Categotry Archives: But the Past Isn’t Done with Us

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The Invisible Power of Shame

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , , , ,

Everyday miracle:  everyone in a theater is voluntarily quiet!

Everyday miracle: everyone in a theater is voluntarily quiet!

When people ask me what I want to replace violence as the main motivating force to behave in our society, I instantly reply “shame”. I think a lot of people believe that I’m kidding when I say this. I am not kidding. Shame is an incredibly powerful tool that, when wielded properly, brings out our better selves at almost every turn. I would argue this is because it operates on the basis of our deeper conscience, which is fundamentally tied to a very deep sense of right and wrong. If you’re willing to go there, I think this conscience itself is often, if not innately, tied to the divine.

The friend I call Drew Tirrell was here about a month and a half ago and we spent half a day arguing about “structural violence” vs. what I would call “actual violence”. It’s important here to recognize that I think a whole mess of things are wrong with the world (scroll down through a few posts if you don’t believe me). There’s inequality and vestiges of imperialism everywhere you look, people eat animals and abuse them along the way, people are turned into materialist hoarders rather than harmonious cooperators. The list goes on for several pages that I won’t indulge in now. But physical violence, for me, is the king of all ills, the one that this planet seems most designed to teach us is wrong. And I would argue, and did argue with Tirrell, that this is simply a priori. But if pushed to make utilitarian-style arguments for a fundamentally means-based issue, I think that violence is basically the only thing we’re incapable of reacting to rationally. Not only does it do immense direct physical and emotional harm upfront, but it is innately cyclical, stripping free will, triggering our fight-or-flight response, and coercing us into our worst possible selves. Given that our greatest gifts are our free will and rationality, it’s easy to see why I think this is so wrong.

I think a lot of people have erred over the years by saying that to overcome violence, we must all expunge anger from our hearts. That the only way to achieve non-violence is to be free of all ill will, all negative emotions. You could argue (and many have) that the only reason I disagree is because I have a lot of anger, that I carry the hurts and wrongs of the past and have been wrestling with a deep-seated propensity to defensiveness and anger since I was at most nine years old. But I just don’t think it’s realistic, on this planet at this time, for human beings to eradicate all their anger, all their ill wishes. Emotions have never seemed like an arena where people can exhibit much control, whereas actions are a realm in which complete control is possible. Difficult, often, but possible. This is a big part of why I refrain from mind-altering substances, to maintain maximum control over actions, whatever inferno may be raging in my heart or mind.

Basically, I see it as a matter of priorities. Having anger in one’s heart is probably objectively worse than only feeling love all the time. But on the scale of problems we face as a species right now, this is roughly 372nd, while physical violence is pretty clearly #1. So we should probably table #372 for a couple centuries while we get the top five sorted. Which is not to say that it isn’t great if you can make progress on things lower down the list. But it seems silly to worry about them in a world of drone strikes, occupations, organized militaries, and all the other hallmarks of violence so familiar to our condition.

Which brings us to shame. People think violent coercion is the only thing keeping us from all going out and fulfilling our basest hedonistic desires through wanton violence and oppression. No doubt that the threat of violence can be an effective deterrent, and often is. More often, it’s a really ineffective deterrent, which is why the history of human societies is so littered with revolutions, rebellions, and uprisings, and about 99% of them are violent in nature. When you coerce someone through violence, direct or implied, you are subjugating them, making them bend to your will. You are overpowering them. The reason they refrain from doing what you are preventing is that they feel weaker, less capable, and dominated. Perhaps only in 1984 have we ever seen an example where this results in a person actually feeling good about this coercion. And that required so much torture, physical and psychological, that the person who emerged was probably not really the same as the person who went in to the Ministry of Love in the first place. (Uh, spoiler alert, I guess?)

Shame, on the other hand, appeals to someone’s better self. Yes, it is not completely pure. It does make people feel bad about themselves and their actions sometimes. That said, I think pretty much all corrective advice does this. For someone conscientious or who cares about their behavior, it’s pretty hard to tell them to do something better without making them feel bad that they didn’t in the first place. Maybe some folks are more at home with themselves and being corrected than I am, but I think it’s fairly universal that there’s some upwelling of regret or shame in all correction. It’s that little spur of negative feeling or memory that reminds you to do better next time. The little pulse of regret to make you reconsider your inclinations that would lead to the same outcome when you see that situation again.

Shame is the primary tool at work in all non-violent revolutions. Gandhi and King shamed the occupying British and the dominating racists, holding the lens of public scrutiny up to their brutality and getting them to voluntarily withdraw and stand down. That’s the thing about shame – it doesn’t force you to change. It gives you a strong strong encouragement, but the mechanism of that encouragement is rooted in your own conscience. Or, at worst, the judgment of others, and humanity’s collective conscience. There are many who argue that our consciences are developed as learned behaviors, that they have no innate sense of justice, that if we are raised in a society where people molest their children and eat their grandmothers alive, their conscience will tell them these things are right. The examples of Gandhi and King debunk this myth, however, for the British and Southerners were raised in a particular order, with a set of beliefs that made them superior to these upstarts who wanted to show them another way of doing things. If one’s conscience were merely learned, they would never have been able to back down or admit the error of their ways – they would have gone to their graves believing it was right to beat people with sticks and ravage them with bullets and dogs and feeling no shame or remorse. And sure, not everyone backed down voluntarily or the first, second, tenth time. But in the end, the intuitive power of shame elicited better selves and most of those people died deeply sorry for their role in oppression.

But shame is not just in play in revolutions. Shame is in fact much more powerfully and subtly in play in most of the actions which keep everyday society ordered. Plays, for example. Presentations. Yoga classes, like the one I attended last night, my first in over three years (and long overdue). Regular classes. Planes, trains, automobiles. At every turn, these events could be spoiled by people making a scene, screaming obscenities or making wildly inappropriate gestures. But this almost never happens. It’s not because it’s not tempting to do these things – I would argue there’s a very strong primal pull to spoil sacred moments of our society with disruption, if only to see what would happen, if only to feel the power that anyone has to do so. The desire to scream in the middle of a moment of silence, to be the one exception to the rule, is sometimes breathtaking. But almost no one ever does, because of shame.

And shame is probably too negative a word to strictly describe that phenomenon. There’s something deeper and more positive, a kind of collective spirit. The reason I don’t scream in the middle of such silences has less to do with the fear of shameful repercussion than it does with appreciation of that moment of pure effortless harmony in which we are all collectively engaged. People like to think of humans as obstinate and unable to be corralled, innately selfish, greedy, and naturalistic. But that’s garbage. Every time we all attend a play and no one makes a sound, every time we all stand in a line without mobbing the front of it, every time we listen to a debate round without interrupting, we are cooperating on a very high level. We don’t think about these things often because they are so common, but these represent levels of collective effort that demonstrate a more communal society is more than possible.

And maybe this takes more work for me than it does for most people. I’ve never been quite sure how common the instincts I wrestle with are. When I acted frequently in plays, peaking at the local theater as Oliver two straight seasons in a hybrid play of “Oliver” and “A Christmas Carol”, I was almost constantly fighting with a voice in my head that described the power I held over the audience and how much fun it would be to smash it. There was an almost audible naysayer in the back of my mind telling me to shatter the fourth wall, to swear or to say “you are all just watching a play” in the middle of my lines. I never once did it, never even stumbled over a line with this temptation, but that voice has never left me. Hundreds of competitive debate rounds in high school, hundreds more in college, practice rounds, presentations and speeches – that voice is never far from my consciousness. Any time I have people in total thrall, most on pindrop, in full command of my words and the audience, that’s when the voice is at its loudest, telling me to just try chaos.

I’ve tried talking to people about this with mixed results. Many people relate at some level or another, people describe it (and I did in one of my books) as the instinct to drive a car off the road in the middle of an otherwise unfettered journey. When I told my college debate coach, Greg, how much this haunted me in my debate career, he expressed complete shock and said there was no one he worried about this with less. If anything, I think it’s because that struggle is so practiced for me that he worries so little – my obsession with controlling my actions leads to an exaggerated confidence in the defenses holding at all times. People don’t realize, often, that I selfishly desire violence and react in anger like anyone – the only difference is my commitment to controlling these desires.

And maybe it was just a giving in to that voice that made Andreas Lubitz take his plane down a notch. Maybe he was constantly telling himself that he’d pull up at the last minute, that he just wanted to see how much power he really had at that moment and he would call the whole thing off. Who knows, maybe he intended to do that and just miscalculated. My goal here not being to exonerate or excuse Lubitz’ deplorable actions in any way, but just to speculate on human complexity and how much our safety and good will depends on the willful denial of self-control, all the time.

I know there are myriad counter-arguments to the shame thing. The most prevalent being that shame has often been utilized to teach us things that are wrong, to prevent us from taking good corrective actions. Shame has been levied against women, subjugated races, gays and lesbians, and all manner of the oppressed. Shame is a tool that has been misused and mistreated to bring people down, to prevent people from speaking out, to subvert consciences rather than extoll them. People have been made to feel bad about their innate characteristics, their beliefs, their true identities, their feelings. People have faced years of therapy, sometimes fruitless, in an effort to expunge the shame they feel for bad reasons.

I have two key responses:

1. It’s a comparative debate, folks. Shame, like any tool, has been misused. But compared to physical violence and the threat thereof? No comparison. Would you rather be ridiculed for your beliefs or shot for them? Yes, ideally we will get to a world where no one even needs the threat of feeling bad to keep from murdering or stealing or oppressing. But we’re a long way from there, and I think shame is a good intermediate step between violence and us all just being that good all the time.

2. The problem with past instances of shame has not been with the means, but with the value structure surrounding them. I don’t think there’s anything innately bad about feeling bad about doing something wrong. The problem is when one feels that way and hasn’t actually done something wrong. We can regret the long history of LGBT oppression in our society, but we still want homophobes to feel ashamed of being biased. Don’t we? If not, what’s your mechanism for getting racists and homophobes to reconsider? Isn’t most of the country trying to publicly shame Indiana right now? Aren’t most of you applauding that? If we don’t have shame, getting people to reconsider their selfishness and look at others as humans and feel bad about wrong actions, what do we have left to get people to confront injustice?

It’s better if the shame comes with the possibility of forgiveness, to be sure. The shame of shunning and total exclusion, on a societal level, should probably be reserved for murder and rape and the most heinous behaviors. And even then, hey, maybe the Scandinavian model that you can eventually be welcomed back into the fold is best. But if we’re going to build a world around absolute violence or absolute shame, I’ll take the latter any time. It’s not even that big a switch. Most of your day, you behave better more from the threat of shame than the threat of violence. Now we just have to extend that privilege to Syria, Congo, and the poorer neighborhoods of the rest of the world too.

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Senior Retreat and the Infinite Sadness

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Long Tunnel, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , , , ,

The memorable lake in the middle of the Conference Center in Glorieta, NM.  I am haunted by this lake.

The memorable lake in the middle of the Conference Center in Glorieta, NM. I am haunted by this lake.

My image of God isn’t really an image at all. I think we’re all to an extent overly influenced by religious, Biblical, and societal depictions of the divine as a white-haired bearded father sitting on a cloud and looking vaguely ornery. No doubt Michelangelo bears some of the blame for this, but the Sistine Chapel probably was just utilizing what was popular at the time. As metaphors go, an impossibly old father who is really grumpy about you staying out too late again is probably a good depiction of the Judeo-Christian assumptions, replete with the requisite wrath to take vengeance on anyone who would mess with “His” people. It’s no wonder so many people have a falling out with their birth religion and throw the whole notion of higher powers and divinity out altogether. Who wants another voice in your head telling you to get home by curfew?

It’s hard for me to really envision God as anything physical. Being bound by the corporeal just doesn’t seem very godlike, frankly, though I guess the early scholars got really caught up in that “in His own image” business. It’s hard for us to relate to something aphysical, certainly, so I guess believing that a divine being gets emotional and stomps (H)is feet just like we do would make us feel more comfortable beseeching this entity. But there’s nothing I can picture about a viable or worthwhile God that would exist physically… it’s far too limiting and strange. This probably has something to do with the fact that I don’t, deep down, believe anything exists physically. I believe we are living in a grand metaphor. That these physical lives are for those of us (hey, that’s everybody here!) too unsophisticated to understand aphysical realities, so we need it all spelled out for us in bodies and colors and sounds.

This is not to say that I see God as unemotional. Indeed, there is one emotion that I think God resonates with, resounds within, and for many practical purposes is. The problem of evil has never bothered me because the only order to the universe that makes sense to me is one wherein sentient beings are given absolute free will (within, I suppose, certain rule-based limitations). We are suffering because we make each other suffer and the goal is to figure out how we can all get along and sort things such that suffering is minimized (though I don’t think that’s actually the ultimate goal – happiness/suffering is not the dichotomy that I think matters most, which sets me apart from I guess 95% of current philosophical people and 99% of current unphilosophical ones). The challenge of life is to make moral progress without a cheat-sheet or knowing the rules. There are a lot of clues and I would argue God is omnipresent in dropping hints of varying levels of subtlety, but at the end of the day, we have to figure it out. And this collective nature of figuring it out is, as I often say, why we’re not all born on our own planet. We need each other and a lot of what we’re supposed to learn about on Earth involves cooperation and compassion. A child born into poverty may not have the free will to get herself out of it, but we collectively have the free will to ensure no children are born into poverty, or that those who are still have choices in their life.

And this is what we squander constantly. Which is why I sense the emotion that God is perpetually consumed by is sadness. Benevolent Sorrow has long been my catchphrase for the divine, and it’s really hard for me to imagine anything else. Because God clearly cares, but is limited from intervening by the choice to offer free will. (Thumbnail argument: lack of free will spoils moral choice, making life meaningless – I can walk through this in another post, but it’s pretty straightforward.) And it’s clear that we all have the capability to spend our time the right way and make the right choices to make a much better and more moral existence for all of us. But we don’t do that, over and over and over again. Our world is still largely governed by fear, hatred, misunderstanding, and greed, all of which result in violence, ignorance (in many senses), and neglect. It always surprises me when people talk about depression as disordered thinking – I find it very odd to look at human history or the state of the planet, take it seriously, and not be depressed. And there are those of you out there who believe this is the problem with depression and think I have a disease that needs treatment, but let’s be serious. Can you really get out of your own first world bubble, consider what’s going on planetarily, and not get sad? If you can, I think you have the disorder.

So this omnibenevolent sadness is out there, coursing through the universe, constantly urging us to bend back toward a level of compassion and seeing beyond ourselves that humans are so reluctant to embrace in the known course of history so far. How could you care that much and be so limited in your ability to help and not be sad? Especially when the lessons to learn and the choices to make are so simple. Don’t beat each other about the head and torso with sticks. Care about each other, even if the other people are far away or different from you. Keep trying and changing to get better.

I am not trying to stand on some great moral high ground here. While I have made a lot of progress with the violence question since discerning its paramount importance in what we’re trying to learn here, I am constantly berating myself for shortcomings in how I use my time, money, and influence for the betterment of the species. I go to sports games and play poker and play video games and eat out when I should probably be spending all of that time and energy and money on refugees and war-torn regions. This gets used as a throwaway APDA argument all the time to justify that it’s okay to make these selfish-seeming choices, but I always relate more to the core of the actual argument – it’s probably not okay to care more about your own society and mindless happiness than these other people. But I do it anyway. And as close as I ever get to changing is to periodically feel infinitely guilty and ashamed and occasionally make half-hearted resolutions to sell all my possessions and move to an aid camp in Syria (the country has been different in the past and will be different in the future as geopolitical winds ruin one land after another).

It is this kind of sadness, this deep, soul-well kind of pit, that I fell into in the crisp fall of 1997 in Glorieta, New Mexico. Albuquerque Academy, the elite private school aspiring to New Hampshire that I attended for 8th-12th grade, holds several ritual events as rites of passage for its students, but the two most memorable are probably Philmont (a 100-hour camping trip for 9th graders at the Boy Scout ranch there) and Senior Retreat (a three?-day series of workshops, skits, and free time traditionally held at the Baptist Conference Center in Glorieta). This is right near the opening of school, I think in September, and both events are held as bonding exercises for the cohorts of 150 students in their passage of time together in the pressure-cooker that is this prep school education.

My own Senior Retreat took place as I was first confronting the demise of the first serious relationship of my life, the one with the person usually called “PLB” on this website, the one where I fell in love and was engaged to someone who was exhibiting the traits of a pathological liar for the whole year, the one where the relationship ended via a melodramatic e-mail from her father telling me to stay away when the last words I’d heard from the girl herself were “I will love you forever and we’re still getting married.” The web of lies and deceit and nonsense are not necessary to revisit in painstaking detail at this juncture, but this was the first real time I’d had to spend in close confines where she might be since she’d transferred out of all the classes we’d signed up for together on day two of school. A high school is large enough to avoid someone mostly, but a quiet mountain retreat for just your class is decidedly less so. And seeing her there, the same person I’d shared so much with, cold, unfeeling, anonymous, ignoring, and illegal to approach – it was too much.

My friends were also in this incredibly awkward position at the time. I’d been pretty bad to them much of our junior year, as people in the throes of their first serious relationship often are to friends who have been close for years. Early relationships bring this all-consuming sense of importance that shifts uses of time, usually dramatically, and I’d blown off countless invitations to hang out in favor of spending basically all of my time with my girlfriend. When she unceremoniously (and deceptively, and embarrassingly) cut me loose, I went crawling back to my friends for support, apologetically and apoplectically. They took me back with a forgiveness that was wholly undeserved, but for which I am forever grateful. But they just didn’t know how to wrestle with the depth of my despair.

This all came to a head at the Senior Retreat, where aside from one joint victory wherein we designed the winning (and ultimately unprinted, for it was deemed inappropriate) design for our senior T-shirt, I was despondent pretty much the whole time. I think I was holding up okay the first day, but by nightfall, was starting to spiral hard and fast. I remember there being skits performed by the popular crowd, skits that lampooned relationships at one juncture, and I just couldn’t take it. I couldn’t handle how carefree and young and boisterous everyone was when my world had ended. I tore out of the performance and went to stand by the lake, contemplating the depth of my misery.

Like most of my sadnesses, it didn’t just stay about me for long. If we are to picture outbursts and breakdowns of total sadness as a mineshaft opening up into brief free-fall, mine are often little chutes that then connect with the very deep wells of the larger sadness of the universe quite quickly. Feeling sorry for oneself only get so far when one quickly realizes how much other people are suffering in less recoverable ways, and especially how little one’s own self is doing to prevent and fix that reality. And then it’s just free-fall, every little injustice and wrong and rejection and failure in one’s own life and all Existence competing for top billing. When I get this sad, I cry inconsolably, and when I do that, I often end up hyperventilating, and it usually takes losing most of the feeling in my face to get me to a state where I can stop descending, can stabilize, can be numb enough to consider sleep.

For some reason, that first night in Glorieta, I couldn’t hit that stage. I kept cycling back from hyperventilation to sobbing, on loop. And when I was too drained and exhausted to manifest more tears, it was just despondent walking through the dark dark trees and rims of the lake, periodically bumping revelers who just sort of glared, sometimes trailed by my friends who were so so worried.

I have vague clear glimpses of moments of that night, including a tragicomic scene wherein three of my friends practically physically pushed my friend (and first girlfriend, who I’d callously dumped to date PLB) Alisha to talk to me and she tersely told me she had no idea why they thought she could help. I’m sure my group of friends, all male, thought a female influence would be able to get through in some way, or maybe it was her long-standing interest in psychology, but her mood at the moment was not amused and she confronted me with a bootstrappy kind of tough love that I would have to dig myself out of this if I wanted to. I was fine with that. I had no interest in digging, much less ascending. I was going all the way down that night.

I learned later that shortly before this happened, my friends had actually rallied a small search party for me since I had been missing since the skits and been seen crying by somebody and couldn’t be found and curfew was coming. I don’t remember being missing, but their worry was certainly justified, because a lot of my interest in the lake that night was one of longing, of manifesting my emotional reality physically, of sinking and going numb and never having to feel again.

I tapped into this feeling a little bit last night, some small combination of sad songs and late nights and feelings of moral inadequacy. There was no clear and present catalyst, really, unless one counts the sense of waste and loss and silliness that accompanies losing a poker tournament. I am not alone right now, though the feelings of rejection and the insanity of lost love are never far from my heart. But the world is still hurting and God is still sad and I can relate. And sometimes that’s all it takes.

I have never really talked much to anyone about Senior Retreat. I had a morning after the night that felt much the same – I think I woke up at four or five in the morning in the pre-dawn to go stand at that lake again and listen to sad music and try to will myself to break my promise to myself from seven years earlier and not survive. But I never got more than a toe in the water and here I am today. Maybe because I think that it would just be one more waste, one more thing for God and others to be sad about.

Harnessing the power of that sadness, of that feeling of infinite failure and disappointment, without it crushing you completely, it’s a dangerous game. It’s one I’m not even close to mastering, any more than I can capture the first rush of blood to the brain that precedes a migraine and live in the improved thinking before the pain sets in and nullifies all that progress. It’s feelings like that which compelled the holy folks of past generations to renounce the world and devote themselves to service or contemplation. I keep telling myself I can do more good as a member of the conventional world and use my gifts to influence others here instead. But I never know for sure. It’s so easy for it to sound and feel like an excuse, especially when there are sports games and poker tournaments and other hedonistic pursuits.

I’m sorry. I’m so so sorry.

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Ted Cruz and the Elaborate Troll Hypothesis

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

Presidential material, being forged in the hot fires of APDA!

Presidential material, being forged in the hot fires of APDA!

People simply cannot get enough Ted Cruz these days.

The Senator, one of two representing the state of Texas, perennial hotbed of Presidential candidates successful and otherwise, recently became the first official candidate to take the office of the Presidency in 2017. He’s also one of two Senators representing the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA), the hyper-competitive debate league on which I competed for four years and coached for five. Chris Coons (D-CT) is the other, a former teammate of David Foster Wallace, who he described in the latter’s recent biography as having “literally the worst delivery I have ever heard.”

