrowth of one of my favorite made-up games, which was drawing maps between hypothetical countries in pencil, then erasing and redrawing borders after disputes and resolutions. Was I a child of the end of the Cold War or what? In the shorthand of my childhood, this game became known as “Zorland”, because that was the name of a ubiquitous and often domineering imperial country on the scrap-paper maps I would draw.

So the sand and the hose gave a unique opportunity to bring Zorland to life, adding elements of geological geography previously untapped. Just studying the contours of water passing the path of least resistance was fascinating. And (you probably saw where this was going), one day there was an anthill right near Zorland. This was too tempting a dynamic to put in play, and so the ants soon had to deal with the Great Flood. It wasn’t pretty. While I was initially entertained, little floating mangled ant corpses would haunt me for some time to come. It ended up, to this day, filed away in the vault of mortifying shameful experiences that I think about all too often and still make me blush.

Two incidents in particular come to mind, if we’re dredging up that vault. They were from the same year (as each other, not as the Ant Flood), my first grade year at St. Paul’s Episcopal School, the school that would carry the distinction of being the only school I attended for two full years (Kindergarten and 1st grade) until 1995, when I completed my second (9th grade) year at the Academy. We were living in Visalia and happened to be fairly regular attendees at the affiliated church, where my parents were raising me to be a somewhat tongue-in-cheek Episcopalian. I had caused a stir at the church the Christmas before for insisting on being an angel in the Christmas pageant instead of a shepherd (they divided angels and shepherds along gender lines) because “angels are closer to God”.

The first memory is simple but powerful. I punched David A. in the upper arm after he cut in line. I still remember the incident, the weather, can go live in that memory whenever I want. I even remember the kid’s name for Christ’s sake (I probably never knew his full last name). I think it was the last time I ever committed violence without being physically threatened. It wasn’t the trouble I got in that prevented future occurrences, it was simply the shame of having done something so disproportionate. David A. was the kind of kid who cut in line all the time, and I remember thinking that was crazy kinds of unfair. That someone had to put a stop to this. But really thinking about him being hit, about someone hitting me, made me cry profusely when someone stopped to talk to me about it. That was pretty much the end of my belief in the commission of violence for justice. Sorry, Malcolm X.

The second memory is one that is very high on the list of things I feel shame for, despite having done some legitimately lousy things in my life. It has to mostly be about the pseudo-sexual nature of the issue. It’s one that mortifies me on the first hint of thinking about it, and it’s hard to believe that I’m about to put it in writing publicly when I’m not sure I’ve ever told anyone about it. Maybe one or two people.

We were working on workbooks in some sort of enrichment class in first grade. Kids were talking too much, but the assignment was ridiculously easy (that year I stayed in from about five recesses for loudly complaining that things were too easy when we weren’t supposed to be talking), so I wasn’t really minding distraction. We were seated loosely in pairs at tables of four.

I don’t remember this kid’s name, but he was a boy. He leaned over to me and told me to do something.

Boy: “Say ‘penis’.”
Me: “Why?”
Boy: “Just say it.”
Me: “Okay. Penis.”
Boy: [laughs] “Say it again!”
Me: “Penis.”
Boy: [shrieking with laughter] “Say it again! Again!”
Me: “Penis. Penis.”
Boy: “Mrs. Vickers! Storey said ‘penis’!”

The white-hot depth of this memory is almost terrifying given that it was over two decades ago and I was just six years old.

Mrs. Vickers, one of the people I liked and respected most at both the church and the school, took me aside. I go to absolute pieces today (and every day in the past) thinking of what she must have thought of me during this dialogue:

Mrs. V.: “Did you say ‘penis’?”
Me: “Yes.”
Mrs. V.: “Is your reading about penises?”
Me: “No.”
Mrs. V.” “Is your work about penises?”
Me: “No.”
Mrs. V.: “Then why did you say that?”
Me: “Because he told me to.”
Mrs. V.: “What are you supposed to be doing right now?”
Me: “The reading and the work.”
Mrs. V.: “Okay. Then go do that, and no more talk about penises.”

That incident was my first lesson that people, even children, are not to be trusted.

And, over the years, has become a second lesson about the power of shame and my memory and my inability to let things go.

There are other things like that which stick out. It might not be the best time to rehash everything or this will be a laundry list of my misadventures. I remember, in particular, throwing away one of my earliest attempts at a diary (written when I was eight) when I was about eleven because it contained copious detailed notes on a crush I had on a girl at the time. The crush seemed profoundly inappropriate in retrospect, an eight-year-old talking so boldly about admiring a girl, wanting to spend all his time with her, and so on. I have regretted the decision to sneak that journal into a garbage can in the garage ever since. (I knew my parents would stop me if they saw me throw it out, being collectors of my artifacts and also encouragers of my keeping journals and diaries.) I can still see its orange cover. I remember vague topic areas – the girl, primarily, and also an early frenemy who worked on my campaign for class president. But I would do a lot to actually read the words and see the handwriting, verbatim, again.

Especially now that I’ve heard friends say they openly called people their boyfriends or girlfriends at ages younger than eight!

