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

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Misdirection

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

An average American, unable to determine whether ebola or ISIS will kill them first.

An average American, unable to determine whether ebola or ISIS will kill them first.

All anyone in the media can talk about anymore is ebola. Unless it’s ISIS. Or maybe, on slow days for ISIS and ebola, pretty white women going missing from college campuses. Never mind that far more people die from frat parties than any or all of these things combined, though that only makes news at Rutgers. Never mind the guns and the vehicle crashes and the medical errors and all the other dangerous things in our society. I’ve talked about this before about ebola and before that about ISIS. These things aren’t going to kill you. They’re not. Stop.

But everyone seems to continue to go on the media, be it on TV or online or in the newspapers, whatever those are anymore, and seriously discuss the idea of shutting down our society (or at the very least our bowling alleys) over the fear of a disease. I mean, I guess I thought Outbreak was a pretty good movie too, when it came out, when I was 15. I saw it on a plane to Russia. It was a pretty freaky context, I guess, and I definitely covered my mouth for a few minutes after the movie ended and looked askance to see if anyone sitting among us was actually, in fact, a rabid monkey escaped from a lab. None were. I was fine. We landed in Moscow. I moved on with one of the more interesting parts of my life.

You are not living in Outbreak. Step away from the television. Your life is not that exciting. The world is not about to end. Really. Promise.

Nor are irrational crazy ISIS commandos about to storm your farm or apartment building or place of business. Unless you possibly count a trick-or-treating teenager with a really sick sense of humor. Over-under on number of trick-or-treating teens brave/stupid/uncaring-about-spending-the-next-20-years-in-Gitmo enough to try an ISIS commando costume on their rounds in America: 3.

Just not gonna happen. Now, maybe, maybe, if you’re in the military and dispatched to a nation where ebola and/or ISIS are active, these things might impact you. Or if you voluntarily go to deal with one or the other. They may then have sufficient impact on your life that you can worry about these things. But you will not be in New York or New Jersey or Maine or anywhere else whose Governor has deigned to have a publicly spouted an analyzed opinion on these matters. You will be in, y’know, Liberia. Or Syria.

And I really really really don’t want my cavalier and frustrated attitude about American fear to be confused with American exceptionalism or a lack of concern for the people of Africa and/or the Middle East. These people matter and their lives matter, arguably more than and certainly as much as American lives. I care that ISIS, product of American foreign policy, is killing people in the Middle East. I care that ebola is ravaging Liberia and Sierra Leone. These things matter and should be discussed, though I really don’t think the American military is the answer and probably, given the histrionic nature of our nation, its media, and its leaders, American intervention of any kind is the answer. I am hard-pressed to think of an international crisis that we improved or even didn’t make worse in the last fifty years, maybe longer. Probably not American problems to put on our back and try to “solve” like we “solved” Iraq or Afghanistan or Latin American revolutions or Vietnam or malaria.

So the question becomes why (WHY) do Americans insist on being so doggone afraid of everything that doesn’t hurt them? While simultaneously being nonchalant about things that are really doing substantial damage like, say, cars. Or diabetes, the treatment of which now has whole two-aisle sections in your average neighborhood pharmacy because it is so rampant in our nation. (Though, admittedly, not directly contagious, I guess.) Or corporations that are trying to eliminate the practices of safety regulations and employment from their business models, with great success and the aid of Congress. Are we just beholden to whatever the media will give us?

And then comes the eternal conundrum which is that this, like many of the linked posts above, is basically just another ebola/ISIS post, albeit a frustrated one, so I am no better than the rest of the media in spitting out the same regurgitated nonsense that we are fed by our rather ruthless corporate-profit-fueled bird overlords. That every time I bring up one of these topics, if only to complain or vent about how frequently it’s discussed I am, in fact, merely discussing it myself and thus improving its Consciousness Rank for the rest of this terrified country. Such that it becomes almost impossible to even talk about the problems without being a part of them, which insidiously feels like it was somehow built in to the design as much as Obama announcing a new war on September 10th.

But seriously, why?

Did we just not go on enough roller coasters as children? Do we crave the fake drama and illusion of danger? Are we so complacent and in such a post-danger malaise that we feel a human need to be on the brink of losing our link to survival? Is this somehow ingrained in our animal nature that we lack such fight-or-flight experiences so as we generate a need to create them out of thin air? This last one seems really unlikely given the very real danger posed by tobacco and alcohol, or if you prefer violent and immediate death, cars and guns. But I guess we might believe our own rhetoric sufficiently so as to think that we’re so immune to danger that a sweeping danger that brings everyone down must be around the corner…? Maybe?