A huge portion of my circle of friends has been following the rise of Cruz as a model for what APDA debaters can become, though few share his particular ideology. But the increasing question, raised by some of even his teammates and former friends, is whether he shares his particular ideology. As a passionate spokesman for rabid conservatism to the point of alienating many Republicans, Cruz has always been a polarizing figure. But he’s also, at root, a debater, making him capable of employing passionate and rabble-rousing rhetoric without necessarily believing it personally. Could this all be an elaborate troll?

The question of whether a serious candidate for the President of the United States is just trolling us with his beliefs may sound far-fetched, but you have to understand the world of APDA debate. There are many things that I love about the debate circuit as a culture and debate as a format for learning and skills development, but there are also a ton of things that disappoint. Two quick reference points for an introduction might be the Judging Bias Report, just released today by the Women’s Initiative, and the beloved Slate piece on Ted Cruz’s time on the circuit and in college. After the latter article made the rounds in August 2013, a former colleague of Cruz’s on the circuit posted on a Facebook thread that he didn’t think Ted Cruz believed a word of what he said – he just wanted to have the power, influence, and prestige that come with political position.

When I joined the Brandeis debate team, the team President at the time (whose name I won’t disclose since I’m not trying to use this space to impugn his character for Google) was an abrasive, egotistical leader with a true gift for public speaking. He was intimidating, off-putting, and sometimes corrupt, but also served as a mentor for me and personally vested time and energy into my improvement. He had a very successful debate career indeed, taking Brandeis to the National finals and winning top speaker at that tournament, and went on to Yale Law School as expected. Then, quite suddenly, he was born again and became a devout evangelical Christian. He disavowed his prior habits, like getting high with friends and mockingly reading passages of the Bible aloud for amusement, becoming suddenly quite interested in the fate of everyone’s soul. He kept his Wiccan wife, though I wasn’t close enough to them at the time to know whether she converted also, and soon entered seminary. Most all of his friends were baffled and even more questioned the sincerity of this conversion.

My assumption is that he was doing it for political gain. He had desired high political office since birth near as I could tell, but he had openly expressed fear that his Jewish heritage would put a cap on the trajectory of his ascent in America. A sincere-seeming conversion, vouched for by his friends, is certainly far less compromising and transformative than much of what people go through to get ahead in the arena of US politics. By this point, he’d unfriended me from Facebook and we hadn’t spoken in years, so I was never able to do personal investigation. It’s possible that he really means it and that I’m to be criticized for questioning his sincerity. But the consensus of those who spent the most time with him in those years on APDA is that this was just another in a series of shrewd political calculations with the goal of rising to the top.

And herein lies one of the critical problems with APDA, though it’s hardly exclusive to said circuit. It makes rising to the top and end in itself. Ideally, our politicians would seek office in the old-fashioned ideal of the notion – to serve the people, or at least to work for an ideal or a set of principles. To have a goal, an achievement or a belief structure in mind, and then set about acquiring the power necessary to enact such ideals. In the brief fanciful moments wherein I entertain the idea of an America where I’d be electable (despite a long history of criticizing the country, its history, and its current policies), it is this kind of candidacy that I envision: stumping for pacifism, equality, and the maintenance society. I won’t say that there’s no thrill in the idea of being a personage, of having fame and influence, but it’s pretty much all desirous as a means to an ends of making the world a more moral place that takes better care of its people.

No one really thinks this is what Ted Cruz is after. Not among those who knew him best back in the day, and certainly not even in those who follow him now. Like so many people, he wants to be President to be President. And unfortunately, there’s probably something about APDA that trains people to think this way. The place is an elite and competitive crucible of some of the brightest young minds in the country, replete with anger, egos, entitlement, and various pressures to win at any cost. Tons of otherwise civilized and reasonable people become transformed into cutthroat competitors in the refraction of this forge, running unfair cases against close friends and even lovers, employing vitriol and ridicule to shame their opponents, even resorting to bald appeals to their superior reputation as being deserving of victory. It’s not that everyone does this, or that anyone does this all the time, but APDA is such a purely intellectual playground that is so insular and self-promotional that the stakes of any given round or tournament can sometimes feel like life and death. Or, perhaps, like the Presidency itself.

The background of APDA’s top competition, be it the wealthy establishment or mere intellectual brilliance or rhetorical firepower, bolsters the notion that what’s happening week to week at any tournament truly matters. This is a circuit that annually asks a series of “Family Feud” style questions about itself and the topic of “Most likely to be President” is taken seriously as an actual prediction of future success. The Ivy League is well represented and has often dominated APDA competition, but upstart schools like Brandeis or Rutgers or Boston University have enjoyed great success as so many of APDA’s alumni have gone on to fame, fortune, or preparation to make influential decisions for the country. Whether there’s something about a competitive debate league that makes one more likely to lead in the future is uncertain but likely. Whether there’s something about this debate league in particular that leads people to pursue success for its own sake using the tools acquired on the circuit is pretty definite.

Any debate format where one doesn’t get to choose what one is defending or advocating all the time is going to force people to be more open-minded and, sometimes, insincere in using fiery rhetoric to express beliefs one disagrees with. I was disheartened after a public demonstration round my senior year when a novice told me that I’d convinced him of the morality of the draft, something I disagree with so vehemently that I’d refused to register for the Selective Service and nearly lost my financial aid and ability to go to college over it. But the opposing team had thought it would be cute to make me defend my nemesis system in front of a couple hundred new debaters and I convinced at least one to join the side I was defending, at the peril of what I think is right. Admittedly, I think this practice is still incredibly valuable as an intellectual exercise and learning tool, but it was hard on that day to not feel like I was undermining something fundamental about what I believe.

The hubris that accompanies APDA is also worth noting here, fueling the habit of people who ruthlessly pursue power for the sake of lording it over others. Note that said demonstration round described above was held on September 14, 2001 in New York City, at the opening tournament of the year, a tournament designated for first-year debaters who had just had their college experience defined by 9/11. Despite the assumption that there would be more attacks in the US and soon, APDA decided to hold this tournament a few miles from Ground Zero, three days after the event, because not doing so would be “letting the terrorists win.” With a background like this, it’s not hard to see where Ted Cruz comes from.

So does he mean it? Does he really want to enact the policies he claims? Or is he just another debater in pursuit of a slightly different kind of National Championship, one who revels in the thrill of the competition and the bravado of intellectual battle?

You’d have to ask the people closest to him at the time. I feel confident I could speak to a good deal of the motives and backgrounds of debaters on the circuit from 1998-2015, but Cruz graduated in 1992 and I never saw him speak. Never even met the guy, though he came back and judged during at least one tournament during my tenure. And hey, people change. Maybe he became convinced that Bible-thumping conservative doctrine is what the country truly needs. But my guess is you can take the kid out of APDA, but you can’t really take APDA out of the kid. The White House is an awfully shiny trophy and it’s hard to argue with that kind of hardware.

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15 Years and a Day

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

Me in New York City, early 2000 (left).  Me in New Orleans, early 2015 (right).  Forgive the tiny image size - I don't have a better or bigger version of the one on the left just yet.  I do, however, still have and wear that jacket.

Me in New York City, early 2000 (left). Me in New Orleans, early 2015 (right). Forgive the tiny image size – I don’t have a better or bigger version of the one on the left just yet. I do, however, still have and wear that jacket.

It is perhaps fitting that I went with Introspection-style dash-bullet-points to summarize my experience in yesterday’s post. After all, yesterday was the 15th anniversary of my opening salvo into blogging, the first post of Introspection. Like so many things done the first time, it wasn’t very good.

It did, however, have a pretty prophetic reference in it, that a dream had entailed details of the film “Magnolia”. Not because I would necessarily post so much about dreams in the coming decade and a half (though there’d be some of that), but because that line from that movie has become such a watchword for this blog. It’s even one of the categories for this post since I am, after all, talking about the year 2000. (Cue Conan O’Brien.) Of course, I butchered the line to make it more grammatically correct and perhaps less zingy. I am told, though I haven’t watched the film in a long time, that it’s “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” Somehow when I first posted in this category in October 2007 (it was my first StoreyTelling post!), I remembered it as “We may be done with the past, but the past isn’t done with us.” Same sentiment, really.

Given my penchant for references, anniversaries, looking at life through a novelistic lens, and seeing time as geography, it is perhaps almost unbelievable, then, that I would launch a brand-new blog on 13 March 2015, exactly 15 years to the day after my personal world turned a bit forever with the opening of public displays of introspection. And that I didn’t even quite realize that was happening for the first few days it was scheduled.

I recently started working at Communities In Schools of Greater New Orleans. It is not my intent to blog a lot about this position or what happens therein – I’m the Director of Development, which is a reasonably sensitive job, and there’s just not a lot of call to talk about my work life in this context given the nature of that work. However, I am super-excited about bringing you details of what that organization is doing to improve other people’s lives, which is the function of our new blog. Launched yesterday. 13 March. The anniversary. I’m sure.

It says something for the separation of work life and personal life that it didn’t immediately occur to me when my boss suggested we launch this Friday that it would be such a significant personal date. Because it’s one of those days, like July 24th (once good, now good and ruined) or July 13th (ibid.) or April 8th (still not sure the roots of this one, but it’s always significant) or June 6th (bad things, man, although also Felix now) that carries weight despite not being a birthday or something. I guess we could throw October 17th in there, but screw that.

Come on, I can’t reference the old blog this much and not have moments of being cryptic, can I?

Anyway, I want you to go read the blog, and like us on social media for regular updates and all that wonderful stuff. It has been a really wonderful project to work on and I’m so excited about telling the story of the organization and especially the kids we serve. Dropout prevention was never a specific passion of mine (though I long aspired to be a high school teacher), but I’ve com to realize that, in this country, it is the primary preventative measure we have to combat all the other direct ills that I care about. Dropping out of high school is the biggest predictor of whether someone ends up homeless, in jail, in poverty, overcome by addictions, you name it. Graduating from high school isn’t a guarantee to avoid those things, but the statistical significance of the benefit is overwhelming. I still care deeply about food justice and poverty alleviation and I believe that this organization is actually doing incredible work on those issues via the best preventative measure we have.

Plus, there will be pictures of kids. Who doesn’t love pictures of kids?

These meta posts observing how long I’ve been blogging publicly and writing posts, usually (in this format) in fits and starts with long droughts and long sustained periods, usually bring up some reflection on the purpose of the approach. I’m not really in a place where I’m questioning the existence of this medium or my use of it (I rarely am, since college, I guess). But it’s good to take stock of the ability to communicate here, to convey a series of thoughts and feelings to try to inspire change. While all writing I have ever done has the goal of changing how people see things toward the ultimate goal of improving our lot in life (as a species, morally), it becomes more clear and overt by starting a blog for an organization with the purpose of communicating the mission and garnering support for it. I don’t see it as that fundamentally different from what I’m trying to do here, honestly, though this also includes a lot of emotional hand-wringing and the intent of simply chronicling a life with all its ups, downs, mistakes, and triumphs.

I’m even more reflective than normal after engaging in earnest as a regular contributor to Clarion Content, Aaron Mandel’s online curation of Durham, North Carolina and leftist politics. He’s long been a gracious supporter of my work and syndicated Duck and Cover for a long stretch when I still was keeping that project up (it may come back someday, don’t give up hope). He’s invited me to be a regular contributor and there’s been a commensurate spike in dedication to blogging here ever since, especially since he’s mostly running cross-posts of the more politically minded content that runs here on StoreyTelling. The index of my new regular feature will be here and I’ll make sure to share my unique posts that end up there on the BP’s social media.

It’s tempting to close these kinds of pieces with a look into the murky fog of the future, something even more inviting in the late winter of New Orleans, when mist is ubiquitous and the spirits seem to gather wispily corporeal presence. But I’m on a crusade against future-mindedness, at least in a long-term personal context. We can set goals for ourselves, like graduating high school or returning to the Grand Canyon to go rim-to-rim-to-rim. But obsessing about where we’ll be in one, two, five, ten years is usually fruitless fretting. It leads to ignoring the moment in front of you, the day you could be enjoying more thoroughly if you weren’t wishing it away. Each day can be long and full and fulfilling, or at least intriguing, if one foreshortens future thinking. I’ve really tried to apply this logic to 2015, not trying to build a grand vision for the year (other, perhaps, than returning to work and the new exciting opportunity at CIS) but to take each day, each moment, as the quiet little opportunity it can be.

I may not be able to forgive people, I may not be able to let go of the past. But daily mindfulness is a healthy target I can try to achieve, for now. And that’s all right for me today. Because today is the only day I need to be all right, right now.

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Choices: Too Many, Not Enough

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

“It’s a typical situation in these typical times
too many choices…
Oh, everybody’s happy
everybody’s free
we’ll keep the big door open
everyone’ll come around.
Why are you different?
Why are you that way?
If you don’t get in line, we’ll lock you away…”
-Dave Matthews Band, “Typical Situation”

I need a doctor.

No, not that kind of doctor!

No, not that kind of doctor!

Maybe I’ve been watching too much of the new “Doctor Who” lately, just starting on season 5 now in the progression, after growing up with the original series as perhaps my absolute favorite show. Tom Baker is still the best, but it was hard to see David Tennant go, especially under the phrase “I don’t want to go!” Of course, that reminded me just a tiny bit too much of the big hug I got from Marcel Miranda in May 2009 when I left Glide after three years. He cried in my office a little and said “I don’t want you to go!” He passed away that December.

I can pick between ten or eleven doctors, which the iconic British show has offered me, and narrow it down to at least two, and probably one if I had to. What I am struggling to do is choose from the large printed book that Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana sent me a couple weeks ago, detailing all my possible options for primary care provider under my newly regained health insurance. The book is 402 pages.

The existence of such a tome and its delivery to me, free of charge, is supposedly what’s great about health care in America. Obamacare advocates would claim it as a victory and its detractors would say this is the kind of excellent private health coverage that is about to be taken away. Louisiana in particular has been playing out this struggle – it’s one of the Medicare refusal states and a state with unbelievably runaway insurance costs of all sorts. It actually has the highest car insurance rates in the nation (sorry, Jersey, I’ve been able to do some pretty direct comparison shopping) and is one of those weirdly shaded states on the map where health care premiums have still been skyrocketing after the ACA. I don’t even want to think about what the book and its upkeep costs, let alone what it gets billed as in the modern ever-growing health care industry. Especially when it could be a website, but that would limit access, because we somehow stubbornly cling to the belief that the Internet should be doled out like a private luxury instead of the public good that it clearly is. If you wonder why I believe in radical change over gradualism, it tends to be this kind of spiraling frustration that it’s hard to find one thing that this society does efficiently and/or with the people of the country in mind. The really sounds like an exaggeration until I start pulling the loose thread of any given problem.

This book has single-handedly prevented me from going to the doctor for two weeks. And it may yet do the same for a few more. Even though I really need a doctor, mostly because I have been without health insurance for about half a year and there is an ominous growing patch of discolored skin on my upper back that is almost certainly not cancer, but you never know. Most friends who I’ve discussed this issue with find it hard to believe that I waited for health insurance at all to discuss this issue with a certified medical professional (and of course WebMD has already given me just weeks to live), but I’m not fond of doctor’s visits when I’m swimming in health care, let alone when it must be paid out of pocket. I learned that lesson real fast in a 2003 emergency room visit in Berkeley and have never really lived it down for myself. I’m sure I could find the link in Introspection, but I really don’t feel like combing the year 2002-2003 for the record right now.

I believe I have what they call “analysis-paralysis”. Not on my back. That’s probably called something else, hopefully not an astrological term involving an admittedly ornery-looking crustacean. With the healthcare and the 402-page book and the need for a doctor. I have too many choices. Way too many choices. I miss Kaiser Permanente, who just picked a doctor for me. Yes, sometimes the doctor was obsessed with medication and I hate medication, sometimes the doctor wanted to put me on mind-altering drugs for migraines, sometimes I had to wait a week for an appointment. But at least I was utilizing the health care system. At the rate I’m going with Blue Cross and Blue Shield, I’m not sure I’ll ever start.

I guess if I grew up here, I would feel more qualified to make the decision, having logged time and preferences and references and prior visits. The problem is that the decision could matter, theoretically – there are philosophical and quality differences between doctors, to be sure. But researching the decision in order to make an effective one is a ridiculous proposition with the time allotted. Frankly, it would be a ridiculous proposition with the time I used to have back when I lacked health insurance. I think someone could make it their full-time job to pick a doctor (under the premise that the choice matters) for me, because, probably, there are 2 or 3 really excellent matches with everything I feel about the delivery of health care.

But obviously, undertaking more than a cursory random-noise search is impossible. Alex said she confronts these decisions (she, after all, had health care months ago) by picking someone (a) a woman with (b) flexible hours who is (c) close to home. I don’t really have a gender preference in my medicine, but the latter two factors seem to make sense, though they have very little to do with what actually makes a doctor more likely to deliver me health care in the way that I want it. And, admittedly, maybe finding out things about whether they believe in off-label use of anti-depressants to treat migraines or back lesions or any of my other ailments is not really something even the book and the power of Internet research could tell me. Maybe I should just pull some names within 2 miles and throw a dart or a pick a unique-sounding name.

But I’m haunted by the idea that this could matter, that everything in our society tells me that doctors are very different and being able to have agency in selecting a personal doctor is one of my supreme God-given rights. I certainly don’t have a right to housing or food, but doctor choice – now we’re talking! And so this rhetoric has prevented me from sincerely getting out the darts, even though I already would have a diagnosis on what’s troubling me if I’d just freaking picked already. It’s hard not to feel like I’m a big metaphor for the bloat in our system, though I know my results are hardly ever typical of how people approach health or its care.

What is altogether too typical is the preliminary sparring in the 2016 Presidential race, one for which I’d like to make a quiz if I can ever remember how I made 128+-answer quizzes while holding down a day job and living life all at the same time. And what society tells me is important here is that the dream deferred of Clinton-v-Bush, round 2, is being threatened by an e-mail scandal. Hillary Clinton was, apparently, very naughty with her e-mail accounts.

I strongly dislike Hillary Clinton. I dislike her policies and I dislike her as a person. I think it would be a horrific precedent to set that the first woman President of the United States was first a First Lady, that her initial qualification for politics was being married to a popular President. I am terrified of 4-8 years of her policies when she has clearly expressed that she thinks the biggest impediment to electing women is the wide perception that they would be less likely to bomb people than men, and would dedicate her Presidency to proving that theory wrong. I find her sense of entitlement, a true Clinton legacy, disturbing in the utmost. I do not want you to vote for her.

That said, this e-mail “scandal” is stupid. I really dislike Hillary, can’t stand the Democrats (or Republicans), but not voting for her because of these e-mails is ridiculous.

Like, yes, I guess there’s theoretically some minor chance that her personal e-mails would be more likely to be hacked or read by an employee of the private company with whom she sent e-mails. And I guess the surveillance state finds it terrifying that there would be some balance in the transparency of everything, see also Snowden, Edward. But, really? Mrs. Clinton is 67 years old. She doesn’t know the intricacies of technology. You find me a 67-year-old politician or statesperson who understands these things. Who never threatens the absolute security of their documents by making some technological blunder, by leaving a printout lying around, by forwarding the top-secret attachment to their home account so they can print it, by logging in to the CIA server from the ski lodge wifi. Really? People sneak machetes and pepper spray and small arms into airplanes all the time. We’re worried that HRC’s top-secret not-yet-leaked correspondence with leaders she was trying to intimidate were on GMail? All the secrets of the world are on GMail! Thankfully it’s too much data for Google to quickly mine and distill for purposes other than using advertising to creep you out.

She's using a smartphone!  We should be impressed.

She’s using a smartphone! We should be impressed.

But mostly people aren’t even rumbling about security. They’re rumbling about appropriateness. Or, mostly, they’re rumbling about BS. They’re using the opportunity of a couple media people and politicians taking this scandal Very Seriously to join the chorus in the hopes that something like this could actually fell the momentum of the presumed President-elect.

The problem here, of course, is that there are basically no real choices for President. In a theoretically wide-open field of candidates, with no incumbent on either side of the aisle, it’s been known for over a year who most of America thinks will win the Presidency in 2016. And it’s certainly been known for a while that the person will come from one of the two major parties and that there are only a handful of people from each party that could seriously be considered for this job.

And it’s not that there aren’t a few more qualifications for President than there are to be a certified medical professional in greater New Orleans. But with those qualifications and the commensurate responsibility should come at least a modicum of flexibility in who we consider. After all, it’s not like the people we’ve been dealing with are getting us anywhere. Congress continues to pass functionally no legislation while carrying an approval rating well below freezing. And yet the quantity and scope of our choices remains extremely limited.

How have we generated a society that offers a 402-page book for who you want to discuss aches and pains with, but can’t come up with more than a small handful of choices for who is going to make the majority of decisions about the operations of the entire nation for four years?

The illusion of choice is pervasive in our world. We are, as Americans, completely obsessed with choice as a concept. Choices of products, choices of companies, choices of jobs, choices of schools. The ability to make these choices is a badge of wealth and privilege that we like to pretend represents neither. But the ability to choose between 402 pages of doctors belies the fact that the alternative choice is among 0 doctors, or crippling debt to wander into an office. Our college admissions process cloaks the fact that many people had insufficient opportunities to learn before college and are faced with no acceptances, or cutthroat for-profits masquerading as educators. Job offers and rigged unemployment numbers mask the fact that so many people have no jobs to choose from at all, or are being squashed into a shadow labor-market as “independent consultants” who work below the already dizzyingly low minimum wage.

But no amount of status and class can buy you a real choice for the Presidency. Well, even that might not be true. If you have enough zeroes behind those digits in your bank account, I guess you can buy yourself a candidate to your liking.

Can someone buy me a real leftist?

Or at least someone who can help me pick a doctor?

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Oh Nose

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

NOLANight

They say that smell is the sense most linked to memory. It’s funny how hard a time I have identifying smells and how hard they are to objectively describe, even in reference to each other. One can describe the characteristics of a shape or a sound or a sight quite easily, even a feeling, by likening it to other things in the same genre. But smells seem to link us only to past times when we smelled it. And unless we pay very close attention to the flowers and leaves in our surroundings, it can take years for us to really consistently label a smell’s source, even if that nasal imprint has a lasting impact on the mind that lays in wait for the next opportunity to besiege the soul through the nostrils.