But that orange-covered journal is gone, and somewhere industrious ants are probably chewing through the remains of my earnest age-eight confessions. Picking up a little scrap of paper, holding it aloft like the Ten Commandments, and carrying the weighty tome to an underground factory of use and consumption.

Ah yes, Ants Marching…

“Take these chances
place them in a box until a
quieter time
lights down, you up and die.”

Tell you what, ants. Bring back my orange-covered diary, loosely reassembled, from 1988 and I will throw the coffee maker in the backyard. Yours to keep. Whaddya say?


Tracy, I Hardly Know Ye

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

I’ve been holed up in Tracy, California, home of my eldest brother-in-law and family, for the past day and two halves. This explains the lack of, well, anything.

On my way out, I came up with (yet another) idea for a website that feels (for the moment) like The Next Big Thing. It is, however, completely beyond my programming comprehension and something that amazes me no one has come up with before. Which means it would actually cost me money to hire people to start it up, and that means I’d best be sure it’d be The Next Big Thing prior to trying. Unless anyone out there knows how to manage incomprehensibly large website databases and wants to sign on for a promise of a cut of what may or may not be The Next Big Thing.

You know what makes for bad reading? Amorphous descriptions of unspecified things that I can’t give more details on.

Anyway, this weekend has been bizarre. I feel like the Garin Clan is my best link to the “real America” that I have trouble seeing most of the time from my ivory towers of personal isolation, like-minded friends, and/or the Bay Area. As discussed in my previous post about Thanksgiving, the Garins are people who I did not choose wholesale, and yet are very important in my life. While most people I would choose are at least somewhat like-minded, the Garin Clan is predominantly in the wheelhouse of the Fresno perspective… conservative, flag-waving, meat-eating, and a bit materially focused. We keep discussion of politics to a minimum, discussion of religion is limited to looking askance at Emily when she doesn’t go to church with them, and no one can really be sure how Emily came from this family or how this family produced Emily.

I have to throw up a bunch of caution flags here. Please don’t get me wrong. I love Emily’s family and I have made a lot of close personal connections with many of them. If you can’t get along well with people who have superficial (or even substantial) differences in perspective from you, then you aren’t much of an advanced person. Besides, I’ve been very good friends with plenty of people who eat meat, like money, and even love America.

But the context of integrating with this family remains weird for me. There’s just no way around it.

Something about this holiday in particular made things really poignant in this department. About five minutes into a trip to Costco yesterday afternoon (“Black Friday”), I was talking very seriously to Emily about taking a sabbatical to a monastery in Bhutan. And it wasn’t to get away from the family so much as the perspective they seem ensconced in – that truly, most all of America is ensconced in, but I manage to insulate myself from pretty well. Vast material consumption with no afterthoughts. Living to the furthest extent of one’s means and beyond, making sure to constantly adjust expenditures so that one always feels strapped, unhappy, and in need of working more. The towering ubiquity of stress, pressure, dissatisfaction, all of which can only be assuaged (mind you, temporarily) with food and material goods, (and for some, drugs).

I really didn’t want to go out yesterday, even though the labeling of the day as “Black Friday” is another linguistic clue (see “illusive terrorist leader“) to the fact that things might not be so bright-n-happy as America wants you to believe around here. Last night when we had returned home and were watching late local news (I don’t think I’d watched such in 3-5 years), they had visual after visual of people stampeding store doors at 6 in the morning, often trampling or beating each other for the right to grab overpriced “discounted” material goods faster than their neighbor. And the banter around the room was not shock about the materialism, but shock about why you would need to be first to be there when the same goods could be procured as cheaply online or later that day.

Granted, I wasn’t exactly speaking up with speeches about how America has gone astray faster and harder than Nero’s Rome, but I also know how to choose my audience. There’s no need to make things awkward for the sake of assuaging my personal perspective. Maybe something would’ve resonated, maybe it would’ve made things incalculably harder. I’m putting more stock in the latter.

I may be exaggerating, as my emotions tend to encourage me to do. But only slightly, I swear. And much of the weekend has been very nice. The kids are growing up fast and are all now verbal and filled with interest in the world and creativity. And a profound lack of attention spans. And desire to cheat at board games. But I taught them paper football and I don’t think imagination is dead just yet… this held their attention as much as the Wii or any other number of amazing graphical experiences.

And the food was great and the adults managed to play some board games here and there as well. Family is family. The fundamental things between us are sound. An hour’s trading of stories from a Garin childhood had us all cracking up nearly to tears. People pitched a book project to me of telling the story of their ramshackle growing up.

But something lingers in the back of my mind in seeing glimpses of the real America. The real America, in every way imaginable, is simply not sustainable. Something has to give.

In the meantime, I’m Googling tickets to Thimphu. There is a higher order, a higher purpose. And somewhere, people believe.


Country Quiz II

Categories: Blue Pyramid News, Tags:

You’re Iran!
People can’t stop talking about you these days. Even though you’re just doing what you normally do, everyone’s eyes seem to be on you wherever you go. Attention is nice, but this is starting to get a little ridiculous. After all, you just want a normal life like all the big people have. But it seems they think you were born to be one of the little people. A particular little person is about to get you in a fair bit of trouble. When you read books about reading Lolita, it totally blows your mind!

Take the Country Quiz II at the Blue Pyramid

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