Or is just a fundamental profound unhappiness with our society and the basic nature of existence herein? America is notorious for being perhaps the unhappiest society of all-time, triply so when one contextualizes the material wealth and comfort enjoyed by all but the poorest in the society relative to the rest of the world and most of human history. And it’s a well-known trope that the end of the world and apocalyptic scenarios start looking appealing, exciting, even galvanizing to the chronically depressed, to those without hope. It’s a giant reset button, the chance to change your place in society or just outlive everyone else, or at least feel like your choices and decisions matter in a fundamental way that trips to the unemployment office or a dead-end job that keep you out of there don’t seem to have. That going down in a hemorrhagic fever while fighting off terrorists seems far more glorious an end than drowning in debt or having your used car break down and being unable to pay the repair bill.

Is that it? Are we just so dissatisfied that we need a dramatic and crazy broom to sweep away all our ennui?

Or are we being deliberately manipulated and misdirected? Do the powers that be, be they governments or shady entities behind the governments, or the corporations hiding in plain sight, just want us to be constantly afraid and hand-wringing and overwrought so that we can’t worry about anything else? So we don’t bring up the problems with the corporate state as it’s manifest, the problems with poverty or endless war, the things that actually pose a danger to our health and well-being? Surely the people who have manufactured the need for deodorant and toothpaste and Q-tips and dandruff shampoo (to say nothing of anorexia and bulimia!) are capable of manufacturing a little light fear to keep everyone sufficiently distracted and grease the profitable wheels of the fear industry, no?

Do we turn on the ebola coverage and the ISIS coverage because we want to feel the rush of fear and anger and go crazy and think that this might be the apocalypse? Or do we turn on whatever the coverage is and react accordingly? How culpable is the average viewer for what happens? Is the media responding to the highest bidder or the lowest denominator? Or just generating a narrative that they find exciting and then trying hard to out-outrage and out-sensationalize each other? Are we just enough of a movie culture that we all get sad if life doesn’t feel like a crisis movie, unfolding minute by minute? Or did movies and the media program us to be this way? If so, deliberately, or did it just kinda happen?

There is a contagious disease loose in our society, making us all rather sick. It’s not just fear, but totally baseless irrational fear. You could argue that we take a good look at the rates of cancer and obesity and preventable death and poverty in our nation and should get legitimately afraid, maybe even more afraid than the average American Governor now appears to be of ebola. But it’s the misdirection of these energies that is so problematic. Clearly we are capable of getting a lot done in a short period of time if we’re afraid enough. Especially if “getting a lot done” involves either killing foreign nationals or giving up civil liberties (or both!) – then we’re really top-notch. So why can’t we get comparably motivated to make an actually safer society, not just one that stops feeling paranoid about outside threats that have combined to kill 3 Americans all year?

Actually, strike that. I’d be excited about an energized movement to just stop us from being so afraid of things that aren’t a threat. That would suffice for now. We don’t need fear as a tool so long as it stops being such a self-inflicted weapon.

In the meantime, best hunker down this Halloween and not answer the door. No, not because an ISIS commando with ebola will show up. But because an American child who isn’t getting a decent education, is growing up in poverty, and is likely to be a victim of violence might be there. You know, something actually scary.

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Return of the Emu

Categories: A Day in the Life, Blue Pyramid News, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , , ,

The Mep Report is back.

An emu, the official mascot of The Mep Report.  The podcast relaunched this week after over 3 years without an episode.

An emu, the official mascot of The Mep Report. The podcast relaunched this week after over 3 years without an episode.

We’re on Facebook. We’re on Twitter. And we have about 127 hours (5.3 days) of recorded show that you can listen to in the archives.

I wasn’t always on The Mep Report. I quit in August 2007 after 86 episodes, which was memorialized with this incredible graphic. I returned occasionally in 2009 and 2010, and then pretty regularly for the last few episodes before we hung it up in June 2011.

The Mep Report is one of the hardest things to explain that I’ve ever done. It’s mostly an hour-long podcast where we talk about anything and everything, stemming from our lives at the outset and usually commenting on politics, sports, and debate. It’s ostensibly sort of a comedy, but also a discussion/debate show, and also just three guys (and sometimes Clea) hanging out.

My partners in crime are Russ Gooberman and Greg Wilson, both of whom were on the Brandeis debate team with me, one a teammate a year ahead of me and the other our Coach. We all lived together, including Clea Wilson (Greg’s now wife), in a place called the Mep House during my senior year in college (2001-2002), known mostly for endless late-night phone-calls on the land-line and the discover of Dark Age of Camelot, which ruined several of Russ’ years and several parts of a few of mine.