Take dogwood, for example. I can’t really tell you what dogwood smells like in a vacuum, but there’s something sickly sweet and I can kind of recognize the mucked mulch of white leaves in a pile from which the overpowering odor wafts. It smells a little like nausea, but mostly like overripe summer days in the south, or probably spring days, days on college campuses thick with malaise and oncoming heat and restlessness. It smells like a frat party unthrown, or overthrown, like backwards baseball caps with frayed bills exposing the little curl of cardboard beneath, like stale beer in a half-upset red Solo cup, like sodium lights overbrightening just one patch of winding wet lane. Like the dog that barked at me tonight as I passed his inviting, door-opened house, soaked and mangy looking, the victim of an involuntary bath in the earlier deluge.

They say that smell is the sense most linked to memory. I don’t think I smelled any magnolia tonight, quite, on my sojourn into the Crescent, but they always take me straight back to Beverly Hills and the long languid sidewalks on the hot path to Starbucks from Russ’ old place. When the moving truck came, 18 wheels long, to our first stop in New Orleans, it took out a high branch of magnolia overreaching the street and the leaves and little pineappley pods sat in the gutter and withered in the searing swelter of the ensuing months. The green rubber leaves curl into tough brown husks, but each tree seems to have such abundance of leaf to give, growing strong over the paths while raining down little offerings of itself as summers drift to fall. There had to be a campus or two with these trees sometime, maybe the University of Florida, in high school. I have had the luxury of growing up on so many college campuses in my life, before, during, and after, and arguing at almost all of them.

They say that smell is the sense most linked to memory. The pitter-patter of rain comes with a fresh but musty whiff of the water itself, or perhaps the water’s interaction with the fertile wet ground already saturated with a day’s sky runoff. It’s Oregon first, Oregon almost always, muddy Little League rain delays and quick splashy runs from the car to the theater, the bus to school, the beach to the arcade. Haystack rock and the tidepools at first light, fending off puffins and seagulls so we can see the little life clinging to the shallowing inlets against the craggy barnacled surface. But it’s warm, and so Washington DC, or that Baltimore summer, the first experience of an honest-to-God rainstorm that wasn’t unpleasant, it was just humid and showery and almost refreshing. But quickly back to Oregon, for it isn’t that warm and the gray pelting of precipitation against the receding yellow flowers of the scotchbroom.

They say that smell is the sense most linked to memory. One can’t really smell one’s own sweat, unless in reflection, or so I guess they also say. I’ve actually always had a rather bad sense of smell, objectively speaking, and especially in comparison to sight and hearing. And I’m not a huge sweater, or wasn’t when younger, so it was only a particular hat or shirt after hours of outdoor basketball, and then only faintly. New Orleans will surely challenge even the most tenaciously dry person, no doubt, but it is mostly the heat of memory itself and the little addition of sprinkly rain dripping from the magnolia leaves that brings me to this thought. I strain to smell my own pores, my own contribution to the milieu, but it is useless. I am reminded only of a particular baseball practice or two, but I really have to force it and that is not what tonight’s about.

And then, bam, jasmine. Jasmine? I could never identify jasmine on its own, the word doesn’t really even mean anything to me and what it is remains beyond a guess. But jasmine just sounds somehow like the smell I’m getting, here in front of someone’s small herb garden where honestly it could be anything. Unlike the vaguely queasy overtones of dogwood and magnolia, this is slightly purer, much more direct and open and pleasant, though a bit on the sharp side. All our descriptions of smells are tales of sound, attributes of feelings, elements of vision. We do our best with what we are given. But what we are given now is a girl, a girl who must’ve adorned her skin with some reasonable facsimile of this at some point, maybe just for a day or two, but they were all gone too soon, weren’t they? Too long and too soon and this is a dangerous garden indeed on a walk alone at night and it is perhaps best to just away to the vague must of the sweat-rain-road.

The road. To car exhaust accented with dogshit. Yes, even car exhaust, it’s true, with its traffic jams and parking lots and urban street scenes. A night in New York City with debaters and the desire to step, just briefly, out into traffic, mostly of frustration, to give them something to honk about already, to make a gesture that one is a person, mad as hell, and all that jazz. Garages, their ramps aswirl, taillights ahead and the radios blaring the boredom of the people who only that moment realized that they could be doing something better with their lives.

And the scraping of the latter, the fetid infestation of so many days just become bad in the little grooves underfoot. No matter how many tilts and turns and bangs, the deep cuts of a sneaker does not relinquish all of its brown totem of dog, no amount of grass-blading or pen-picking or soaking is going to get the job done. There will be a little trail of stench with you the rest of the day, a bit headachey, mostly revolting, never quite acclimating as you turn your own nose and those around you. Less fun even than the infamous bird overhead, if only because that makes for such a better story of the caprice of fate than just misstepping into doo-doo.

They say that smell is the sense most linked to memory. We never cook meat at home, but we allowed an exception for guests over Mardi Gras and I awoke one morning to my grandmother’s kitchen, less a little tobacco at least, and actually had to pause when I saw someone sixty years her junior (and alive!) at the stovetop. The sizzle of bacon, more sound than smell, but oh that smell is a time machine swifter than all the rest combined, the political arguments and chewed straws, the ratty nightgowns and cackling, coughing laugh. “You’re joking!” Bounding down the musty carpeted staircase beneath the pirate-hatted Dutch painting my parents would later forget, never once awaking earlier than her at the stove with the little slices of slaughtered pig. And I at the little table where I would one day write my first book, transported, in one of those rickety chairs, wide-eyed with a sense of place and purpose and all of it being ahead of me.

And the smell so profoundly unleashed in a riveting performance of Our Town, back in New York City, and I wept openly with the drama of the reveal of what is always the best scene, but done now so over the top, so boldly and colorfully, and even with smell! “They don’t understand, do they?” And I wept on a shoulder that would be gone by summer’s end. “Oh, Earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?”

They say that smell is the sense most linked to memory. Don’t spite my face, just let me forget.

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In the Ballpark

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

New Orleans has brought me my first-ever NFL game and second- and third-ever NBA games in quick succession (and I have a feeling that, at those ticket prices, we’re going to become Pelicans semi-regulars). But it sadly lacks an MLB team or stadium, though I am excited to check out the AAA team when spring finally arrives in earnest.

But it is March and I just had a mini-debate on Facebook about whether Dodger Stadium is great or just meh (spoiler alert: it’s just meh) and it got me thinking about what the all-time great ballparks are. It also reminded me that I’ve long been meaning to, in one cogent place, compile the list of ballparks I’ve been to for a baseball game, in part to construct the to-do list for the next few years (while I’m taking breaks from training to reprise Rim to Rim to Rim). Though I think I somehow managed to never see one in San Diego despite all the visits to see Fish during his college days, and I overtly skipped my planned trip to Busch in St. Louis to play a poker tournament instead, back in 2011 on the verge of my personal poker revival. It’s hard to be interested in so many things.

I’ve also decided to leave AAA stadiums (and lower) out for now because I think it muddies the waters and makes comparisons more difficult.

BAL1. Oriole Park at Camden Yards
Baltimore Orioles – Baltimore, Maryland
It’s not my favorite team, though it’s up there, but I don’t think anyone’s quite been able to top the original revival of retro-style ballparks. The Warehouse is just magnificent. The skyline is awesome and every seat in the place is great.

SF2. AT&T Park
San Francisco Giants – San Francisco, California
This is a very close second, with the scales possibly tipped by how many times I nearly froze to death in these stands in the early 2000s. The view of the water and the possibility of splash-downs are the highlight here, along with the retro architecture that will dominate the top spots in my list.

SEA3. Safeco Field
Seattle Mariners – Seattle, Washington
Well I wasn’t going to put the home of my favorite team down too far! A classic example of retro style, all the amenities of a top modern ballpark, and the Mariners! Plus the retractable roof is just plain cool, even if you never saw the Kingdome’s falling tiles.

PIT4. PNC Park
Pittsburgh Pirates – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
I know this one will surprise a lot of people, but I’m a sucker for skylines. Pittsburgh as a whole is an impressive and surprising city and the Pirates’ gem of a stadium stands out among the reasons. Plus, tickets were amazingly cheap during their endless losing years.

BOS5. Fenway Park
Boston Red Sox – Boston, Massachusetts
Some classic stadiums will not do well on this list, but Fenway, despite its creaks and quirks, really is magical. It’s hard to argue with the Green Monster or the obstruction poles and it just feels like the 1920s in there as soon as you set foot. Fond memories don’t hurt the ranking here either.

DET6. Comerica Park
Detroit Tigers – Detroit, Michigan
Another surprise to many, but so many cool unique features like the huge scoreboard and the old-school runway between the mound and the plate.

PHL7. Citizens Bank Park
Philadelphia Phillies – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Solid retro feel and cool field shape with great scoreboard and light features. Points off, a bit, for being too far from the Philly skyline to really appreciate it. But good use of brick inside and out.

HOU8. Minute Maid Park
Houston Astros – Houston, Texas
It doesn’t hurt that they’ve gone from repping Enron to repping orange juice, but I was really pleasantly surprised by this park and not just because we had 3rd row seats late in the season. Unique feel, the left field wall is awesome, and I personally like the hill in center field – perhaps because I don’t have to play there.

CHC9. Wrigley Field
Chicago Cubs – Chicago, Illinois
I can hear the purists screaming at me, but there’s something to be said for the feel of a park and this one was a little bit off-putting. Maybe it was all the day-drinking Chicagoans. Chicago and I have always had a rocky relationship at best. Points for Ivy and history, of course.

COL10. Coors Field
Colorado Rockies – Denver, Colorado
A very solid middle-of-the-pack entry, with good amenities and a nice overall feel. It’s huge and usually packed, which adds excitement, but there’s no special standout features other than lots of seats.

TEX11. Globe Life Park
Texas Rangers – Arlington, Texas
When I visited, it wasn’t under that name, but I was really impressed by the retro feel of the park and all the classic brickwork outside the stadium (these pictures fail to capture the beauty of the external buildings). But a little overbuilt in center field.

WSH12. Nationals Park
Washington Nationals – Washington, DC
This one may be getting put a bit lower than it should because a lot of its cool features are patriotic and that leaves me a little cold. The Presidents race is awfully fun, but all the stars and stripes are a little much for me at times. Really, Colorado, Texas, and Washington are very similar and interchangeable. Points for metro access, points off for humid heat.

CHW13. US Cellular Field
Chicago White Sox – Chicago, Illinois
I probably would like this stadium more if it weren’t in Chicago and weren’t named after a cellphone company. We’re allowed our biases in lists like this. I do like the lights a lot.

ANA14. Angel Stadium of Anaheim
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – Anaheim, California
Now we start to turn the corner into subpar parks, and not just because they insist on superfluously adding “of Anaheim” to everything like some weird civic brochure. The random rock structure in left-center just doesn’t do it for me. There’s no skyline because suburban LA. And the years of rivalry with the Angels don’t help anything for me either.

LAD15. Dodger Stadium
Los Angeles Dodgers – Los Angeles, California
Ah, the park that started the whole debate. Samburg’s friend said it felt like stepping into the sixties to visit and that’s exactly why it’s so low on my list. The 60s were the era when America took a hacksaw to architecture and stadium aesthetics. It’s a monument to concrete. There’s nothing actively offensive about this stadium, but nothing particularly good either. Plus, the Dodgers.

FLA16. Pro Player Stadium (defunct)
Florida Marlins – Miami, Florida
This square stadium had really cool ramps on the corners to walk up and down and a bunch of empty red seats to stare at while watching the game. There was really nothing to write home about from debate camp when I went, other than it being kind of amazing that actual Major Leaguers would play in this stadium.

OAK17. O.co Coliseum
Oakland Athletics – Oakland, California
Everything that could be wrong with a baseball stadium. Appalling names that change every other year, concrete on top of concrete, too many seats that obstruct any possible view (and aren’t used anyway). Multi-purpose. Ick.

NYY18. Yankee Stadium
New York Yankees – New York, New York
Is it probably technically a little better than Oakland’s stadium? Yes. Do I care? No. The Yankees play here. And it is in every way the most overrated stadium in baseball history. There is nothing aesthetic or cool about this park and it was modeled on a park that was in no way aesthetic or cool. Why? Just, why? Babe Ruth was good at hitting homers, but not so much at building houses.

MIN19. Metrodome (defunct)
Minnesota Twins – Minneapolis, Minnesota
I love the Twins and hate the Yankees, but even I recognize that a dome belongs on the bottom of any sane list of ballparks. Just look at that turf. Look at it! And the weird blue folded-up seats in right field that haunted home-run highlights of early days of ESPN watching? It’s like they weren’t even trying. The roof was soft and had kind of a billowy effect. That was cool, I guess.

SEAKing20. Kingdome (defunct)
Seattle Mariners – Seattle, Washington
This is hard, because my first-ever Major League game was here, and my second and third, and the team that I adore saved baseball in Seattle in playoff games in this place. But it is, objectively, the worst building to ever host a baseball game in the history of humanity. My Little League field with an all-gravel right field and no fence was a better shrine to baseball.

I’m not quite sure I’d realized I’d been to so many parks, though I need to loop back to the replacement fields in Miami and Minneapolis. I’ve seen 17 of the 30 actives, though, which is a pretty cool fact, and really San Diego and Arizona should be easy to pick up to complete the West. And Atlanta while I’m living in the South, and maybe even Tampa Bay, if only to complete the 20s in this list. I think the one I may most want at this point is Milwaukee, which I toured around when last there, but it wasn’t a game day, so I didn’t really get to see it.

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Rim to Rim to Rim Revisited

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

With all the pictures I've taken of the Grand Canyon over my many visits, it's kind of criminal that I had to borrow one for this post.  But they're all on the other computer and I have to get to work soon.  Thanks Mike Buchheit and the Grand Canyon Association!

With all the pictures I’ve taken of the Grand Canyon over my many visits, it’s kind of criminal that I had to borrow one for this post. But they’re all on the other computer and I have to get to work soon. Thanks Mike Buchheit and the Grand Canyon Association!

When I was in college, one of my closest college friends, Stina, spent the summer of 2000 working at a cafeteria in the Grand Canyon. It’s one of those quirky little facts of American life that you might not think about that college students from all over the country (and beyond!) migrate to the National Parks each summer for low paying service jobs in beautiful settings. Attendance at the NPs explodes over the summer and the cafeterias, restaurants, and lodges need all the help they can get keeping up. And the big perk is getting to live and play in the midst of what have been designated as the country’s best natural wonders.

The living part was a big fascination for me when she first announced this plan, since I’d long grown up with the notion that no one was allowed to live in National Parks. It’s one of those slight oversimplifications of childhood that really sticks in one’s mind – there were a few particular facts my parents told me in very early childhood that had a powerful impact on my thought processes. I remember that they explained the Soviet Union to me by saying that the government didn’t allow people to move if they wanted to. It’s funny that our family was so itinerant that this struck me as a draconian regulation, the disallowance of someone moving across the country. They did say move both within the country and to leave it, and this was most of what they said about the USSR. That and to point out that Communists were not nearly the “enemy” that Reagan made them out to be.

I think the National Park living fact, like this other fact about where you can move, stuck in my head because I so desperately wanted to move to a National Park after first visiting one. The first was probably Sequoia National Park, or King’s Canyon (the two share a long border and function as the same park, even more than the proximate Yellowstone and Grand Tetons), when I was a young child in nearby Visalia, California. Indeed, I may have even forgotten that I somehow prompted the fact of not being able to live in a National Park by asking my parents point-blank if we could move there. Thus began a childhood obsession with hiking and camping, the latter of which became a bit of a white whale for my upbringing – my parents were just not into camping. But we did go hiking a bunch, and in a National Park whenever possible.

You can imagine my fixation, though, when Stina told me she was going to live in a National Park, if only for a couple months and only in a dorm that made Brandeisian accommodations look spacious (that was the rumor; the dorms in the Grand Canyon turned out to be much nicer than ‘Deis). I think I argued with her that this wasn’t possible and she would have to live just outside of it and it wasn’t until she pointed out that her parents had done the same thing with one of their summers that I deferred to her understanding of the situation and realized that information gleaned when I was five years old may have been slightly oversimplified. Given that I was spending the summer in Albuquerque and (as it turned out) without a consistent summer job, the opportunity to visit and stay in the Grand Canyon for periodic stretches opened up before me.

The Grand Canyon is a roughly 8-hour drive from Albuquerque – or exactly the kind of distance that feels like a reasonable jaunt to a Westerner and something you might as well fly for instead to an Easterner (by and large – I know there are exceptions to these regional archetypes). The first time I went to visit, I did have perhaps my closest near-death experience in a vehicle, wherein I fell asleep in hour 6 (not dozed, but just full-on lost consciousness) and startled awake 30-60 seconds later squarely placed in the opposite fast lane. I think someone’s honking woke me up. I have rarely been so terrified, but I immediately realized that I couldn’t just swerve back into the neighboring lane and I actually put on my turn signal and checked my blindspot before crossing back over the double-yellow to return to the appropriate fast lane for my direction of travel. But then I was there, harrowed a bit, but present in one of the most glorious landmarks known to Earth, and then in its possibly most run-down cafeteria, where Stina was dishing out portions of standard-issue food to fascinated tourists from all over the globe.

I took either two or three trips out there that season, but the big one was to join Stina and several of her co-worker friends on a trip through the heart of the Canyon and back again, going Rim to Rim to Rim. If you haven’t spent a lot of time in the Grand Canyon, and especially if you’ve never been, you may not realize the exact size and scope of the place. It’s 271 miles long, end to end, and 18 miles wide in some places. There’s roughly a mile of elevation difference between the top of the Canyon and the bottom; 1,000 feet more if you’re counting from the North Rim. The South Rim and North Rim are so disparate as to have almost entirely separate climates. The South is high desert; the North feels almost Alpine, covered with evergreens and, in winter, a thick blanket of snow. The bottom of the Canyon is a convection oven, especially in summer, relieved only by the refreshing ribbon of the Colorado river that snakes through the chasm and continues to shape it after millions of years of work.

I could write about the Canyon forever, as I could probably describe the play-by-play of that trip forever. Going Rim to Rim to Rim entails starting at the top of the South Rim, hiking into the Canyon and all the way to the bottom, riverside, then crossing the river and starting up the side of the North Rim, hitting the top of that, and then making the return journey. It’s even crazier than it sounds. The total mileage covered is about 50 overland, but you’re also covering four miles of elevation change and almost none of the journey is flat land. I think all seven of us who made this particular trip together had serious misgivings about our own physical fitness for such an adventure. My knee started having problems on the second day and I made the rest of the journey with a jerry-rigged ace bandage, often described by the rest of the party as looking like a wounded veteran. I had opted out of the communal food plan the other six were sharing, partially because I’m a vegetarian but mostly because I’m me and don’t like most food. I had unwisely opted to bring a block of cheese in my backpack, among other edibles, which had the seriously nasty habit of melting during the day and reforming at night, giving it that leftover-quesadilla consistency at all times. It was, after all, late July, probably the hottest time of the year.

Did I not mention the weather yet? It was 120 degrees in the base of the Canyon. You couldn’t really hike during the day at all and we scheduled most all the hiking for overnight or the first few hours of daylight before the sun got too hot. The trip started at the literal crack of dawn, not counting the 45-minute pre-dawn bus ride to the jumping-off point. The only time in my life I’ve ever been too hot to sleep was during that fist day in the base of the Canyon, hanging around Phantom Ranch when it was about 121 out, and half of us decided to go nap half-submerged in a nearby creek. Our only real daytime hiking was the last leg, trekking back up the South Rim, when we were too exhausted and done with the trip to care and would stop at every mile-house on the way up to remove our shirts, soak them in water, and throw them back on wet. They’d evaporate to bone dry in about 10 minutes.

You can read my first-hand accounting of the trip here, but it doesn’t really do it justice. I was four months into blogging and the lens I used for everything was my tumultuous emotional state (I know, what’s changed, right?). Though the mood swings then were perhaps slightly more justified by the incredible power of the journey. The camaraderie and brief conflicts of sharing a Hobbit-like adventure across a gorgeous landscape, the way the Canyon changes every five minutes and every twenty feet, offering a new perspective from every angle and depth and time of day. The stress of putting one’s body through its hardest paces, not really knowing if you will have to be airlifted out of there on an embarrassing helicopter because you bit off more than you could chew. The scorpions. I got over my fear of scorpions there, because you had to, because they were all over, especially at night, and sometimes you just had to go to sleep on the trail, with a 500 foot drop on one side and scorps on the other and you just couldn’t care anymore.

In the full light of memory, this trip has become legendary. But I kind of think it was legendary in a lot of ways. I have consistently described it as the hardest physical thing I have ever done, and one of the greatest accomplishments of my life, and I stand by those statements. As a general rule, I don’t put a lot of stock in the physical or the athletic, baseball fandom aside, but this was a place where my body and I really converged on the same goals. I was in the best shape of my life for that trip. It was breathtaking and amazing and unforgettable.

I want to do it again.

No, I’m serious.

I heard on the radio yesterday that it was the 96th anniversary of Grand Canyon National Park. Set aside only in 1919 for preservation (I guess it was a National Monument 11 years prior), GCNP is looking forward to its 100th birthday in four short years. And the year after that, it’ll be the 20th anniversary of my own Rim to Rim to Rim journey.

Sometime in that window, between February 26, 2019 and July 2020, I want to go back and do the trip over. I am throwing down. I want to be someone who is capable of doing that at 40 and does it and lives to tell the tale.

You can keep your marathons and your running for running’s sake. Those are great. Whatever goal you want to set for yourself is awesome. I just want my fitness goal to be in the most beautiful place yet discovered by human beings.

This goal is about a lot of things for me. It’s about acceptance of being someone who is going to be around for a while (more on this in another post). It’s about the holy stature of the Grand Canyon in my world. It’s about being 160 pounds at age 35, up 33% from where I was at age 30 (though, granted, 120 was unhealthy too for all kinds of reasons at the time). It’s about needing a specific, measurable goal for efforts to combat aging and weight-gain and all the things that hit Americans in their 30s.

And it’s about recruiting. I want you to join me. I’m setting this goal way way way in the future so we can plan together, if you’re interested. So we can get the vacation time and you can train too and we can all go together when we go. For most of you who might consider this, it’ll be the first time and I promise it will be one of the best things you’ll ever do. But I’m more than open to a reunion tour with anyone who went with me the first time, or anyone who went on their own.

Who’s with me?!

My unbelievably grainy scan of the mid-trip photo of our Rim to Rim to Rim journey in 2000.  Taken atop the North Kaibab Trail.  Left to right: Stina, Andrea, myself, Sarah, Patricia, Chris, and Marketa.

My unbelievably grainy scan of the mid-trip photo of our Rim to Rim to Rim journey in 2000. Taken atop the North Kaibab Trail. Left to right: Stina, Andrea, myself, Sarah, Patricia, Chris, and Marketa.

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For the Love of the Train

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Marching to New Orleans, Tags: , , ,

The St. Charles line at night.

The St. Charles line at night.

I took the streetcar home yesterday. I don’t always take the streetcar to and from work, like I did with BART when I worked at Glide in San Francisco. I often take the car, dropping Alex off on the way, so I can use the car at work as I attend trainings and workshops and will eventually have more donor meetings and school visits. The car that badly needs a wheel alignment from its brutal encounters with the streets of New Orleans, streets that I’ve compared to San Francisco after consecutive 7.0+ earthquakes. The wheels of the streetcar are permanently, perfectly aligned.

The streetcar rolls down the neutral ground of St. Charles Avenue, the big broad host to many of the Mardi Gras parades, a street adorned with gaslamp-lit hotel entrances and stately homes that could be hotels and libraries that used to be stately homes. Neutral ground is what we call “medians” here in New Orleans, a special designation indicating both the substantial size of most of our medians and their particular Commonsy role in the social order here. People hang out on the neutral ground, especially during parade season, where lawn chairs and boxtop ladders and every height of seat in between litter the St. Charles midsection, making streetcar progress, like most progress in the city during that time, impossible. Why take the streetcar when you have a float?

But it’s post-Mardi Gras in New Orleans this week, time for reflecting and taking stock, cleaning up and bundling up. It was about 40 degrees last night, and awfully windy, when I stepped off the red Canal Street line that cruises down from my work and into the heart of the city, crossing the intersection to Canal and Carondelet to wait for the outbound green St. Charles line to take me home.

It is my home, for what it’s worth, at this point in my life. People at poker tables or work or wherever always ask me where I’m from and Alex makes fun of me for giving a complicated answer. I don’t always run people through the rigmarole of each sequential city off the bat, but I often end up there when people can’t reconcile being “from the West” but having “just moved from New Jersey”. I inevitably end up at stats like having visited 48 states or the substantial time (4+ years) in five of them and the incredulity isn’t aided by the fact that many people assume I’m a bit younger than I am when they look at me (it has to be the hair… and maybe the genetics from my parents, wherein no one could believe my mother was retirement age when she retired, or my father getting carded for a drink at dinner about a decade ago). Alex thinks it’s too much information. But I’m also the guy who gives a real and sometimes quite extensive answer to “How are you?” so somehow just picking one of the last 3.5 decades worth of places doesn’t seem to cut it.

In part because of moments like last night at the train. Because I stood there, shivering, acknowledging the likewise chilled people who approached the little yellow CAR STOP sign on the corner, and just looking around. Trying to center myself, trying to bank this moment for the memories and internalize what it feels like to be newly 35 in a new city again, anticipating a ride on my current favorite mode of transportation. And I glanced across the road, over the four lanes and two neutral-grounded sets of streetcar tracks of Canal, and realized again I was standing at the magical transformation point where Carondelet discards its inhibitions and becomes Bourbon Street, officially entering the French Quarter. And I felt the rumbling echo of early mornings emerging from Powell Street Station in San Francisco, quick-stepping past the iconic cable car turnaround as two directions of Rice-a-Roni vehicles floated on the hill-climbing tracks in the half-sun light. The echo was resonant, powerful. I have had the good fortune to log serious time in some of the Great Places of this country, perhaps of the world. Meaningful, significant places, pilgrimage destinations, and the epicenters of perhaps the only two remaining streetcar systems of significance within these fifty states. And while the Powell Street trek up to the Wharf was never part of my commute and I only rode it maybe five times in seven years in the Bay Area, the crowds of revelers snapping iPhone photos as the turntable spun their car around never got old.

I may get old at this point. More and more, I face that somewhat surprising possibility. All I can ask for are trains to ride to take me to the next stop, the next landmark destination, the next beautiful and historical Place. For now, it’s on the neutral ground, and that’s way better than neutral.

The Powell Street turntable.

The Powell Street turntable.

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The Dinosaur Ornament

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

The triceratops from the ceramic set of dinosaur ornaments my family got for Christmas 1987.

The triceratops from the ceramic set of dinosaur ornaments my family got for Christmas 1987.

When I was seven, in 1987, we moved to Washington DC. We had lived in California as long as I could remember before that, though I was born in Nevada and lived in Oregon for a while as well. We had lived in San Jose till I was about two (no memories from SJ either) and then moved to Visalia, where all of my earliest memories were made. Shortly before we moved to DC, my grandfather (Dad’s dad) had passed away, my father’s fax machine distribution/network company had closed, and it seemed like it was time to move on. We put a little bit of stuff in storage, packed the rest into the family’s light blue Saab, and started eastward across the country.

By Christmas, it was apparent that things were not necessarily going so well. After years of relative affluence in the heyday of my Dad’s business, it was clear even to 7-year-old me that the family was struggling financially. We didn’t have a television, though we would later pick up a small black and white one. Our apartment floor had a giant field of splinters in the living room that I one late night jumped into when trying to cross it barefoot to get water from the kitchen. (Yes, this was expressly against the often-discussed admonitions of my parents to always wear shoes in that part of the house no matter what. This is why I tried to leap over it instead of just walking gingerly across it. Which led to pretty disastrous results which involved my foot in a bowl of warm water for hours after I stopped screaming and my parents came down to investigate who was kidnapping me. I actually always wore shoes after that. Sometimes, we can only learn lessons from pain.)

It was clearly important to my parents that, even with our new circumstances, Christmas would still be special. Indeed, arguably some of the scrimping and minimalism in the fall and early winter was directly enacted so that we could have enough money for Christmas to still involve some nice gifts. I was in the choir at the beautiful Christ Church in Georgetown and this involved some Christmas performing as well as a great night of caroling shortly before Christmas itself. My main gifts would consist of some nice tin soldiers that would be tied for my favorite toys until I became a pacifist and remain, despite my pacifism, among the things that I really treasure from my childhood. In part, perhaps, because of the incredible upheaval of that one year we lived in DC, how precarious some of our circumstances were (there were also conflicts with the landlord that ultimately led to our departure – for another post, perhaps, or maybe not), and how vibrant everything seemed in that new and very different place. I forget if I had left the second school of three that I would attend that one second-grade year yet or if I was still enrolled – I would spend a couple months being homeschooled between schools #2 and #3. The reasons for this and the whole situation are probably the subject for another post as well, but it added to the sense that every day in DC was worth a couple weeks in my prior life in terms of daily change and uncertainty.

But the primary gift for the family, the items that were clearly selected with me in mind as a primary appreciator/recipient, but were beloved by all three of us, were the dinosaur ornaments. We got these decently before Christmas to go on the modest tree we’d gotten for the season. I had never been through a cold winter before (Visalia is often in the 110s in the summer and only gets to about 55 in the winter, with abundant fog as the main winter weather) and there was a massive snowstorm (my first in memory) on Veteran’s Day that shut the city for a day or so afterwards. I have a vivid visual of the bitterly chilly air, frost visible before our exhaling mouths, as we ducked in a little shop off the street and discovered these brightly colored ceramic decorations. My dinosaur obsession was still in full bloom, though patriotism/history was coming up to fill the void left by outer space after how watching the Challenger disaster had impacted my astronomical aspirations. Each dinosaur was the perfect mix of whimsy and seriousness, personality and color, delicate fragility and solid presence. We were in love, but I was especially. I think my parents were leaning toward getting them anyway, though they were a bit of a stretch for our budget, but I’m sure I wheedled quite a bit as well.

When we brought them home, I couldn’t wait to get them on the tree. My parents, as always, urged patience, but such is rarely a trait of those under 10. The ornaments were remarkably heavy and I was neither a tall nor a strong child. I asked if I could hang a couple of them up. My parents looked at each other and then at me and failed to reject my brimming enthusiasm. I was exhorted to hang them gently, to hang them cautiously, to take my time and hold my hand under them. To make sure they were firmly attached to the given branch.

I took this task seriously, despite my exuberance. I cradled each dino as it went up, hanging it by its golden fabric loop, gently resting it on a branch. Now the green triceratops, now the yellow T-rex. And then I set the orange pterodactyl on the highest branch I could reach. After all, they could fly. I was on my tiptoes and set it on the branch and stepped back to admire its perch.

You probably knew where this was going. It wasn’t deep enough on the branch and the branch probably wasn’t substantial enough for the weighty ceramic object in the first place. I had become complacent after the success of the first couple of hangings, gaining confidence after successfully attaching gleaming dinosaurs to the well-lit tree. The pterodactyl’s loop slid quickly down the branch, it briefly took to the air like its depicted inspiration, then clattered to the hardwood floor, smashing in two.

I cried. I wept. I was inconsolable. My parents were in a frequent position for them in my childhood, where any critique they might leverage of my behavior was already dwarfed by the extreme guilt I felt. I was good at being able to discipline myself, to make myself feel far worse than any typical parental punishment. I think one of the first things my Mom asked me to do was to stop beating myself up about it, a request that was destined to echo down the long halls of subsequent decades of our parent-child relationship. But I refused. I didn’t know how.

I knew what those ornaments meant to us, what sacrifice my parents had made to get them (several exchanged looks and hushed discussion in the store before we gleefully stepped out with the dinos in tow), how many years I had already planned to make them the centerpiece of tree-decorating to come. And here it was, one of my favorite dinosaurs of all-time, wing rent from wing and little bits of ceramic powder spilling out from the cracks. These were the days before SuperGlue was a household item and I’m not sure we even had glue of any sort. It was irreparable. The pieces of pterodactyl spent the night in the trashcan and I spent the night softly sobbing to myself.

In those anticipated subsequent years, I would feel a washing mix of emotion every time we hauled out the ornaments for tree-decorating. Nothing would bring me more joy than seeing the beautiful dinosaurs in their polished splendor, but this would instantaneously be punctuated by the pangs of guilt at the missing pterodactyl. For some reason, I would feel compelled to apologize to my parents, sometimes repeatedly, every year. I cannot sufficiently emphasize that my parents never did anything to make me feel bad about the broken dino and certainly never raised the issue themselves after that DC Christmas. But, like my perverse annual desire to read “The Little Fir Tree” aloud, Hans Christen Andersen’s Kafkaesque and heartbreaking tale of an anthropomorphized evergreen, the dinosaur-ornament guilt would become an unfortunate hallmark of most every Christmas to come. My hands would tremble every time I grabbed for one of the beloved surviving dinosaurs, making overly sure to hang it furthest back on the most substantial branch every time. There was at least one year, when I was 10 or 11, when I refused to hang any of the dinos myself for fear of a repeat and could barely watch, one eye half-closed, as my parents attempted the feat themselves.

To this day, 27 years after the first fateful Christmas of the lost pterodactyl, I have been unable to look at the dinos without seeing a vision of the shattered ornament, without feeling the same regretful reverberations I feel in my heart when I contemplate other transgressions of my youth. The day in first grade when I punched David A. in the arm for cutting in line. The time I was held in from recess that same year for saying a test was too easy, loudly, when we were supposed to be working silently. The shameful things a classmate convinced me to say on a dare. For whatever reason, whatever part of my conscience controls these memories, I simply cannot let these things go.

Suffice it to say that when we first got the ornaments out yesterday and Noir the cat started batting at the triceratops pictured above, I almost lost it. But maybe I should learn a lesson from the cat’s relaxed attitude toward possessions that are, after all, just things. But then, Christmas is a time for traditions, for memories, for family fables of both joy and pathos. They all are time-honored and all, perhaps, tell us more about ourselves than we normally know.

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It’s Lumi Time!

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

Rumor has it that it’s the most wonderful time of the year. I couldn’t agree more.

You can keep your ornate displays of high-watt outdoor bulbs, your blow-up santas and penguins, your animatronic lowing cattle and rooftop reindeer a-tromping. Save your LEDs, your candy canes, even your wreaths. Late December means just one thing to me: luminarias.

Look, they've got memes for everything these days!

Look, they’ve got memes for everything these days!

It’s hard to put into words just what exactly is so magical about luminarias for me, since it’s really a combination of things. And every year or two, I’ve made another pass at trying to really explain it. If you want the best visual chronicle of the finished results of the display, you can refer to my 2010 post on the then-record 772-lumi display I did that year. My elation at setting a then-record previously, in 2008, is discussed here, which is mostly just a testament to the combination of exhaustion and triumph that comes with putting one of these displays together. And I did some of my most elegant, if briefest writing on the phenomenon in 2012, before the worst year in the last four, when wind pretty much wiped out the neighborhood’s display and destroyed my roof efforts and most of the rest.

But perhaps the greatest accomplishment I’ve notched as a luminarian (luminaire? lumineer?) was getting on KRQE 13 (local news) last year, in this story:

That was my new all-time record of 850. And I’m really considering making good on my wild proposal of over 1,000 this year. After all, part of the point of keeping track of all these records is to give myself something to beat the next season. And for the first time in many years, my parents aren’t protesting, aren’t worried I’m overdoing it, aren’t asking me to scale down a little bit or take it easy. They’re all in for a record-setting display.

So I’ve gotten ready. I’ve officially picked up the first 100 bags of the season with nine days to go.

This is the start of something beautiful.

This is the start of something beautiful.

What is a luminaria? At its simplest, most basic level, it is a lit votive candle inside a sandwich bag, with a little bit of sand at the bottom. That’s it, that’s all there is. And indeed, that itself is one of the most cherished and lovable things about luminarias: their basic simplicity. This is fundamentally a democratic tradition, a poor person’s tradition, as it started in one of the consistently poorest parts of the country. It uses simple materials, each humble in their origins, but combines to make something bright and magical and uniting. Kind of like the best spirit of Christmas itself.

They’re widely accessible. In many neighborhoods of Albuquerque and, I hear, increasingly other cities of the southwest, they are almost universal on paths and walkways, creating an overall communal display that is generally consistent, in theme if not in quantity or quality. And in an era where everything is electric and electronic and bigger and brighter, the simplicity of the subtle flicker of muted candlelight, ‘neath extinguished streetlights and darkened car traffic, makes Christmas Eve a night where people are removed from their own time and transported back to a quieter, darker, slower age. They are best viewed by walking for just this reason, though hordes of buses are toured through the most ardently participatory neighborhoods of Albuquerque, as well as car traffic after a certain hour, with parking lights or less on. There are also all manner of conveyances, as people come through on bikes, horses, horse-drawn carts, and multi-wheeled person-powered contraptions, most of them adorned with small little Christmas lights or other decorations. People greet each other and pause at their favorite displays and warm up by firepits sometimes placed outside.

Last year, we debuted a firepit to go with the massive display that adorned not only the sidewalk and front-yard paths, but fences, gates, rooftops, inner courtyard, and even trees. I have always loved sitting back in the shadows of the front porch and hearing breathy appreciations come across the frosty night air when people see my displays, but nothing prepared me for the thanks my family and I would get when we actually stood outside to tend a firepit and meet many of the visitors. It’s the west, so people just come up and say hi and warm themselves, all but the very shyest who have to be cajoled. And it’s the west on Christmas, so conversations were frequent and often lengthy, always punctuated with encouragement and wonder. I’ve certainly never done these displays for the thanks of the people, though they are, like any public decoration or display, predominantly for the enjoyment of others. And in a deep and dark December when my family desperately needed some acknowledgement and hope, last year’s Christmas Eve shone like a lighthouse beacon across the roiling sea.

Hopefully, the firepit will be back this year. Alex will be there for Christmas Eve itself… she’s helped a lot with bags in the past, but never has been there for layout or actually doing the display, let alone seeing the entire neighborhood. And as I’ve told her, as I tell you now, like so many jewels of the southwest (the Grand Canyon springs to mind), luminarias really need to be seen live to be truly understood. Still or even moving pictures capture a hint of their glory, but only a small hint. The scale, the flicker, the spirit that haunts the candlelit streets and bag-lined lanes really requires a human presence. No amount of bombardment of images, direct or conjured through words, is going to do the real magic justice.

KRQE will be back too, doing an earlier story on creating the luminarias and setting up the display. I’ve long wanted to do a kind of how-to or even some kind of timelapse video of me constructing the whole display. Maybe I’ll attempt that this year, if I have the energy and pace myself properly. Exhaustion is always a factor in these things, though the years have made me more adept at timing, when to take breaks, how to cut down on lighting time, when to start lighting, and a hundred other little subtleties of the practice. Doing the display in the same place year after year helps too, though my Dad’s constant tweaks and improvements on the house he’s made a 15-year masterpiece always keep me guessing.

The project is several parts obsession, a handful of tradition, a dash of pride, a spot of creativity, and a whole boatload of excitement. Even now, just contemplating the hours of work ahead on carefully folding the lip of the bags, scooping sand into each one, plopping a candle therein, and then laying them out with exact spacing and precision, lighting them all, and seeing the display, I am giddy. Few things in this life get me so elated, so heart-racey with anticipation. And unlike so many highly-anticipated things, the end result is even better than the looking forward.

Nine days of magic, starting tomorrow. I can’t wait.

by

Revisionist History

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Call and Response, Know When to Fold 'Em, Metablogging, Primary Sources, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Think of the past as a mirror...

Think of the past as a mirror…

From time to time during the seven years of this blog’s existence, I’ve added new categories for indexing the various kinds of posts one sees on this page. I’ve long eschewed the notion of a specialized blogging pursuit, such as focusing only on the Mariners or on my statistical analyses of the flaws of the stock market or on periodic stints of writing a weekdaily webcomic. It’s likely that choosing any one of these as a singular path would yield greater readership, or at least more strangers reading since they could come to that page specifically for one pursuit or interest. Instead, StoreyTelling ends up being about all of these things and a lot more and really only offers the category/tag clicks as a way of sorting out the kind of content a given reader might be most interested in.

The problem with that, of course, is that the nature of my interests and their specificity can change over time and these categories can then fail to be fully representative of their content. I think the best example of this phenomenon is in the Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading category, which has come to include everything from actual voting in American political campaigns to any major story covered by the news to individual myopia to the plight of others to any matter of international concern. This broad brush isn’t all that surprising given that I probably think every one of my posts is political in some way (small-p political) and I have been known to say that all art is political. What exactly politics means is contextual and thus that category is my third most-used, behind Duck and Cover (740 posts, almost all of which are just blog-displays of the comic) and A Day in the Life (621 posts, as my default for just about any written post). But it also means that the category starts to lose its meaning when it discusses such a wide range of topics.

The solution to this would seem to be to subdivide the categories, to try to divide international relations from American politics from commentaries on more tangentially political issues. I guess this is why categories and tags exist as separate entities, though I’ve only used them interchangeably herein. The problem is that any effort to recategorize past posts interferes with one of the cardinal rules of this whole project for me: namely, to not revise or edit past posts. Now, it’s certainly debatable to what extent adding or dropping or specifying categories/tags is really changing the context of a post, and it’s a question I struggle with. Categories like Strangers on a Train or It’s the Stupid Economy were created after a few posts in those directions made it clear that such a unique category was necessary, or at least a good idea. But then the question immediately arises of whether to back-categorize other posts that fall into the genre but predate the actual creation of that category. Does this somehow interfere with the nature of this blog as a time capsule of the person I was in the past, of my perspective, or the authenticity of those observations? Or does it just make it easier for people to find posts they might like?

I think, as is so often the case, the purposes of this blog for myself and for others wind up at a bit of cross-purposes. If this blog were primarily/only for readers, it would likely be trivial to just go back and try to recategorize. Granted that scouring 1,384 posts (though half are just D&Cs, so maybe we can exclude those) for possible re-examination of content through the lens of later-created categories is a big project. But it might be fun to go through everything and re-examine, as I periodically attempt to do anyway. This, after all, gives me the opportunity to use this blog as one of the tools that I prefer it to be, as an educator about where I’ve been, where I’m going, and hopefully how I can screw things up less in the future. But once I’ve altered those categories, I’m saying something just a little bit different from what I said at the time. And then it seems an easy addition to fix typos. And then it’s all too easy to start trying to justify taking out that particularly immature statement, or that awkward phrase, and soon we’ve lost the document’s integrity altogether.

Now, look, I know the slippery slope is a logical fallacy. That said, I also know that almost every road to evil or mistakes is paved in sequential tiny jumps that each make sense in the micro-view and end up becoming a horrible leap downward in the macro-view. I’ve periodically discussed this under the ungainly appellation of the A to B, B to C, C to D Problem. No one would ever go from A to D directly and to consider D from the vantage of A would be absurd. But A to B is just enough of a little compromise/sacrifice/change/jump. And then from the new vantage of B, once adjusted, C doesn’t look nearly so far away as it did before – it’s just as far as A! And so on.

I honestly think it’s hard to explain anything we find regrettable in human history that was caused by sentient thought that doesn’t conform to some version of this progression. This is part of why I don’t really believe that there are evil people. There are a whole bunch of fallible, possibly selfish, but largely well-intentioned people who get caught on these roads and make little hops all the way to really disastrous decisions.