Russ and I weren’t always friends. We didn’t know each other very well for the first couple years we shared on ‘Deis debate, mostly because he was partners and good friends with Brad, someone who I had a fierce rivalry with and wholly disrespected as a person (less so as a debater). Russ and I shared an interest in Philosophy and especially Professor Eli Hirsch, one of the greatest professors ever to teach at Brandeis. But we never talked that much until the National Championships in 2000, when we were both so thoroughly disappointed with our respective teams’ performances that we found ourselves in the exact same mood and sitting next to each other in the van during the infamous Van Round after Nationals, when everyone basically just ad hominemed each other to blow off the stress of the season. This lightened the mood a little, but the ice was really broken by me observing that the truck trailing along next to us in the late-night return from Bryn Mawr College was for the Fink Baking Co. and said that “Fink means good bread.”

I made the following observation: “Fink doesn’t mean good bread. Fink means scoundrel!”

And thus launched, totally unplanned, about an hour of Russ and I coming up with sentences where bread and related words for bread were replaced by the word “fink”. Each of them followed by increasing paroxysms of hysterical laughter. We only escalated in such humor while the other people in the van thought we were crazier and crazier.

By the time the van reached Waltham, we were pretty much friends for life.

Fink Baking Company later went out of business, by the way. Apparently they couldn’t convince much of the world of their new lexicon.

A year later, Russ and I moved in together when he was planning on an ill-fated matriculation into Boston University Law School. But before he graduated Brandeis, we fulfilled a semester-long commitment to each other to attend a tournament together. We went to Providence College in January 2001, a small but top-heavy tournament that was only breaking to semifinals. My regular partner, Adam Zirkin, who would win the North American Championships with me the next weekend, was hybriding with a friend of his from Yale.

Russ and I were, if I say so myself, on fire that tournament. We won the first two rounds handily and then ran “legalize all drugs” in third round and totally torched the team with what was, at the time, a controversial case. Fourth round we were 3-0 and hit the team that proved to be third TOTY (Team of the Year) by the end of the season, the famous Yale OJ, and Russ started pre-making fun of the case we were likely to hit when we were chatting with the judge before the round. We both predicted something boring and difficult was on the way despite the fact that it was early-morning Saturday’s 4th round, a classic time for more fun cases. They walked in an presented a case about technical details of insurance law and Russ and I turned and rolled our eyes at the judge and we went on to destroy the case and win the round handily. Fifth round, we hit my regular partner and his hybrid partner and expected a pretty fun round since it was a 4-0 match and we would both likely break. But Zirkin and Russ were not the best of friends and our friend from Yale was not wanting to go easy and they wound up running something that made for an annoying round. We suspected the round would be a coin-toss, but we’d still have high enough speaks to break. We headed to the banquet in great spirits.

We didn’t break. Russ punched a wall as soon as the fourth semifinalist who was not us was announced. Years later, the hole in the back of the lecture hall at PC from said punch was still there.

We had to sit through a semifinal round between our 4th and 5th round opponents (we had obviously lost 5th round and by a wider margin than we expected to miss the break), then watch Yale OJ drop to Stanford before we got the ballots to find out what had happened. And the ballots told us that while Russ had been debating that weekend, I had apparently been speaking in tongues and running screaming from the room. Russ was 4th speaker at the tournament, speaking a 132/7. But we had missed the break by a single speaker point, finishing 4-1, 260/20. Meaning I had spoken a 128/13. This put me 2 points and 4 ranks behind the 10th place speaker at the tournament and would have made me, in a year where I finished 5th SOTY (Speaker of the Year) overall as a junior, the 3rd novice speaker were I still a novice.

You can see the full results of that tournament here.

We looked incredulously at the ballots. Russ and I were pretty evenly matched and felt we’d been especially so this weekend and had complemented each other well. I looked at him beseechingly and asked if I had been terrible that weekend. He said not at all. And then I started berating myself. We gathered in a circle before leaving the tournament and I broke in to Greg’s questions about team dinner to publicly apologize to Russ for ruining his weekend.

“I’m sorry, Russ. When that emu asked you to debate with him, you clearly should have gone with him instead of me this weekend.”

He looked at me quizically.

I continued, warming to the subject. I said “At least he could have gone ‘Mep… mep…. mep.'” And then I got down into a crouch, tucked my hands under my arms in mock wings, and then stuck my tongue out periodically while making the mep sound.

Russ indignantly blamed the PC judges and not me, but I insisted on taking the blame and breaking into meps periodically at team dinner and the ride home.

The emu thing stuck. The rest of that year and the next, when Russ traveled with us frequently as a de facto Assistant Coach, Russ and I would periodically both get down in the emu crouch, quickly developing a pseudo-dance around each other in a circle that was dubbed “the emu-mating dance”. After the first spontaneous outbreak of this, we would look for a random time each tournament to break this out in GA. It never photographed especially well, but its legend still existed on the team a full APDA-generation (four years) after I graduated.

Then came Mep House (hilariously mis-heard as “meth house” by the mother of a visiting friend) and the rest was basically history. When Russ moved to LA, Greg to New York, and I to Berkeley, we periodically would regroup online to chat about life and then turned it into a podcast. We peaked in 2006 when we won the second Podcast Pickle Cast War, an event that got written up in the Brandeis University Alumni Magazine.