In any case, I care a lot about the integrity of this body of work, combined with the previous blog and even the Waltham Weeklies and other saved documents before that. Because as long as I leave them untouched, they aren’t subject to the kind of revisionist history that our memory naturally is. I have a pretty darn good memory as these things go, with multiple distinct and powerful memories from before my fourth birthday, which I’m told is relatively rare.* But as debates like those sparked in my family about whether I saw E.T. or Tron first prove, my memory is imperfect, or my parent’s memories are. I firmly remember a certain order of events and my parents recall another. And these memories are important for us in shaping our view of the past on which we base our notion of both the present and the future. But there is a truth of the matter. The memory is serving a different purpose than the absolute truth about what happened. And I have a bit of a bias toward the truth as I think it’s a little more stable and informative.

That said, there’s really no way to make memories conform wholly to the truth, or at least not to be damaged by the end results. Obvious example: my marriage. How I felt about my marriage before Emily cheated on me and left me is wholly different than how I felt about it afterwards. But the fact of the experience at the time remains unchanged. In memory, there is no possible way to recall a particular anniversary dinner or a shared moment or some sacrifice she made for me outside of the context of her ultimate betrayal. There is no possible way for me to just envision that pure memory without the tarnish that time and subsequent events put on it. And yet, the actual event was the pure version, without the eventual damage of future events. As a temporal extant being who must constantly remember the past through the new lens of the ever-changing present, that event is fundamentally lost to me, its context forever altered. But with this blog, I can at least read my actual reporting on the event from the precise time it happened and get the most accurate possible rendition of how I truly felt about it at the time, unspoiled by the knowledge of the future.

I think, for what it’s worth, this is what makes betrayal, especially romantic betrayal, so fundamentally devastating. Because it takes all your good memories, all the little buoys of confidence and hope that get us through the tough days, and spoils them. No matter what the actual content of their validity was at the time, they are not only lost, but actively ruined, turned against you to now be little taunts of what you didn’t have. Even if you, in a sense did have them, at the time. This is why I was able to seriously say things like maybe it would have been better had I died in the October 2009 car accident (scroll down to the italicized postscript in that post) after Emily left me – because then I would have died with all those good times intact and unspoiled in perpetuity. As the Smiths put it, “To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.” This is not just about the joy of a particular moment; it is about the knowledge that this moment will never be so great in the long-term future as it feels right now. The course of events will destroy it.

Now, there is no illusion that this blog, merely by existing here as unaltered testament to the daily updates of a temporally changing being, can actually capture and preserve that magic wholly in a way that is meaningfully useful to combat the damage of, say, betrayal or loss. Because even in reading about the past, no matter how pure or unadulterated the past’s testimony is, the overly introspective ruminative person (that’s me!) will find clues that were never there.

Prime, recent example: in looking for a particular nugget of past testimony in my blog sometime last week, I started reading various posts from the past, as I often do. It’s like getting to hang out with my past self, a close but sometimes annoying friend. And then I discovered, to my absolute horror, that my post about my plans for the summer of 2010 was entitled, by my own choosing, April Come She Will. In the context of my choice at the time, it was innocuous. The post was dated 6 April and I talked about the inevitability of April and how the month often troubles me. But in the context of how that summer unfolded, well, here are the lyrics to the Simon & Garfunkel song which shares a title with that post:

April, come she will
when streams are ripe and swelled with rain
May, she will stay
resting in my arms again
June, she’ll change her tune
in restless walks, she’ll prowl the night
July, she will fly
and give no warning to her flight
August, die she must
the autumn winds blow chilly and cold
September, I remember
a love once new has now grown old

Now, I don’t need to go through a full blow-by-blow of the events of those months in 2010 to demonstrate just how chilling this discovery was to me. After all, you can go read the archives of those months on this page! Isn’t that the whole point? Suffice it to say that this could be a chronicle of the critical months that ended my marriage, down to July being the time of betrayal after an unhappy and searching June for Emily in Liberia, yielding to her cruel indifference in August and everything being over in September. I mean, this could’ve been a poem I wrote about the experience. And I know that this is about a trivial love affair that starts in that same April and is over by summer’s end and I know that I’ve been listening to this song since I was thirteen, but this is exactly the kind of experience that prompted me to spend a fevered day in senior year running around telling all of my friends that we have the key but we just don’t know how to use it. And when they asked me what the hell I was talking about, I just said, in hushed reverent and slightly goggle-eyed tones, that it was “the key“.

What I was talking about, then, was that PLB had told me a story in the midst of our relationship about her father’s first marriage and how his first wife had gone crazy on their wedding night and had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t handle the commitment or the situation and basically disappeared and that it broke her father’s heart and made him kind of a sad, distant person. We were doing a close reading of either Conrad or Kafka in AP English and something in the work triggered the memory of this story and I came to see it as a parable, a warning she was giving me, that had about as much truth-content as her average statement. (Full disclosure: I have no idea whatsoever if this story was entirely true, entirely made up, or some mixture.) At that moment, I felt that this was the one glaring clue she had given me that she was in over her head, was crazy, and that our relationship was doomed.

Now, talk about your revisionist history! It’s probably just as nuts to believe that this was her deliberate warning as it is to believe that I knew the next six months of my life would mirror a Simon & Garfunkel song on 6 April 2010. But doggone it, this stuff gives me the shivers. You can call it irrational pattern-seeking if you want, you can call it confirmation bias, you can call it the deliberate and willful search for something that isn’t there. But I will never be able to see these things without the feeling that there is a deeper code to be cracked in all of this, that things are more embedded that we can imagine. Or, to quote the Doctor Who episode I saw last night:

“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff.”
-The Doctor, Doctor Who, Season 3 of the new reboot, “Blink” episode

How else to explain that I actively try to send my past self psychic messages about the outcome of certain hands at the poker table to be received by my previous self? Or that I sometimes feel I receive those messages? I rarely trust these messages, especially when they are about subpar hands, but the messages of certain strong feelings have a scarily remarkable track-record of being right. And this practice definitely predates poker and probably goes back to a deeply embedded series of beliefs that most people would consider “magical thinking” to be polite and “crazy” to be realistic. And, mind you, no one has been less successfully psychic than me. I still dated PLB, still married Emily, still hired Baia. No wonder I’m obsessed with trying to beat the future.

No, this isn’t all just about having some perfect script of the past to serve as a blueprint for some mosaic of the future, though that’s not none of it either. But the preservation of the perfections, oddities, insights, and tribulations of the unadorned past still feels like the single most meaningful aspect of the project of blogging. And why it will probably be just a little bit harder for you to navigate to the type of content you personally most want to see. As though I didn’t make it hard enough by calling a category that most would label simply Music as “All the Poets Became Rock Stars”. Or by choosing, it would appear, nine categories for this post. Maybe, future self, I just want you to read it. (But not “Read it and Weep”. That’s the Books category.)


*Which reminds me, as a total sidenote, that it just occurred to me how crazy it is that I remember seeing both E.T. and Tron in theaters at a little younger than 2.5 years old. These may even predate my near-drowning experience in swim class that I have always classified as my earliest memory. I’m sure my Dad can weigh in, especially after he rebutted my Ms. Pac Man-post‘s discussion of those two movies with the following:

“The first point about Tron was that it was a DISNEY movie. I grew up loving the Walt Disney movies, the color (not black & white), the animation (though not all were animated). My first drive-in movie (in Carson City) was to see a re-release of Dumbo. I saw Bambi (alone in a matinee) on a big screen one block away from the White House in 1957 in Washington. I loved 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (in Carson), Another film at the drive-in was Old Yeller, about when I got my dog “Jamie”. Pinnochio and Cinderella were seen several times, my mother loved Fantasia, so I endured that movie (once), but I found the Bald Mountain sequence very scary (like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz).

The 70’s and early 80’s were a bad time for movies. Bigger theaters were broken up to create small rooms with small screens (for small audiences). Then they started building “multi-screen” places (not really real theaters), like where ET was shown, out on south Mooney (in Visalia). I generally hated the “small room” mall type movie experience. I loved (best) the movie “Palaces”, like the Grand Lake in Oakland, or the older (depression, WPA mural, type theaters, like the Kimo in Albuquerque and the old original movie house in downtown Visalia. [Note: In many cities in the US West the only place the WPA Arts Project was visible was in the murals painted on the walls (for free) by WPA artists. Often, this WPA art was both the biggest art (and the best) anywhere in town. In time, most WPA movie murals were painted over. Now, most WPA era movie theaters are torn down, converted, or closed. There seem to be NO articles about the movie murals on the web, just modern day full wall posters that date (in concept) from the WPA Art period that still was very alive in the 1950’s.]

Anyway, Mom and I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, in San Jose (actually in a theater in Sunnyvale or Mountain View) the first time you were “babysat” while living in San Jose. Raiders (July 1981) was not as scary as Star Wars (Darth Vader), but still had a few scary (for children) scenes. I can’t recall any other movie that your mother and I saw until I took you to Tron (Mom, then as now, was not interested and didn’t go). I worked for cable (afternoons, evenings and nights). We bought the RCA discs, mostly Disney movies (Mary Poppins, Dumbo) and Seseme Street and Muppets. Had the (new) Disney Channel on TV.

So, Tron was a DISNEY MOVIE, playing at an old WPA real theater downtown, that had a balcony (just to be safe).

I re-saw Fantasia in an old WPA theater in Berkeley (California Theater, about 1971, before it was broken up), because “everyone else” in the group wanted to see it. It was crowded, so we ended up in the balcony seating. The Night on Bald Mountain scene wasn’t nearly as scary sitting ABOVE Bald Mountain.

We sat in the balcony, in Visalia (at the Visalia Fox Theater), when we went and saw Tron. It was the furthest left re-screen configuration, based on the left side entrance to the balcony seating. The theater was old and fairly shabby then, not impressive. I don’t think I ever went back. Also, for a “cherished” Disney film experience I found Tron very boring and I was very worried you didn’t (wouldn’t) like it, and might not ever want to go to another “real movie” again. I guess I was wrong.

Anyway, Mom had heard good things about ET from other parents. She thought it might be a better movie “for kids”, maybe you, more exciting, better plot. I was more concerned about the “alien” (sci-fi), Star Wars angle. I almost said, after the failure of Tron, “let’s not go.” But “Disney had failed me,” so why not try something new, out in a new theater on Mooney. On Mooney, we sat on the floor (floor level seating), the theater was crowded, unlike an almost empty Tron theater experience. The whole thing WAS scary, even for me.”

-E-Mail from Donald Clayton, 8 December 2014

I love my Dad. You can see I come by this obsession with the past, memory, and context pretty honestly.

by

My Life with (Ms.) Pac-Man (or 84,400 Points Can’t Be Wrong)

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, Video Games Killed the Free Time, Tags: , , ,

My record-high Ms. Pac-Man score, set earlier this week.

My record-high Ms. Pac-Man score, set earlier this week.

Ms. Pac-Man has played a major role in my existence.

I think I first played the arcade classic in the early-mid 1980s, probably just after it had come out. My father was a big fan of the early Pac-Man tables that came to the world about the same time I did and he would often bring me along for long lunches and early dinners with his sales associates in his various cable-selling and/or entrepreneurial efforts of those heady Reagan years. Often these meals were at establishments that had a couple video games making a trial appearance at the front entrance, competing with the cigarette vending machines, the dirty old bubblegum-dispensers, and occasionally the clucking chicken prize machines that I absolutely adored.

(Given Alex’s incredulity at seeing her first cigarette vending machine at Harrah’s New Orleans a few months back, I expect similar puzzlement about the last kind of machine from those not around in the early ’80s, though it may also have been a localized thing. In which case, behold:)

These things were everywhere.  And they were AWESOME.

These things were everywhere. And they were AWESOME.

I don’t know exactly when my father first hoisted me up to a proper height to be able to reach the controls of Ms. Pac-Man’s hectic voyage through her haunted maze of dots, but it may have been at one of those bar-style tables that would have been decidedly more accessible to my short childhood frame (not a redundancy – I was really short for my age until I shot up to my current height around ages 12-13). It was sometime after we’d seen Tron in theaters as my first or second movie-going experience* and I almost immediately remember connecting the experience of the character I was remotely controlling with the lives of those mono-suited and harrowed drivers in the film. It was thrilling. I’m sure I died quickly and had no idea why, but I also carefully watched my Dad and his associates play over time and soon Ms. Pac-Man would join Halloween and Watership Down as inextricably magical portals in my consciousness.

Thereafter, Ms. Pac-Man would always be my go-to game at arcades and pizza parlors in my youth. I didn’t frequent these places often, but birthday parties or other outings in Seaside, Oregon made them a common location to test out the skills of evading ghosts and eating fruit. I played a safe survival strategy, eschewing the big points to be gained from eating lots of ghosts and preferring usually to gobble the unguarded dots while they went through their mollified blue phase. NBA Jam certainly made a run at my heart for the top spot in the world of video gaming outside the computer, but nothing could knock the hungry yellow circle off her perch.

Then the obsession really kicked into high gear and got some reasonable attempts at practice when we moved to New Mexico and I fell into the habit of bowling with my friends on an at-least weekly basis. Holiday Bowl on Lomas at ~Louisiana remains there and became our third or fourth home and had a big Ms. Pac-Man machine right in the front of the various video games adorning the entrance. Jake and I were the biggest fans, but most everyone took a turn or two at the big yellow-and-blue box, with the crowded semicircle of onlookers cheering or groaning at every turn. It was here that I honed more risky strategies, emerging as I was from a highly risk-averse youth into a still disproportionately risk-averse teenage-dom. I went for the full 1600 (3000 total) points of eating all four ghosts. I went for the fruit from time to time, learning the valuable lesson that it’s there, especially in the early levels (up to peach) mostly to distract you and get you eaten. I learned to hate Red, or Blinky as it is named in the game, for its cunning and speed, especially in sometimes trying to get eaten early so it could fly back out of the gate when no longer vulnerable.

I remember a particular national debate trip in high school where we ate somewhere that had a Ms. Pac-Man machine (or maybe it was in an airport?) and I dropped everything to get out some quarters and give it a spin. My debate teammates had never seen me transformed by the effects of the twists, turns, triumphs, and tragedies, and were thus mostly amused. Jess Hass told me she had never seen me that animated and that it was like another person had come out of my shell. It’s probably somewhat like what people who’ve never seen me dance think when they first see me at a party or wedding.

Then there was a bit of a lull. Brandeis lacked a Ms. Pac-Man machine on campus and Pelta-Heller taught me to play pinball instead. That and laundry scooped up my extra quarters and my skills lapsed a bit. I’d still jump at the chance to gobble some dots and ghosts when presented with the opportunity, but the chances became less frequent as aging machines were taken out. A brief renaissance ensued when Gris and I discovered a table Ms. Pac-Man sublimely sitting in the middle of an Ethiopian bar and grill in Oakland, though. I distinctly remember playing after his birthday party there to console him upon having his car stolen that day (it was recovered two days later not much worse for the already heavy wear).

And then my Dad called and said he’d found an affordably priced Pac-Man table machine on the Internet and did I think it would be cool if he bought it and put it in the basement? This is a bit like a lifetime soccer fan being called on a casual Tuesday night by a relative who is weighing in on whether he or she should choose to buy Manchester United. I got done with my gleeful incredulity about four minutes later and could only calm down enough to make my approval truly clear another four minutes after that.

This elation was only mildly dampened when I came home the first time to discover that he had not just short-handed the game’s title by calling it “Pac-Man” but that it was, in fact, an original, not the Ms. Pac-Man that had stolen my heart over the last two-point-five decades. But I quickly grew to love the simpler and less prolific original, though the cut scenes were not something I’d memorized the tune to ages before. The ghosts were a bit more plodding and logical, but the overall game ran slower and had less variation with the lack of different boards. That said, it was very hard to argue with being able to fish the quarters back out of the till unspent, nor the camaraderie of playing against my father.

The Pac-Man machine has been dormant and is being considered for re-sale, but my Dad and I got it up out of the basement and plugged it in upstairs last visit, when Alex and I went out for Balloon Fiesta in October. And she went from very new to pretty darn good quite quickly, an echo of her childhood playing Super-Mario (I always had a computer for games instead of a Nintendo). And shortly upon our return, we discovered that the arcade at our favored local movie theater, the Elmwood 20 in Harahan (same parking lot as the only NOLA-area Chipotle!) has a back room. We’d been playing air-hockey and occasionally gambling away dollars in the claw machine (curse you, Kurt Falk!) when especially early for films, but guess what was sitting in the back the whole time (I mean, all of four months, but we see a lot of movies…)? Yup, Ms. Pac-Man.

With our honed practice on the arguably harder original game in Albuquerque, we suddenly started tearing up the field on this machine. To the point that it was only a couple weeks of two-a-movie-each play before we were each setting individual records. After nearly 30 years of play, an individual record! I was pretty sure that about 60-65,000 was my personal best prior to discovering this machine, and soon I was over 70k. I made the fourth board design, the dark blue one, for only the second time in my life, edging past the “Junior” cut-scene. And then I was consistently getting deep into the prior dark-brown boards, or getting through the first four levels without losing a life. The picture up top is from our last session, when we each played three games, and two (2!) of mine were personal bests, back-to-back. Alex also set a personal best with 44,560 points.

It has only been after the last two sessions that I connected my most lamented fact about this particular Ms. Pac-Man machine with my favorite. You see, the sound basically doesn’t work on this machine. Once in a while, there’s a scratchy murmur of a sound trying to escape the otherwise broken speakers, but that’s it. I have actually sung the music for the first two cut scenes most every time we reach them as I miss dancing to it so much. I have missed (or thought I missed) the satisfying power-up bloops of consuming ghosts or the anguished disintegration noise that so poetically echoes the frustration of the reverse.

But what if I’m setting records… because there’s no sound?

What if I’m not better at all at this point in my life, but just less distracted than usual? It certainly follows that, like the early-level fruit, the sound proves to be as much an impediment to success as it does a boost. There’s already a ton of mental multi-tasking required for stellar Pac-Man play. One must develop a planned route, re-route the route continually when it is blocked or dangerous, line up ghosts for quick eats after eating a big dot, and constantly strain peripheral vision to be aware of all four enemies on the board while also processing blind tunnels and, in the later levels, game-making 2,000-point pears and 5,000-point bananas. All that and try to anticipate when the ghosts will randomly reverse and throw the whole thing off. Could sound be the fourth dimension that keeps concentration impossible? And its absence indicate an opportunity to master the game as never before?

I won’t know, of course, till I can test my newly honed skills on a fully-operational machine somewhere else. Though I’m nervous to play anywhere but this dingy back-room in Harahan after getting remarkably close to the fabled six-digit threshold. Until then, I’ll have to wonder, like with so many pursuits these days and always, how much of my success is the unadulterated improvement that so often follows practice and how much is the sheer luck of unpredictable circumstance.

As, no doubt, Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man must wonder as they traverse those three vaunted and normally musical cut-scenes. Was it destiny that prompted them to meet? Or were they the only two Pac-(wo)M(e)n in the world and lucky enough to bump into each other? How much credit can they claim for the little family they forge?


*Much debate persists in my family about whether I saw Tron or E.T. first in theaters. I loved the experience of the first and was terrorized for years by recollections of images of the protagonist in the latter. E.T. was released on June 11, 1982 and Tron was released a month later, on July 9, 1982. But admittedly E.T. was a blockbuster that stuck around in theaters for months after Tron‘s debut. That said, the earlier release seems to correlate better with my theory that E.T. was actually my first movie and that part of what scared me was the strange new experience of being in a really dark yet crowded room. If you think about it, going to a movie theater is intensely bizarre and disconcerting for a new human.

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Cop Immunity

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

Your law enforcement officials at work!

Your law enforcement officials at work!

When I was in high school, I devised a thought experiment that I discussed extensively with my friends. It was called “Cop Immunity”. My question was whether someone would take the deal of having total immunity to all interactions of all kinds with the police in the rest of their individual lives. Police as a general force would still exist in society and change the incentives of others, but if one took the Cop Immunity deal, then they would have no further positive or negative interaction with oneself. One could no longer call 911 or be arrested. This would be a one-shot, one-instance deal, just for the person being asked the question and would have zero impact on anyone else.

The results were roughly split. Even at my elite private high school which I attended on financial aid, a good number of people were willing to accept the trade-off. And it wasn’t so they could go on a spree of committing crimes, though certainly the ability to exceed the speed limit with impunity was discussed at length. We boiled the question down to whether a given individual had more to fear or dislike from police interactions than they did to gain from them, or to feel protected by them. I always said I would take Cop Immunity in a heartbeat.

This, of course, was years before Albuquerque became a shooting range for the local police. It was before the killings of Oscar Grant and Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It was before we had a consciousness that police were regularly doling out the death penalty for all manner of crimes or the mere suspicion of same. I can only imagine that re-running the Cop Immunity survey now would poll around 70% at the Academy and upwards of 95% in most racially diverse and/or non-white communities around the country. We, as a nation, are losing faith in the very notion of law enforcement officials as anything other than belligerents.

The reasons should be obvious, but the largest single factor completes the double-entrendre of this post’s title. If you Google the phrase cop immunity, you’ll turn up countless descriptions of the police themselves being immune to any sort of punishment or sanction which they feel obliged to regularly dole out. The police are not only the law, but they are above it, prompting the age-old query of “who guards the guardians?” The entire notion of police forces, especially armed and dangerous ones, is that the threat of accountability and enforcement will inspire better behavior than people relying on their own judgment. Yet this principle is immediately abandoned when it comes to police actions themselves. Those who decide the fate of police officers accused of wrongdoing are almost always on the same police force as those accused, or part of the same system which views itself as unified on the same team with the same goal. Decades of politicians styling themselves as “tough on crime” have corroded the checks and oversights necessary to create a sense of accountability within the police forces of America’s cities. And the cumulative result is that it is harder to be indicted for police actions than it is to get out of Gitmo. When the police take action, there is no external disincentive lingering in their mind about what might befall them if they cross the line of excessive force.

Now, yes, sure, there are probably good cops out there. My father always raised me with an awareness that those who became cops and those who became criminals were often cut from similar cloth and that it could sometimes be arbitrary which side of the line they wound up on. There are similar temptations of both positions – the hunger for freedom and power over others, the tendency toward violence, the comfort with tense situations and intimidation. Nonetheless, tons of cops are probably sincere and trying their best. But tons of people are too. The underlying assumption of a society with a police force is that this is not enough. We must also have hard and violent disincentives to bad behavior to convince everyone to abide by the principles we find acceptable in a just society, so our assumptions go. Yet the bias has gotten so extreme toward those enforcing this standard that no one (until this year’s eruption of protest and dissent) seems to care to apply that standard to those doing the enforcement. The point is that it is not an innate criticism of the police to say that they require the same disincentives to bad action that we burden the rest of society with. It is just an application of the same basic principle that got us to create a law enforcement infrastructure in the first place.

Indeed, though, given the power imbalances between police and normal citizens, it is easily arguable and possibly obvious that the police require greater disincentives to bad action and abuse than do the general public. Power corrupts, after all, and the feeling of imposing one’s will on mere lay people day after day seems to have the cumulative effect of encouraging abuses. Rather than the status quo of extreme protections and perpetual benefit-of-the-doubt being afforded police officers, it seems much more sensible that they should be subject to much stricter scrutiny and examination than those they are trying to police. After all, they enjoy every structural advantage. Unlike a scared suspect, they can call for backup. They have bulletproof vests and, often, tanks and armored vehicles. They will get the bias of the general public (possibly until now) in the retelling of the story. They are seen as representing the state, representing the “good guys”, having the legal and moral authority. Any system hoping to make these people capable of doing actual good in the world would consistently hold them to an incredibly high standard.

The counter-arguments I see to this most frequently, either among my few conservative friends on Facebook or in horrifically described terms by some Southern poker players, are about the rule of law. The assumption underlying all of these arguments is that if police are charged with enforcing the law, they are automatically right and that anyone who has run afoul of their enforcement must be a criminal. Like so many tough-on-crime politicians, they present the perspective that we have nothing to fear from those who are merely trying to keep society safe and orderly. And everything to fear from those hell-bent on disrupting this order.

There are numerous problems with this line of argumentation, but the biggest one is that it is a non sequitir for justifying the kinds of actions being defended by cop-supporters in 2014. I can grant every part of that argument – that everyone who gets shot or injured by the police is a willful active dangerous criminal (of course this is absurd, but go with me for a second) – and still find the police to be unforgivably corrupt and overly violent. Because to make this argument valid, you have to believe in the death penalty for shoplifting. You have to believe in the death penalty for selling individual cigarettes tax-free. You have to believe in applying the death penalty, or an extreme amount of physical pain and torment (something that actually isn’t a sanctioned punishment for anything in the theory of our society), to every single crime. And, of course, to meting out the death penalty on the grounds of suspicion of that crime, with the responding officer as judge, jury, executioner, and pardoner of the executioner.

Not only the mainstream media and rabid conservatives, but several moderate friends of mine (on Facebook) have offered discussions of Michael Brown that mitigate the death penalty enforced on him. He was “bad news” or a “thug” or “did wrong” or “wasn’t perfect”. I don’t know if we know enough about him to say any of that, but even if he was a serial robber at gunpoint and was raging around the neighborhood, show me where we justify an immediate and singly decided death penalty for that. Let’s assume he was a terrible criminal who had harmed thousands. Still not something any state in the union would exact the death penalty for. And having a publicly known standard that police have the right (through lack of criticism or formal sanction) to enforce the death penalty on suspects at will for any crime at all is to create and codify a police state.

The truth is, though, that we can’t even grant the basic arguments that still lead up to this shocking discovery that America is simply a police state. Because most of these people who run afoul of murderous police officers are not even criminals. And those who are tend to be criminals in the trivial way in which we are all criminals. The fact is that the United States of America has an utterly infinite and unknowable legal code, one that includes ignorance of the law being no defense. At any given moment, all of us, every single one of us, are violating countless statutes and aspects of these standards. Notable ones are obvious, like speeding and jaywalking, which are much more about protecting the safety and health of our community than, say, the prohibition on selling cigarettes without charging sales tax. But the house or apartment in which you live violates many aspects of code for which you have not reported it. Maybe you use the technically illegal drugs that everyone you know seems to use. Or you are aware of such use and have failed to report it. You are aware of illegal immigrants to the country and have failed to turn them in. You have given some change to the homeless panhandler on the street or fed the meter for someone who is about to get ticketed. You have let your own meter expire, or failed to pay it for five minutes. You have failed to report your Internet and out-of-state purchases in itemized detail on your state tax return.

These are all crimes. We are all criminals.

All of us. I defy one of you to search the last year of your life in America and declare it entirely free of criminal acts.

This is why so many people see this as a racial issue, in whole or in part, and why the African American community in particular is rightfully outraged. The fact that we are all criminals is trivial and should be obvious. There is no we/they dichotomy between those who uphold and skirt the law. That argument is the propaganda levied by those wishing to justify the actions of a police state. And the fact is that while whites and those in affluent neighborhoods tend to get a free pass for their criminality, minorities and those in poorer neighborhoods tend to get a rigid and thorough enforcement. Immunity to law enforcement is an extension of white privilege and wealth privilege, where people in the favored categories enjoy less scrutiny and far fewer instant death penalties if they do come under suspicion.

The reasons for this are manifold and complex, stemming from a variety of influences in our nation and its history. There is a lot of individual and institutional racism. There are heavily promoted narratives which the media and politicians extoll daily, narratives about who is dangerous and who is the “criminal element” and what parts of town are unsafe and the desperation of the poor and the underclass. There is just the tiniest bit of truth in the reality that property crimes are more likely to be committed by those without property and those who society has continually oppressed remain without property and little kernels of this reality create a massively inflated fuel for self-justification of the principle that informs bias and profiling. But this is also just one part of the story in the world in which we are all criminals. Minorities are imprisoned vastly more than others and a massive number of these incarcerations are due to drug crimes. Drug crimes are not disproportionately committed by minorities, but they are vastly disproportionately enforced on them. This suits a narrative that society likes to tell itself about justice and safety and danger, but it’s just the delusion of an unjust and biased system trying to get itself to sleep at night.

It’s not a coincidence that most of these cases of police murder with impunity have African American victims, any more than it is that such a vastly disproportionate portion of the prison population are African American men. We have a seemingly inexhaustible source of narratives for the “Scary Black Man” in American society, an endless appetite for this concept in the news, campus police reports, trials, courtroom dramas, movies, and nearly every other cultural influence that exists. Police exist in this world too and react accordingly. And even if a cop or his police department are not overtly racist (most of them do overtly profile and are overtly racist), when the standard that society gives that cop is “act with impunity, trust your fear, you will never face punishment for enforcing the death penalty on a suspect”, then the consequences are all too predictable.

I cannot sufficiently emphasize that it does not matter whether or not these people are criminals. We are all criminals. The extent to which we are subject to the whims of the police state depends on whether the police are trained to fear us as particular individuals. Every one of us could be arrested tomorrow for something and then face the rabbit hole of the state’s overwhelming bias and support of the enforcers.

Your legal standards do not matter. They need to be changed and rewritten. Just as law has been shifted to facilitate corporate greed and impunity to dominate individual citizens, it has similarly been written to codify a police state that will never hold cops accountable. That needs to be thrown out and revamped. And until it is, every single instance of a cop getting away with murder only emboldens the confidence of every other scared or malignant cop to enforce the instant death penalty at his or her will. For a democracy to function, it cannot be a police state. There must be police accountability. Until a high profile murderous police officer is not only charged, but actually punished, this will only escalate.

As will the justified outrage of the society falling under the police state’s bootheel. It is the consequence not only of this ongoing series of injustices, but also of creating a legal standard which criminalizes everyone and then selectively enforces the law based on fear and bias. If this doesn’t bother you, it’s only because you are lucky enough to somehow enjoy your own version of Cop Immunity. And you are too unfeeling to care for those who don’t.

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Fear Factor

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Know When to Fold 'Em, Telling Stories, What Dreams May Come, Tags: , , , ,

Farhan Ali (left) surprises me at the team dinner/team picture ceremony for RUDU at the end of the 2010-2011 season.  To this day, this is one of my favorite pictures of all time.  It's mostly just here to symbolize fear.  And because I had an excuse to use it.

Farhan Ali (left) surprises me at the team dinner/team picture ceremony for RUDU at the end of the 2010-2011 season. To this day, this is one of my favorite pictures of all time. It’s mostly just here to symbolize fear. And because I had an excuse to use it.

I am continually discovering how much of my life is fueled by fear.

I’ve ridiculed fear a lot in this blog lately, most especially in criticizing what motivates voters and pointing out how silly it is for Americans to fear ebola and/or terrorism. This is not the kind of fear that I will be talking about in this post, though I suppose I’m using the same word because it’s in some ways the same concept and all fear is related. Fear may not even be the right word for what this post will attempt to address, as some may favor “anxiety” or even “trepidation” for what I plan to illustrate. But I’m going with fear because it’s visceral and, I think, more honest.

The problem goes a little like this. Early on in my educational career, somewhere between grade-skipping and re-aligning with my “age-appropriate” grade level, I started getting disillusioned (again) with schooling. And so I started to test limits and see how long I could put things off and still get excellent grades. I had a lot of stellar and challenging teachers in my high school, but I also had a few who I noted seemed to be doing it “for the money” on their teacher evaluations and who just seemed to be priming themselves for limit-testing. I got in the habit of starting papers the night before they were due, then sometimes during a free period earlier in the day in the computer lab. In college, these habits only accelerated. Many people were studying and buying books and refusing to start new Risk games with me at 2 AM the day before major assignment deadlines, but I had already planned to start that work at 5 AM, which seemed like enough time for another Risk session. And then there were the world-class slackers around me who’d already gotten an extension on the assignment for two weeks and wouldn’t even begin to plan to make that deadline.

I knew these slackers. They were friends of mine, many of my closest. But I knew that I could not be like them, for down that path would lie utter ruin. As tenuous as my relationship with deadlines and my respect for assignments was, it was governed by an absolute an inalienable rule: meet the deadline. No extensions, no lateness, no excuses. Because I knew that as soon as I breached this rule even once, I would open a Pandora’s box of new rules to flout and test, new games to play with professors, and ultimately the whole unstable mass of unstarted papers would get the best of me. I was good at toeing the line right up to the deadline, but I couldn’t imagine keeping track of an entire semester’s worth of work that would have to be done in that nebbish period between the conclusion of classes and the advent of finals. And I did have to keep my scholarship to stay at Brandeis.

Enter fear, stage right. The only way I could convince myself of the ironclad power of the deadline, the thing that forced me to put the Risk box away and stop playing my thirtieth straight warmup game of Tetris, was fear of failing. And this was mostly, if not entirely an exercise of powerful self-delusion. I knew, I knew deep down that my professors would happily grant me extensions should I simply fall asleep while trying to construct a paper, would fail to mark me down a bit for an assignment handed in 36 hours late. But I convinced myself, come hell or high water, that even a minute’s lateness in the paper’s submission would bring failure. Not just of the assignment, mind you, or even the class, but of my entire life. I would lose my scholarship, my admission to college, possibly even retroactively lose my high school diploma simply because one assignment came in a few minutes late. I had myself completely certain that this was true.

And it was only once that terror had really sunk in, sometimes less than two hours prior to a deadline, only once I really feared the failure and felt it was a real and foreseeable possibility, that I could begin working.

This worked great for late high school in securing the scholarship. It worked remarkably well for keeping the scholarship throughout Brandeis and graduating college with solid marks. But I have increasingly come to believe that it may not actually be a great lesson to inculcate in life, especially early on. It’s probably not a healthy way to exist.

I can line up a lot of pros and cons, though, for a fair hearing of this approach. Solidly on the pro side are three completed novels of 90,000 words or more, all written in a period of four months each or less (if we don’t count the pre-deadline few chapters of American Dream On written in the six years before I got serious about the project). While these novels haven’t really gone anywhere yet and some would argue they need substantial revision (ever my nemesis, conceptually), the mere fact of being able to write that diligently and profusely is a singular testament to my fear of the mighty Deadline. I stuck a dart in the calendar (stuck, not threw, mind you) for each of the projects and beat the self-imposed D-Day every time. This probably shouldn’t have been possible, but after completing two full-scale term-length research paper assignments in excess of twenty pages when starting each of them the night before during my last two years of college, the novels were easy. I had so many days to work on them!

The con side, however, is littered with remnants of my non-deadlined motivation. It’s not that I haven’t been a good worker during my various day jobs, nor that I’m unable to motivate myself to do various projects and other things when the fancy arises. But I have trained myself to require a state of fear in order to feel really ready to do things. If I can’t conjure a sufficiently dire consequence, real or imagined, I find it extremely hard to get together the necessary energy to complete a task. And while this mostly or often applies to major tasks, it probably realistically has bled into even the most mundane of assignments. Chores are already damnably difficult for me since I find daily maintenance of existence (including and especially eating) to be saddeningly distracting from the greater concerns of the life of the mind. But without fear of some sort of backlash or feeling of failure, they get even more distant from my desire. Same goes for even menial daily chores, even when I don’t have a day job. I start each day with a to-do list, but then find I have to gin up some fear in myself to really get much traction.

I wonder often how universal this kind of sensation is. Putting it into print like this, it looks kind of horrifying. It doesn’t feel that awful, not nearly as much as I’m making it sound. It is often quite routine. I really want to sweep the kitchen. It’s a simple task that I really don’t mind that much. It needs to be done. I just have to start thinking about people who will be upset with me if I don’t, then exaggerate their reaction and try to truly picture something farcically awful that will ensue from my failing to sweep the kitchen. If I can do it without seeing through the ruse, then the kitchen gets swept, quickly and quite well. If not, then I have to wrestle with the guilt of not being able to generate enough faked fear to make it happen.

The only hint I have that this kind of anxiety might be underwriting a lot of our daily actions as humans is the ubiquity of a certain kind of dream. A recent discussion of this prompted some disambiguation about the word “nightmare”, which I never use to refer to the state of a bad dream, having always used that two-word phrase instead. Whereas “nightmare” for me usually conveys a real-life scenario that went appallingly poorly, such as “When cops started seeing people as target practice rather than those in need of protection, it was a nightmare.”

Whatever word you use, you’ve had this dream or one of its variants. I promise.

The setting is a school that is familiar to you or a school-like setting. You either find yourself unable to find the classroom or recall even basic details about the class. You may, if lucky, be seated at a desk in the proper classroom. But you are about to be served with a final exam or assignment. And you have no earthly idea what the content covered is or will be. You are almost always pretty sure that you dropped the class, or possibly that you never signed up for it at all. But it is clear from the situation that there will be no mercy. Your entire semester/year/life depends on this situation and you are utterly doomed to fail.

Not only has every American I have ever discussed this with had this dream, but it is the most universal dream people older than 18 seem to have and is shockingly diverse in its manifestations. It tends to stick with people for decades after they have left their last academic setting, though encounters with an academic-type environment can reinvigorate its duration or frequency. And it often has additional cousin dreams in various similar forms and settings, such as having to give a speech in a debate round on which one does not know the topic or can’t find the room (for former debaters – I’ve had this one at least monthly for years), having missed an assignment to photograph someone’s wedding (recently discussed with a professional photographer friend), or forgetting to invite people to a major event which one has been planning (for, naturally, event planners). So diverse and common and frequent is this dream that it is a trope. And so gripping is its nightmarish hold on the imagination that it can make a ridiculous peril all too real. It is always an enormous relief to remember that I had a college diploma in hand after waking from one of these dreams about, say, my junior year in high school. But it usually takes far too many minutes of consciousness for me to even remember such facts in the face of how certain I was that I was about to fail out of the step prior to college.

Is there something about our educational system that naturally engenders this kind of terror? Surely my generation and everyone after were raised on a steady mantra of the necessity of education in securing a future. And thus probably the converse became just as true for us, that failure in any educational pursuit would spell futurelessness. But I feel like this dream transcends generational barriers. And is it really about academics and that world, per se? Or is it about a larger wider fear that lurks behind the judgment found preeminently, but by no means uniquely, in classroom settings?

Whatever its source, it actually seems to be an incredibly valuable asset in playing poker. Not in motivating me to register for a tournament by a deadline or even get to the tournament at the start (I was actually the last person to register in the tournament I won in Mississippi in August, starting two full hours after the tourney began, as well as being about that late to my first major-tourney cash at Foxwoods last October). But in keeping me afraid of the consequences of losing the tournament, of not making money. I have found that a major question separating the tournaments where I really succeed from those where I fail to cash or do kinda meh is whether or not I feel truly afraid of failing. If the consequences of not cashing seem dire, whether or not they truly are (after all, you should never risk a dime that you can’t afford to lose or even spend recreationally), then it seems to motivate the very best and most patient play.

This actually contravenes a known and popular poker adage, namely that “scared money never wins”. But I think there’s a difference between fear of risk and fear of failure. Fear of risk would have also prevented me from buying into the tournament in the first place, and especially from delaying the start of a 20-page paper till less than 24 hours prior to its deadline. If I flop a set, I know that all my chips are going to be at risk that hand, pretty much regardless. If I were playing risk-averse or scared-money, then this probably wouldn’t be my perspective. But fearing failure, fearing having to come back with no money to show for my initial outlay, that is supremely motivating. I have never been so scared of failing a tournament as I was of the satellite and especially the main event in Baton Rouge. And I don’t think I’ve ever played a longer stretch of continuously excellent poker.

Which is not to ignore the factor that luck has, of course, in all of this. I only really got lucky once in the satellite and once (actually after the cash line) in the main event. Other than winning one coin-flip, which is the kind of minimum luck necessary to place in a tournament’s ranks. But luck probably has a bigger role than we’d like to admit in grading and education too. Indeed, a longer meditation on how pretty much all of modern life amounts to some kind of gambling is stewing in the back of my mind.

So I can harness the incredible power of fake fear (the fear has to almost immediately evaporate after I actually don’t cash in a tournament; otherwise I would be tormented for days by guilt and self-loathing… which rarely happens) to make myself do incredible things. But this seems to be a problematic source of renewable energy. It’s hard to muster for the small stuff. It’s exhausting to endure (I can’t imagine I’d love a heart-rate printout of my collegiate papers, let alone my deeper tournament runs). And there’s probably a good question to be asked about just whether it’s a reasonably good way to motivate oneself in principle. Is all this self-inflicted anxiety shortening my lifespan? Making me a generally less agreeable person? Just going to devolve so that I can’t even make myself eat without truly fearing starvation?

More importantly, is it too late to reverse course? When I’ve mostly done things for fear of my life collapsing, isn’t it awfully hard to regularly get going for the sake of, y’know, just because? Have I already trapped myself in this game? It almost seems the greatest thing I truly have to fear is a lack of fake fear itself.

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Why We Love Serial… and May Eventually Hate It

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Telling Stories, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , , ,

You love them now… but will you always?

You love them now… but will you always?

Spoiler alert, kind of: I will make reference to anecdotes about this show through its current airing, which is Episode 9, but probably not say anything that actually ruins your listening experience of the show, yet. More spoiling might be admonitions about how the show can’t end in a satisfying way and thus you are setting yourself up for disappointment, which is inevitable but probably worth it.

If you consider yourself a reasonably informed denizen of the Internet, you’ve probably heard about Serial, the podcast spun off from wildly popular two-decade-running PBS radio show This American Life (TAL). The co-producers, Sarah Koenig and and Julie Snyder are pictured above, sandwiching Ira Glass, who needs no introduction. Serial bills itself as kind of the inverse of TAL – instead of each show covering one theme and itself fragmented into different lenses for that theme, Serial is one story stretched out over a whole season, however long that ends up proving to be. It’s unclear whether they pitched it as a radio show initially and no one would take it, whether they are leveraging podcast listenership to join TAL on the radio in future, or whether they believe radio is dying and are trying to just start with the future medium of audio audiences.

Whatever their motives behind the show design, there can be no mistaking the success of the model as it is currently being unrolled. Odds are that if you’ve heard of Serial, you’ve listened to it and that if you’ve listened to even one show, you’re totally hooked. Not only do I find myself in this category as of writing, but I have read an uncanny number of Facebook posts and even blog posts about people not just listening to Serial, but building an increasing portion of their mental energy around it, including looking forward to, of all days, Thursdays, when new episodes are released. It’s weird for something without a visual component to have this kind of hold on the web’s collective consciousness, perhaps weirder still that it is almost entirely about something that happened more than a decade ago.

If you prefer non-anecdotal evidence, just plug the word Serial into GoogleNews. Most recently noted, the show is breaking podcast download records and just made an appeal for donations to fuel a second season. Heck, even their one early-season sponsor ad became a viral phenomenon.

So what makes this show so great? And perhaps more pertinently, so popular, so captivating at this moment in Internet history?

Let’s start with the obvious. The show centers on a murder mystery. This nation loves a good murder mystery. The English-speaking world, since Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle opened the genre with still our best examples, really loves a good murder mystery. We have board games, movies, books, and little parties-in-a-box that regularly renew our love of the theme of the murder mystery. Murder mysteries are so ubiquitous in our culture that TAL once did a whole show in 2007 asking the question how people whose lives have been impacted by actual murders can go through their lives afterwards given the prevalence of such themes. “I can’t watch Law and Order,” notes interviewee Rachel Howard at the opening of the show, “or play Clue or, y’know, go to a murder mystery dinner theater.”

We love us some murder. But even more than that, we love us some unsolved murder. Or more pertinently, the wrongly convicted. I’m hardly in a place to critique the phenomenon, given that it is my favorite movie of all-time, but the cultural significance of The Shawshank Redemption cannot be overstated. As of now, it is currently considered the best movie of all-time on IMDB. Proving either (or perhaps both) that I have excellent taste or am extremely mainstream/unhip. (Let me know when I should note that I liked Shawshank “before it was cool”, decrying its Oscar loss, live, to Forrest Gump, which currently ranks 15th on that IMDB list. Which, along with Pulp Fiction [#5] mostly proves that 1994 was a really great year for film.) And as well all know, Shawshank centers around the incredible struggle, endurance, and ultimate redemption (spoiler alert? it’s right in the title…) of someone wrongly convicted for murder.

The first problem here might be that we don’t know Adnan Syed, co-protagonist (along with host Koenig) of Serial’s first season, has been wrongly convicted for murder. We know he’s been convicted and we know that Koenig really wants to believe he is innocent. In more recent episodes, we can hear Koenig sort of struggling against some of the best evidence for Syed’s guilt, expressing surprise that the investigation is deemed adequate to good by an independent detective, or agonizing about the question of who else could possibly have committed the crime. Through 9 episodes, and even from the outset, we get the sense that Koenig really does have a horse in this race, despite clearly wanting to be objective. And after all, her avenue to the case was the purportedly innocent convict, while those who testified most stringently against him and even the victim’s family have refused to go on the air for even one word.

But then there’s a backdoor possibility that might be even more intriguing, one that Koenig deftly sets up into a dichotomy with our favorite storyline of the long-suffering innocent convict. Which is that Syed is a psychopath or a sociopath, some sort of mastermind of manipulation and evil genius who convinced the world that he was incapable of such an act directly before and after committing said act, the one which we consider most heinous in our society. This is the case that we hear the state present, and more pertinently in the latest episode, that the judge herself admonishes Syed for being guilty of. “You used that to manipulate people,” she says after listing Syed’s many gifts and talents, including a guileless seeming charm, “and even today, I think you continue to manipulate even those that love you.”

I don’t think I’m the only one who finds this possibility especially tantalizing. Not only because this setup – namely a high school student whose friends and family are all shocked to learn what he’s been accused of and who may or may not be guilty – is the premise of the first half of my first novel, Loosely Based, but because of my own high school history which may have helped partially inspire that premise. If Adnan is guilty, I dated the closest equivalent of him that went to my high school. It was my first serious longish relationship in my life and it had an overwhelming impact on everything that followed in the development of my romantic and social existence. It was my junior year and she was a pathological liar, an effective one, someone who convinced the entire elite school that she had a forthcoming book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being published by Harvard University Press. She was not as charming or universally liked as Adnan, but she definitely had people snowed and left a trail of incredulity in her wake when the truth came leaking out at the edges. Though the only person who really got hurt by any of it in a meaningful way was me.

I’ve referred to her from time to time on my webpage, using my moniker for her of PLB, a resentful nickname from the decade-plus between her absenting herself from my life in a devastating way in 1997 to our four-hour meeting in October 2010. And I see no reason to start using her full name here now, if only because she has since reinvented herself and her life entirely, again, and I probably no longer think she should be saddled with a series of terrible decisions she made at sixteen on Google. Although, I dunno. I go back and forth on that one, as I do about her ultimate motivations. She did such a good job convincing me that she had changed and grown, but then made a series of decisions again in the year following our reunion that just seemed so explicable as part of the old her. I decided pursuing further communication was unwarranted, or at least unnecessary, if not dangerous. The problem, ultimately, is that I think she liked the mystery and the impact she had on people, even then in 2010, as much or more than she liked anything else about herself or her interactions. That for all its garbage and toxicity, maybe she was never so alive as in our junior year in high school, exacting awe and terror from so many, reveling in the pile of sleepless lies that required so much energy to seemingly effortlessly maintain.*

I do not want this post to get sidetracked into recollections from my own high school years, but I have a hunch that you have made your listening to Serial somewhat or almost entirely about that as well. This is part of the magic of this story. We Americans just about all went to high school and it remains a period of time both iconic and almost universally traumatic. The universality of high school as an experience and, more vitally as a larger-than-life cultural Experience in America makes a murder mystery set in the midst of that time both startlingly unique and overwhelmingly captivating. You have probably all identified your own Adnan, or closest facsimile, from your years between 14-18. You have recalled the key incidents or scandals of that time in your life and compared them to this. You have wondered how your friends would have reacted had you been charged with some heinous deed.

There are other tricks and quirks that make Serial amazingly gripping. Something I haven’t seen anyone else discuss is the music, which is regularly stuck in my head and could not possibly be more perfect for an ever-deepening mystery with plenty of twists. Even the name, Serial, evokes the notion of a serial killer, as well as a hard-boiled series of detective novels that people devour like the cheap filling breakfast food so many of us grew up on (cereal). These additional assets may seem trivial, but when one is just starting a show or cultural phenomenon, small things like name, logo, and music make a big impact.

And then there’s the slow time-release of the episodes. Which, to be fair, is the norm and not the exception in these kinds of things – only books, movies (though increasingly less so with the rise of sequels, trilogies, and whatever endlessness you want to attribute to comic-book franchise films), and Netflix TV are released all at once. Koenig herself in a recent interview said the tactic is as old as Dickens and certainly most every mystery that really hooks us in comes out in installments to keep our attitude in eternal suspense. But the problem here is that the periodic nature of Serial that has catapulted its success is also endemic to what I see as its very likely undoing.

Here’s the problem: we’re not going to get a satisfying conclusion to the story of Adnan Syed and the murder of Hae Min Lee. We’re not. There is an extremely scant possibility that this podcast’s delving and outrageous popularity combine to prompt the real killer to make a stunning confession, or Adnan to collapse beneath the weight of his guilt and confess, or, I guess, Hae Min Lee’s suicide note to be found. Even the slightly more realistic but still unbelievably unlikely possibility of Adnan getting a new trial or even exonerated would not exactly be a resolution unless we had an admission from or at least conviction of someone else. And the very doubt that makes the podcast so damn compelling now as it’s being released will make its conclusion equally disappointing. Because, in the end, we’ll never know.

Murder mysteries basically never end this way. The only one I can really think of that leaves so much of the ending unresolved is In the Lake of the Woods, Tim O’Brien’s masterpiece that remains one of my favorite all-time books. I’m sure there are others – I’m actually not a huge mystery reader. But in a fictional story of murder, we can kind of revel in the uncertainty the way we revel in the entire plot, knowing that our squirming and writhing is like that in a horror-movie theater – namely, it is fake. It is concocted for our entertainment with no real-world impact on real lives. And just as putting people through a real-life horror movie scenario would be abhorrent, so I think we will wind up feeling quite cheated by having to live with the uncertainty of whether Adnan Syed is either a wrongfully convicted innocent, continuing to rot away his life in prison or a dangerous sociopathic killer who has managed to convince much of America and a plucky upstart podcast’s staff that he is innocent.

The extremity of that binary in the dichotomy is profound and part of what marks trouble for Serial and our feelings about it long-term. Adnan Syed cannot ever be just a nice-ish guy who may or may not have killed his ex-girlfriend who we then feel ambivalently about. He is either a murderer or among the wrongfully convicted. This binary is what attracts us so powerfully to stories of the exonerated, since they have had to live as the former for so long, but are actually the latter. It is the most horrific nightmare our society produces for its citizens, the social and public equivalent of being buried alive, being reviled and rejected by (almost) all as an utter degenerate, subjected to all indignities, only to be a veritable saint for suffering through the consequences of the damned with head held high. Adnan is either this heroic mystical figure in our world, or he is the diametric opposite. Not only a murderer, but one who would insidiously use all of our emotion and intellect against ourselves to convince us of his heroism. Someone whose pre-emptive betrayal of our trust puts him somewhere equivalent to the devil in terms of malice aforethought and negative impact on our faith in humanity.

But we will never know. Most of the narrative power that drives us to wait expectantly for the next installment of Serial is the idea that we will find out more next week and that this is all eventually going somewhere. That even in our own minds, we can decide if Adnan is innocent or guilty and decide what we think of it. But Serial has done such a good job riding this middle ground and building this uncertainty that few smart listeners will ever really be able to decide. And I promise you that Sarah Koenig isn’t going to make up her mind at the end either. We will be left with a story without an ending, which might be tolerable if there were not real people out there, if there were not a real Jay and a real Hae’s family and a real Adnan Syed sitting in jail.

And if there is a resolution, it’s not likely to be much better. This chance is unspeakably slim, but it could be that Serial finds the smoking gun somehow and either gets Adnan’s admission to the crime or some irrefutable piece of evidence against him. In which case, 95% of you will hate Serial thereafter. You will hate it because it fueled Adnan’s deception of the world, brought it to a high platform, broadcast his protestations of innocence to the world. You will feel betrayed, but you didn’t know or trust Syed personally. You trusted and felt you knew Koenig and the staff of Serial. And you will hold them responsible for this betrayal, for the malice and sociopathy of Syed himself. For the doubt and lack of trust this builds into your life, for the damage done to the mythos of the exonerated and the wrongfully convicted. You will hate Serial and you will stop listening and you will be mad.

If the converse happens, you will likely also hate Serial, unless it actually gets Adnan Syed sprung from prison. Because then it will just leave you with this searing, near-provable injustice that is never corrected. With this idea that we all know he’s innocent, but he’s never getting out. Which is not a satisfying end to the story. Imagine Shawshank with Andy Dufresne getting to be Red’s age, or Brooks’, never tasting freedom, growing harder and more bitter with each year as he continued to do the warden’s bidding. Then make it real, knowing Andy is a real person who is really out there.

Yes, if Serial actually unearths the evidence that gets Adnan Syed out, then you will love it forever. But I think this is beyond any realistic possibility. And in the matrix of possibilities, where total uncertainty fills up about 98% of the squares, it’s not really worth considering. I think all of the other outcomes are far more likely and all of those lead to a slow, creeping resentment of Serial for bringing us this story without an ending, or one that leaves us mad.

Then we get to the issue of season two. Given all the above and the fact that Koenig and Co. must be aware of this reality, it’s not really surprising that the big appeal to fund a second season was made today and not, say, at the end of the highly successful first season. (Yes, I guess they have to start on season two before season one is over, perhaps, but I think they have some sense that this may be peak popularity for the show.) Say I’m wrong about all the disappointment you feel coming out of the above and the show somehow pulls a rabbit out of a hat to leave you feeling both satisfied with that season and wanting more of the same. Well then, you are basically guaranteed to be disappointed.

Serial can’t pick another murder mystery, unless it just wants to be the murder mystery show, which is not what the “one story, told week by week” theme seems to aspire to. So already it will have blown perhaps the most successful formula for a weekly installment show. Indeed, they probably can’t pick much of anything that resembles a mystery without just getting typecast. But if they don’t pick some kind of mystery, then the very allure that got us listening will quickly disappear. The comparisons will inevitably ensue of how fascinated we were by season one and how drab the comparative predictability or sedateness of season two is. When combined with what I argue above is the almost guaranteed disappointment of how the first season ended, excitement about this new debut podcast is likely to plummet.

Especially when I am just skeptical that they can find a story as intricately compelling and intriguing as Adnan’s, murder mystery or no. It’s clear they don’t have a second story lined up yet, or even the idea hashed out. Koenig was clearly intrigued enough about this story that it justified the entire idea for a spin-off since it would take more than just one TAL episode to tell it. But given the stories swirling about how unprepared they were for the runaway success the podcast has had and how that, in itself, has impacted the story, I really doubt they’re ready with something that can trump or even come close to the enthrallment of this season. And thus they will go from the greatest formula of success (the unexpectedly great) to the greatest formula for disaster (the hyped disappointment).

Indeed, our expectations determine so much of whether we will like or dislike something. Nothing is ever so devastating to us as something we think will be great and winds up being less than our expectations. This is what makes betrayal perhaps the most awful thing a person can experience – it is not just the trauma of the loss, but the fact that it is so different than our expectation of trust, that makes it so painful. This is why we have sleeper hit movies and big-budget disasters – the former surprise us and exceed non-existent expectations, while the latter are probably better than we think, but fall so short of expectations that they seem almost like betrayals. This is why we have a mystique around underdog stories (arguably Koenig’s best possible hope for recapturing the magic of season one), because they are not just about victory, but victory that no one could have expected.

But the other thing that will be hard to recreate about Serial (and something that, if I’m right about the negative impact of the inevitable ending, they won’t want to try to recreate) is the liveness of it. At the time she’s been making the shows, Koenig does not know if Syed is guilty or innocent. We are living this story and its agonizing twists right alongside her. If she chose another story, say, the rise of the underdog Rutgers University Debate Union and its improbable run to National Finals, the same people who’ve created the Serial subreddit would have looked up the ending and discussed it by the time they’d heard the end of episode one.

So all Koenig has to do is successfully end Serial’s first season with the exoneration and release of Adnan Syed, then find another story that is (a) happening live or so obscure as to be un-Googleable, (b) not a mystery but has the same appeal of a mystery, (c) just as compelling, twisty, and uncertain as Syed’s story, and (d) has a resolution that is more satisfying than any alternative to Syed’s exoneration/release would be.

I don’t envy her this. Though I do envy her success as a storyteller and wish her the best, despite my predictions of Serial’s downfall in our hearts. I certainly don’t think she or her staff can be blamed for us eventually growing to dislike Serial, if I’m right about that. She found an amazing story and is telling it really well and deserves all this following. I just feel like I have to warn her that we’re all likely to turn on her by this time next year. But make no mistake, I’ll be listening every Thursday in the hopes that I’m wrong.


*I also note that, which I am footnoting so as not to further derail the narrative of the main point of this post, she was a regular reader of this blog and probably still is and I think about 45% chance I have an e-mail in the next week either protesting this characterization or, possibly, saying she happened to move to Baton Rouge eight months ago and we could reprise our coffee. To which I guess I will pre-emptively say: I don’t even know anymore. I remain quite grateful for the semblance of resolution and repair that was done in the brief series of meetings that fall, but the palpable danger and alarm I feel about that individual is still literally breathtaking. And whether that is mostly of her construction or mine is part of what makes the idea of mysteries and sociopaths so dramatically interesting in the first place. After all, when I saw the movie Gone Girl earlier this fall, I was torn between the similar reactions of “I’d find that totally farcical if I hadn’t known PLB” and “there are more of them out there!” And honestly, Gone Girl is the same runaway success that Serial is for largely using the same formula, including a possibly wrongfully accused murderer and a wanton sociopath who is very convincing. But we get to know what happens in the end, mostly.

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You’ll Never Believe How Bad Internet Headlines Have Become!

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

This is so shocking!  Just look at that face!

This is so shocking! Just look at that face!

Google “I didn’t write the headline“. Make sure you use the quotations. Or I’ll do it for you.

30,200 hits for disavowal of the headline content, almost entirely by the actual authors of the post or article that was being written. Removing the conjunction in the statement and replacing it with whole words tacks on an additional 9,240 hits.

Removing the quotations, of course, gets you like 26.4 million hits, but searches without quotations are pretty irrelevant. However, the top hit is an article in the Washington Examiner, which Wikipedia tells me is some sort of wonky weekly magazine, which boldly proclaims “Let’s stop arguing with headlines that the writer didn’t write“.

This fact alone is not new to or unique to the world of the Internet. I used to write a weekly column for the Seaside Signal when it was still an independent paper and occasionally had some serious frustrations with my primary editor’s (Shelby Case) taste in headlines for me. One that still stands out in my mind was one of my early columns about children being picky eaters (highly autobiographical, of course) which he titled Can’t Get Johnny to Eat? Maybe This Kid Can Explain. In retrospect, I can only imagine that he need to fill some column inches, since the high point-size of the font made the headline occupy nearly as much space as the entire article. But it was just so cumbersome. In further retrospect, though, I guess it had roughly the shape of the current series of Buzzfeed articles traversing the web.

And, frankly, I was probably no less guilty during the brief time I was in the position to write headlines as an editor of a paper, that being the Opinion section of the Advocate, which is Albuquerque Academy’s monthly fishwrap. (Apparently they have a Facebook page.) I definitely titled my screed on Veteran’s Day US Honors Violence and, more infamously, warped Ryan Duryea’s piece on kids being encouraged to show more emotion into Six-Year-Olds Should Kiss. So I am perhaps among the last person who should be calling out this phenomenon, realistically.

That said, someone’s got to do it. We are reaching Peak Absurd Headlines in this Internet, people. Not only does my Facebook feed clutter almost endlessly with paid advertising for these kinds of sites hoping to “go viral” like it’s “going to get milk at the store” but dozens of friends will daily post something that says, roughly, “I promise the content is good even though the headline is horrendous.” And I think it’s probably reasonable to blame Facebook, a site that I generally think has offered a lot of good things to our lives, for this trend.

See, the Internet used to be a lot more free-rangey. Now, Facebook has kind of made the Internet into one giant scrolling newspaper that we all subscribe to, though, granted, in our own individual local spheres. For users, which are increasingly everyone, Facebook is the primary stop on the Internet as a portal to everything else they’re going to read and see, at least other than their e-mail Inbox. But in the golden age of blogging and the 1.0 years of the web, people would wander more, using search engines and going from link to link and reading a few dedicated people in their sphere who weren’t mostly regurgitating content that was spewed by large conglomerate clearing-houses of information. Like everything in the last fifty years in America, the recent Internet has been a process of centralizing and consolidating power, influence, and wealth into the hands of a few.

And one of the best tools for that is these ridiculous headlines. Unlike even the attention-grabby headlines of Case c. 1991 or Clayton c. 1996, these headlines almost universally predict your emotional reaction. And I think this works for two reasons: 1. We want things to excite our emotions and 2. If we are resentful of the headline, we take an oppositional view of the emotional reaction and thus want to prove it wrong. Either of these reactions, of course, elicit the desired outcome, which is a click.

I’m not by any stretch the first person to observe this phenomenon of a “click-bait headline”, which itself clocks in at 171,000 Google hits with the quotation marks (!). But awareness is only the start. The problem is that we have to go back to promoting and desiring actually good content, not just empty traffic and empty content.

Buzzfeed is like fast food. It’s well advertised with colorful relatable stuff, it’s fast, and it’s everywhere. But longer works and more thoughtful or creative content is like a thoroughly-prepared locally-sourced well-balanced meal. It’s nutritious but it takes a while. It’s not flashy, but you feel a lot better for ingesting it. And similarly, the goals of the fast food producer are just to get money to generate more fast food to get more money in an upward spiral. Whereas the goals of a thoughtful cook are to present a good experience for those they are preparing the meal for. Virality used to be a reflection of some really intriguing content, not an end to itself.

In the days of blogging and long e-mails, content was what got people excited. Sharing was something that people did with thought and care behind it, not as an auto-click button that connected them to one of 3-5 pre-approved platforms for contacting their friends automatically. And when it’s the content that matters, headlines are just window-dressing. Somehow, even within the narrow timeframe of the Internet, the sites that have “won the web” have narrowed our attention spans and attention to detail to the point where the headline becomes most of what matters.

Unlike many things I make recommendations about in my preachier posts, this is something you probably have the wherewithal and access to do something about directly. After all, we are all citizens of the Internet and spend a bit of each day clicking, perusing, and maybe even (well definitely, if you’ve gotten this far) reading. Go back to sharing the content, or even to blogging and e-mailing! Or at the very least, block some of the most obnoxious click-baiters from your Facebook feed.

I won’t do it again, promise.

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Decayed Decade

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Metablogging, Telling Stories, The Long Tunnel, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , , , , ,

I almost called this post “The Full View of History”. But of course ten years is hardly a full view.

A little over a decade ago, I wrote this on my blog at the time:

“Yesterday, Em & I were talking about when I got new tires for the Kia & figured it had been roughly 6-8 months ago. I guess I could’ve looked at the receipt, but instead I Googled my own site for my discussion of it at the time… & discovered it was over 17 months ago, in January 2003. Though Sears, who wants to sell me tires, says my old ones are still good for another couple months (that sentence was for you, Dad). Point is that this page, among its many other virtues, helps keep me in check & orders my perception of the strange beast that is time. So much of me wishes that I had kept something like this my whole life, even though I was once so embarrassed by entries in a diary I kept (in 2nd grade, in DC) that I covertly snuck it into a trash can & it’s now rotting in an Oregon landfill. The regret I feel for that action fuels every word I write on this site. Everyone’s life is hopelessly embarrassing, if one chooses to think of oneself as a perfect front. If one realizes that humans are a study in The Attempt, & that every fulfillment is an astounding victory, it gets a lot easier to handle the apparent loss of privacy that throwing one’s doors open to the world entails. I think my job has helped me better understand how flawed we all are & how every struggle is a worthy one as well. Patience is everything. Thanks for the patience to meander through this ramble with me. It’s all strung together in my mind, & the wave of its relief is sufficient to mitigate anything I wish I hadn’t written.”
-21 June 2004

I don’t bring this up to wallow, as I often have on this blog, about the marriage that was taken from me. Though if I were going to, it would be interesting to note that the justification for same is cooked right into that same post. Rather, I bring it up to explore the issue of blogging itself as I often do, and how having a life introspectively examined over so many years comes back to reflect upon and haunt that life itself.

I ran across this post today while looking for evidence that I was at the Counting Crows show in Saratoga, California on 29 June 2004. That seemed like about the right time and area for Fish’s and my summer concert in wine country that we attended. I was curious about this show in particular because Counting Crows has the full show in their archive and it would be kind of cool to have a recording of a show that one went to. Of course, we didn’t go to the show then. We went to the one 5 days later at Konocti Harbor. Which is a venue whose name I’ve remembered for the same reason most people who meet me once remember my name (it’s distinctive), but I was simultaneously impressed that I got within a week of the actual show and annoyed that I still hadn’t remembered it perfectly. (For what it’s worth, Saratoga isn’t in wine country despite the venue being the Mountain Winery. It’s apparently a suburb of San Jose.)

I have a tendency to pride myself on my memory, but I also have the humility to recognize that a lot of it is aided and abetted by deliberately keeping careful notes and records on living since the 21st century began. Notes made no less useful by their publicity, nor by the ability to quickly search through them for names, dates, and times. Of course, after finding the desired information that I was not, in fact, in Saratoga on the 29th of June (I had to work that day), I got lost for a few months in the summer of 2004, more than ten years ago, the world of the Big Blue House during a summer I worked at Seneca and apparently about two-thirds of my friends came to visit and stay at one point or another. It was a summer of kickball, of movies at the Grand Lake (from which we were easy walking distance), of holding the quiet room door and writing incident reports at work, of Emily slaving away torturedly at PIRG, of concerts and video games and Pandora the cat.

There are a lot of things in life that make one feel like a different person than the person they were in the past. I think the prevalence of movies, TV shows, audio programs, and just stories all contribute to a dissociative feeling that we carry about life. It’s so much easier to process life as something that happened to someone else, someone perhaps that one can empathize with very deeply, but someone who one read about or watched on the screen rather than occupied the bones and brain of every day. It’s not just how much dumber about the intervening years Past Self was than Present Self, though that doesn’t help any. It’s the fade of time, the draining of the emotional significance of the daily hopes and fears. This is a natural process and one to be grateful for as it’s pretty much the only reason we can even think about starting to heal from trauma. But it’s also something like what I’d imagine an objective view of life will someday look like, maybe just after death, when we perhaps get to view the video tape of our life without feeling so robustly biased toward the person in the first-person perspective.

But I was perhaps most surprised to realize in this little journey through that summer how much of my narrative about that period of time, the narrative I carry with me today, was almost verbatim in the text of that series of blog pages. I was fully aware, for example, how much kickball was a seemingly necessary outlet for a competitive spirit left suddenly useless after the sudden end of 9 years of debate and even longer playing pickup basketball and other sports. I remembered the real joy of a “mandatory fun” day for Seneca staff that I was dreading and turned out to be incredible fun, just what I needed at a time when my energy for that job was seriously flagging. I could recognize all the dramatic peaks and valleys of that job, a job that I was truly never great at for having picked something diametric to my comfort zone. As dissociated and distinct as I felt from some of the precise experiences for the passage of time, I could more deeply see myself and my reflections on the time right there in plain white-on-green text. Which I recognized not just as the narrative of my life, but as my life itself.

Now there’s clearly a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here. Does the text look like the memory because it accurately captured it? Or did it in fact help form the memory by pasting the narrative onto the events? In other words, am I who I remember myself being because it’s accurate or because I codified those memories in their immediate formation?

I’ve listened to most of the This American Life shows over the course of this last decade, working my way slowly back and skipping only a handful of subjects that I find uninteresting (though years of listening to Terry Gross interviews should tell me not to skip any shows, since those I think I won’t like may end up being my favorites). So I’m in 2003 right now and just listened yesterday to this act, in episode 243, wherein a woman resolves to scrapbook every day of her young daughter’s life. There was so much of myself I could recognize in her passionate commitment to the cause, but the breaking-point crisis is reached when she realizes that she is ignoring her daughter’s desire to play with her or be read to by her in order to complete the scrapbook entry for that day. She doesn’t miss the irony and soon we hear her husband saying how he wishes she would just live in the moment. And herein I could certainly recognize the hindrance I felt in the daily obligation that ultimately convinced me to scrap (pun intended) Introspection back in 2007, in favor of this longer and, generally, less obsessive format.

It’s a dilemma I’ve seen echoed in a lot of articles people are writing these days about parenting. How so many parents are obsessive photographers and videographers of their children’s lives. How they themselves are almost never “in the picture”, figuratively and literally, preferring to chronicle a life in intense detail that they, increasingly, are not living. The unexamined life is not worth living, but the overly examined life is perhaps not lived at all.

This tension is doubly difficult for one who fancies themselves a story-teller, one for whom the entire point of existence itself is largely in crafting narrative, forming a script that can be of use to oneself and, more vitally, others. The cause then is right there in the effect and round and round they go. If life is fundamentally about the ability to tell its own story and build on that to stories about other lives, stories that are useful or amusing or expressive of the value and experience of life itself, then who can tell the border between life and narrative thereon at all? It is not only painted with the same brush, but the brush and the painting themselves are one.

Of course, we don’t need a blog to do this. Research done into the nature of memory increasingly finds it most reliable when there is a cogent story to go with it and terribly spotty when the events are either unremarkable or don’t conform to the wider arc. As a species, we love the narrative form and are constantly trying to wedge the facts of our lives into a story that we want to hear about ourselves. The longer the time that passes, the more we believe the story even if it contravenes what really took place. This theme appears in all kinds of media, but increasingly is playing out with unpredictable and fascinating results in the new podcast Serial which, speaking of This American Life, seems to be taking a certain swath of the country by storm.

So if we are destined to tell a story about our lives anyway as the immediacy of time fades, doesn’t it help to have documentation from time when these memories were the freshest? When they were new? If only to build slightly more accurate and probably much better stories about the past? After all, Fish’s toast at Jake’s wedding was surely all the better for actually having the text of the famous 80,000! e-mail to read. As mine was improved for the realization that Fish never wrote a top ten attributes list of what he was seeking in a partner and thus I could not compare his bride against it and had to take the speech in a different direction entirely.

I recently told Alex about how much I miss acting from my old days, something that seems truly several lifetimes ago now, singing the life of orphaned loneliness into Oliver Twist on stage at the Coaster Theatre in Cannon Beach. And we agreed that I should find some outlet for something along those lines, now that I’m done with debate coaching (for at least a while, in any case), now that competitive speaking is behind me. That maybe everything’s been geared as much for live oral storytelling as much as words on the page. And thus I’ll be telling a story on stage a week from tomorrow, at an event called (I can’t really make this up) Bring Your Own Story, sponsored by the local NPR station. I’ve long admired shows like The Moth (just how many NPR shows can I name-drop in this post anyway?), long aspired to the kind of showmanship that David Sedaris (though I hate his writing, mostly) puts into delivering stories on a stage.

Maybe it will go well. Maybe it will flop. In either case, like most of life, it will be a memory. Which itself will make a good story, someday. Ten years from now, perhaps.

Storey Clayton, at the Big Blue House, summer 2004.

Storey Clayton, at the Big Blue House, summer 2004.

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Fear in the Box

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

Artist's rendering of the typical American voter exercising the franchise.

Artist’s rendering of the typical American voter exercising the franchise.

Maybe election day is just a little too soon after Halloween.

We’ve discussed American fear, its prevalence and perniciousness, quite recently. We are afraid of terrorists, even though what they are supposed to wield as a most scary object is, well, fear. We are afraid of a disease that has killed fewer Americans than lightning. We are afraid of our own shadow, ourselves, our neighbors, our government, our absence of government, pretty much anything that humans can biologically generate cortisone in response to and a goodly number of things they can’t. And we react to this fear by lashing out, spreading the fear, voting for people to sequester the diseased, strip rights from everybody, kill the foreign others who we don’t understand and claim to be crazy. Human reactions to fear are responsible for just about all the destruction in human history and most of the worst things we’ve ever done can be explained by fear and pretty much fear alone.

But perhaps nowhere is fear more pervasive in the American culture than in the ballot box. Every couple of years, a march of recently scared voters trudge off to their local community polling center to cram the little slitted box just full of fear, loathing, and terror. Not just by voting for people who will perpetrate such ills on the rest of the planet, though there’s plenty of that. But primarily by casting votes motivated primarily by their own fear.

Despite your gut reaction or your political leanings, no one group, party, or candidate has a monopoly on this perpetration of fear. Most all advertising these days is negative, making voters terrified to vote for someone and instead allowing them to cast votes only against evil worst-case scenarios. Political ads rarely promise anything these days, certainly not even any improvements, opting instead for telling you how horrible things will get if the other option is elected. And if you don’t see the election as having only one other option, your friends and cohorts will berate you with the rhetoric of fear that voting is not some idealistic exercise in making a choice, but instead merely damage control in picking the second worst person imaginable so that the worst person imaginable stays out of office.

And then even more people will cite how your ancestors fought and killed the Vietnamese so that you could exercise this right to pick the second-most-evil person ever and if you fail to exercise such rights, you might as well be napalming those children for nothing. Because how could it possibly seem like picking between two parties completely beholden to corporate interests who donate more money to each party than you will ever earn in your life is not some sacred bond of trust, some exalted and wonderful act? We have been stuffed so full of vainglorious gusto for the act of voting that we’ve failed to notice how much of a tired act of resigned fear it has become.

I just moved to Louisiana, which is the main reason I’m not voting, since I completed my voter registration a few days after the deadline (Louisiana makes you wait a month, I guess to think about what you’ve done, which is fun because there is no waiting period in the state to buy a firearm… talk about putting fear into voting!). In Louisiana, like much of the nation, all of the Republican ads are about how Mary Landrieu, the incumbent Senator, is closely tied to President Obama. You should fear Obama and what he’s doing to America! Which, near as I can tell, mostly consists of legislation that was passed in 2010 (Obamacare).

Meanwhile, Democratic campaigners and rhetoric offer fear of the Republicans controlling the Senate! There will be – get this – gridlock in Washington! Heavens to betsy, the horror. And then the specter rises of things like Supreme Court appointments, as though a Supreme Court in America would ever repeal Roe v. Wade. Or as though nine justices appointed by Elizabeth Warren would overturn Citizens United. People like to talk a lot about how the Supreme Court is going to do scary conservative things, but fail to explain how the Supreme Courts of several notoriously conservative red states have struck down laws banning same-sex marriage.

Like the fear of ebola, the fear of voting for the other party or – worse! – a third party – is empty words. It seems to motivate people consistently as people begrudgingly tromp off to the polls and keep sending Democrats and Republicans back into places where they enjoy less popularity than Ford Pintos, though, admittedly, roughly the same propensity for causing explosions.

In trying to sum up my thoughts on this Election Day in the face of a torrential downpour of voting enthusiasm from my Facebook feed, heavily populated with first- and second-time voters in college or freshly out, I posted this:

“Most Americans (at least, among those who vote at all) vote *against* people in elections, not for people. I think that may have never been more true than in 2014. It’s easy to see why this process would become disheartening and unrewarding. Basically all of our electoral and societal norms have driven us to this point, especially advertising and a culture of fear that pervades everyone’s public life.

If you’re going to vote this year, try voting FOR someone you really believe in. If you can’t find that person, write them in. After all, it’s not supposed to be a country of the people, by the people, against the people.”

And maybe I should have just reposted that simpler, slightly more positive view on all this fear and opposition instead of going into detail as I have in this post. After all, 26 people “liked” that post and no one even wrote some snarky counter about how the Green Party and the Libertarians and everyone you could write in are all ISIS agents in disguise.

But I am continually baffled, every day, by how much palpable dripping fear is filling this country. And my best explanation harkens back to another previous examination of fear, this being one about institutions and individuals feeling they have more to lose from the future than they do to gain.

I suppose that this nation, quickly slipping from its brief stand atop the pedestal of human political affairs, is in such a fear mode because we feel that the future is spelling our doom. Despite the mandated rhetoric from all the politicians about America being the best country anyone will ever be able to imagine forever, we all seem to know that we’re not going to be the latest and greatest and biggest and baddest forever. That other nations have surpassed us in quality of life, in economic standing, in education, and nearly in power. And yes, in democratic openness as well. Voter turnout below 50% is not a sign of an engaged and thriving model democracy. And that shortfall isn’t because young millennials want to watch the world burn and would rather play video games than exercise their God-given rights. It’s because of what I posted in the quote above – it’s exhausting to feel like something that should be special and vital and important is simply an exercise in voicing support for the second-worst person in every position.

Frankly, it’s exhausting to go through life with this much fear. Fear of decline, fear of dropping standards as a society and as people within it. Fear of the other party, the people who will vote for them or vote for no one or vote for the third party and thus screw things up for your perspective. Fear of apathy, of ebola, of ISIS, of Fox News, of MSNBC.

There were people who had few choices besides fear. They lived in something roughly akin to the so-called state of nature. They ran from saber-toothed tigers and ice floes and had to subsist on giant mammoths with tusks the size of people or they would die. It was cold and they were hungry and they huddled in caves against the dark of the unknown.

These people had a reasonable right to live in fear, though they confronted it remarkably well or we wouldn’t be here.

So how is that fear governs most of our key decisions when we have, for the most part, a relatively infinite supply of food, clothing, shelter, comfort, distractions, and fulfillment? Why do we live each day like we’re wrestling mammoths and tigers and the Ice Age incarnate?

Why do we vote like that?

I would post my public ballot here as I’ve done in the past, but like I said, Louisiana law kept me out of the vote. You can look at the 2012 and 2008 editions if you want to get a sense of how I would be, more or less, casting my votes here today.

If you’re going to vote, do so fearlessly. And if you don’t feel like voting, do that fearlessly too. Yes, it’s a right. A defining characteristic of a right is the option to choose not to exercise it. And that choice beats the pants off of voting out of fear.

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The Absurd Costume Files

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

It’s Halloween! Happy Halloween, everybody. This has long been my favorite holiday and one of the only ones that I enjoy which doesn’t feel tinged with something problematic (e.g. the origin story of Thanksgiving and its accompanying genocide mucking up a conceptually very nice holiday). I mean, realistically, that’s probably not even true, since a lot of people get into some pretty gory/overly dark stuff on Halloween and while I appreciate spookiness, the place a lot of people take Halloween is pretty bad. Like everything, I suppose. I think the only person I’ve ever encountered who has anything like the deep abiding love I feel for Halloween and the October season generally is Ray Bradbury, and I’ve only really encountered his testimony of same on the written page. Others come close, though.

It would take a long time and be a mite dull to list all the things I love about Halloween, plus I think I’ve already made the attempt a few times. See also that it’s the only holiday I regularly celebrate through theme-changes on both this blog and the last one. The feel of the mood, the pumpkins and ghosts, the prominence of themes around the supernatural, the spiritual, the haunted, the past, the mysterious. The candy. And, yes, the costumes.

When I was in third grade, I had the kind of exuberant fervor for life that I think I’ve sometimes (even often) manifested since, but definitely took a big hit in 1990 (and 1997, and 2010, and 2013, and yeah). But in that year, I was full of this zest and excitement, pretty much constantly. To call it the “last good year” would be melodramatic and wholly inaccurate, but I think in many ways it was the last unfettered year. I guess many people would call it the last year of my “innocence,” whatever that means – innocence is a concept that generally troubles me, but there is something to the notion that during that year, I still had an unbridled optimism for the future and for the challenges and joys of every day that was simply never constant again, even in phases where things in my life were very, very good.

A lot happened that year. We had moved to Oregon, I made a ton of new friends, I was in the Dickens Play, I had a fantastic teacher (Mrs. Mary Kerwin) who challenged and inspired me, I discovered sports, I was elected class President (after suggesting that we have an election as a civic education exercise), and I was just happy. I also, which may be endemic to third graders, just didn’t care what other people thought of me. I mean, I liked having friends and wanted to get along with people, but I was totally impervious to possible negative opinions or judgments of peers. Which is an attribute I have had more of than most people throughout my life, but was way more unfettered then than since.

Which may explain why, when I woke up early before school on March 17, 1989 and decided to craft myself a leprechaun costume made entirely of dark green construction paper and Scotch tape, there was no voice in the back of my head that contradicted with warnings that this project might not go so well. I believe I had been working on it for about 90 minutes when one of my parents awoke and blearily observed that I was making quite a bit of clutter. I definitely remember getting a little frustrated at one point shortly before school that the costume hadn’t really come together as what I was hoping, that it mostly just looked like a young boy wearing a whole mess of misshapen green construction paper. And the ensuing conversation with my father where he gently suggested that most people don’t even dress up for St. Patrick’s Day and maybe it would just be a better idea to put on a green shirt instead. To their immense credit, however, neither of my parents pressed the issue very far and both allowed me to board the bus as Green Construction Paper Monster.

No one had the slightest clue what I was trying to be, resemble, or achieve. There were definitely people who could tell that all the green must have something to do with the date, though I was also wearing a green shirt underneath, so the effort must have seemed superfluous at the very best. There are, mercifully (or perhaps tragically, depending on one’s appetite for schadenfreude) no pictures of this outfit that were ever taken, but I’m sure your imagination can suffice at this point. If not, picture a very small third grader with a bowl cut walking into a small factory producing green construction paper and Scotch tape. Then, a bomb goes off. The remaining exploded tatters of each attach themselves to all parts of the boy, hair included (I think I was going for some sort of hat), in random fashion. The boy boards the school bus.

Most reactions ranged from quizzical to speechless to an overt series of concerned questions. I was generally considered mentally stable and coming from a family that cared for me, both of which attributes came under almost immediate scrutiny upon my arrival in Mrs. Kerwin’s third grade classroom. I was offered numerous opportunities to away to the bathroom to change, remove tape, or at least perhaps “adjust” in some small way the monument to dead construction paper that I was ensconced in. Bits of poorly taped paper kept coming off at random times and, rather than see this as a blessing or even a less-than-subtle hint from the universe, I would obstinately re-tape, sometimes rummaging in my desk for my own personal roll before jamming ever more clear sticky material on the tortured green mess and adhering it to my shirt, pants, shoes, or hair.

Then we went to recess. And at recess, it rained.

It should herein be noted before we proceed that this school was in Gearhart, Oregon, which is in the middle of Clatsop County, which is the extreme northwestern-most county in the state. Most of coastal Oregon is absurdly soggy, but Clatsop County actually juts out into the Pacific Ocean where it meets the gargantuan mouth of the Columbia River, essentially trapping all the moisture from the both bodies as storms sweep in off the sea. It rained, no exaggeration, about 300 days a year in that area when I lived there, though rarely all day or torrentially. The sky was perpetually gray, the ground that was not sand was eternally muddy. Watch national weather maps for the next month and you will see that most every day, that little upper-left corner of Oregon has a patch of green on it, even when the rest of the country is bone-dry. It rained all the time. A day when it didn’t rain at all was notable.

And somehow the interaction of the inevitable rain and my paper costume had not occurred to me in advance, any more than I predicted that not everyone at school would immediately gasp “Oh, you’re a leprechaun!” upon seeing my handiwork.

It was even worse than you’re imagining. You might not be imagining my complete stubbornness, my total unwillingness to accept the obvious defeat that my drenched and ruined costume, soggy crumbling paper literally coming off in wet clumps on the playground was, in fact, drenched and/or ruined. I wildly told my friends that I would dig up some green construction paper when we came in for some “repairs.” I think it was almost the end of recess, when the perpetual heavy drizzle became a hard rain and we had to go in early, that I realized the costume (such as it was) was beyond salvaging and broke down crying.

You might think that this experience would traumatize me, would make me unwilling to dress up in future, much less to design homemade costumes. But any residual sting from this incident (which of course only grew funnier and more heartening over the years) was quickly overridden by my unflappable love of Halloween. There were homemade costumes to come through the rest of my youth, of ghosts and elephants and pirates. At Seneca Center the one Halloween I had to work, I made an impromptu fish costume with a blue net laundry bag that was nearly as laughably impressionistic and ridiculous as the third-grade leprechaun, with me having to explain to the kids how to interpret what I’d tried to do hurriedly before a 16-hour Sunday shift. When I took my love of Halloween to my office at Glide, transforming it with string lights and dimly lit pumpkins every October, I famously came to work in this home-crafted elephant costume:

Arthur "Woody" Schulze and I, dressed, respectively, as me and an elephant.

Arthur “Woody” Schulze and I, dressed, respectively, as me and an elephant.

Yes, the kindergarten teacher dressed up as … me. Which was almost as absurd as my ridiculously homemade but kinda lovable elephant.

The elephant was a big hit and I followed it up the next year with a gecko:

The gecko, hard at work.

The gecko, hard at work.

And while I really loved being a big green thing that, y’know, looked like something, a lot of the homemade charm of the elephant was missing in this online-bought and highly manufactured (though detailed) costume. There were a lot of assumptions that I was trying to be the GEICO Gecko, especially from the people on the street which, while I like the GEICO Gecko as much as I like any corporate shill… is still a corporate shill. So that was a lot of fun, but kind of a flop, even though I revived that for the UPenn tournament I helped tab in 2010.

Which brings us all the way to this year, 2014. And for once, I was not the subject of the absurd costume, but rather my school-teaching girlfriend, Alex, who had the opportunity not only to dress up at work for (the day before) Halloween, but to do so in an environment where hundreds of kids would see her and where her primary task for the day was manning the Fall Fair, a whole day of work basically just celebrating the holiday. So we had to have a great costume.

I think we did:

Alex's costume from yesterday, from the back.  It's a whale shark!

Alex’s costume from yesterday, from the back. It’s a whale shark!

Profile view!

Profile view!

I asked Alex what she’d most like to be and she said a whale shark and we just kind of ran with it. We bought towels and cut them up, we bought googly-eye attachments and an industrial stapler (dubbed, literally, as the Epic Stapler) and white duct tape for the dots that didn’t work as the dots themselves as originally planned but did a great job at adhering paper dots to the back. You may not be familiar with the whale shark, but I was a big fan when I first went to the Georgia Aquarium and Alex has been completely obsessed since we went this summer.

The costume was not nearly as awesome as I think we’d both been envisioning at first – we had trouble with the idea of where to put the head, considering have it overhang Alex’s physical head, having it kind of around her back (as we chose), or even having Alex’s head popping out of the whale shark’s mouth, as most regular shark costumes choose. But whale sharks are not dangerous to people and subsist on krill, so we thought that would kind of send the wrong message and ruin the aesthetic of whale sharks’ mouths. The tail was perhaps the most problematic, folding back in on Alex’s legs rather than bowing out away from them. Of course, we worked on the costume the night before it was necessary, with me making dots from 4-6 in the morning when I awoke early to complete them and we’d nearly given up. So we didn’t really have time for adjustments in the morning dress rehearsal and just had to go with it.

The costume wound up being really uncomfortable and a little indiscernible (even with a smaller whale shark prop, many kids were confused), so Alex actually ditched the giant piece early in the day in favor of the same elephant hat and gray adornment I took to Glide years ago (we’d prepared a backup for the heat, just in case). But I’m not totally giving up on old sharky here. With a year to plan and tweak the tail and some other small elements, the whale shark may yet swim again.

Until then, at least the real ones are in Atlanta, swimming about. With no green construction paper to get wet in the tank with them:

Whale shark in the Georgia Aquarium, reflected in the top of its tank to show the spots.

Whale shark in the Georgia Aquarium, reflected in the top of its tank to show the spots.

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