I have no idea what TMR 2.0 will look like in 2014, but it was fun doing a show again and I’m sure it will be fun in the future. We will definitely make fun of the world and each other. Our voices will sound even better, since we’re now using Skype instead of semi-pirated Teamspeak gaming chat rooms to talk to each other. Audio quality has really come a long way in the 3.5 years we’ve taken off.

Let the emu soar.

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Baseball Roundup

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

Baseball!

Baseball!

For some reason, baseball is most of what I can think of to post about these days. I posted a lot about baseball down the stretch as the Mariners fell one game short of the playoffs, made doubly more frustrating by the fact that the AL Wild Card team (who could easily have been them had the A’s lost game 162) won 8 straight games to get to the World Series. As the Seattle Times just put it, the “Royals’ run should make Mariners fans take notice and dream”. It’s definitely doing that, as well as making me think about Kevin.

So, I feel compelled to write some loose end notes that don’t really conform to a typical streamlined post but still culminate what I’ve been considering during a season when I’ve thought about baseball far more often than my usual (which is already a lot).

You don’t have to take my word for how exciting the Mariners’ season was this year. Grantland has quantitatively measured that they had the most exciting regular season. Granted that some excitement should be reserved for the process of actually, y’know, making the playoffs, but as the article opens, “uncertainty equals excitement.” In their statistical analysis, the M’s were listed as having at least a 10% more exciting season that the next-most-exciting team, which, incidentally, also missed the playoffs (Atlanta). Kansas City was 5th, but I think they pretty clearly take #1 or #2 in terms of post-season… it’s hard to tell whether constantly coming back to win at the last minute is more exciting or just winning all of your games is. I guess, technically, KC has done both.

Speaking of the Royals, the very first box score I ever read in my life depicted a Boston-Kansas City game. We moved to Oregon in summer 1988, but I think it had to be in 1989, the year I truly discovered baseball. The box score was in the traditional format where the linescore was at the top with the city names, then the detailed information about the teams was below with the team names. I assumed, given everything I knew about Boston and Kansas City, that the teams were the Boston Royals and the Kansas City Red Sox. After all, Royals sounded just like what the Bostonians would dub themselves, while Red Sox sounded pedestrian and midwestern, especially with that spelling. This is how little I knew about baseball at the time.

That’s not even the least I ever knew about baseball. That summer, I insisted my parents take me to Little League tryouts. They were very supportive of my youth baseball career, but when I first asked, my parents gave me this kind of sidelong glance that said “Sports? Really? Did we do something wrong?” My Dad definitely prompted me more than once about whether this was something I really wanted to do. My father decided not to invest in a mitt right away, but to first see how tryouts went. They had a bucket of spare gloves for boys just like me. (Incidentally, “tryouts” at this stage was a misnomer – no one was denied their birthright to play Little League baseball.) I went up to the guy manning the bucket and asked for a glove to borrow. He asked if I was a righty or lefty. I said I was right-handed and he promptly handed me a glove. I then tried cramming it on… my right hand. It didn’t fit. I complained to my father and then to bucket-man. Bucket-man rolled his eyes, sighed, and wordlessly switched the glove’s hand. Voila! “But I’m right-handed!” I protested. He pointed out that I throw with the hand I use – admittedly I had tried at least once to throw with the gloved hand with surprisingly poor results.

I had been an A’s fan before either of the above two encounters, and would be until about the time I was leaving Oregon. As mentioned in the prior post, I had spotted a green team (favorite color) with an elephant mascot (one of five favorite animals) and that was kind of a no-brainer. This was actually during the 1988 World Series, of which I saw about two innings, in the hotel lobby on our trip to retrieve our stuff in storage from central California in October 1988. The World Series was probably on in a lot of places, but it was really on everywhere in California, given that it pitted the north against the south in a pivotal matchup. I was enthralled with the mechanics of baseball as I had been in the parks of Washington DC the year before, watching pickup and adult league softball games and plopped right down in front of the TV. The desk clerk asked me who I was rooting for. It took me about three seconds to say “the green team.” And just like that, I was an Oakland fan for the next four years.

This means that I have had a team that was my favorite win a World Series. In the very first full year in which I followed baseball (1989, the earthquake series, when they swept the Giants). That is ridiculously unfair. You could argue I became a Mariners fan as penance. But I didn’t. I became a Mariners fan because I was so obsessed with baseball that I listened to about 140 games/season on the Mariners Radio Network in 1989, 1990, 1991, and 1992, that being the team that was broadcast on the north coast of Oregon. I would root for the A’s when they played the M’s, and this matchup was the first major league game I attended at the Kingdome in Seattle. (The Mariners won; I was sad.) Somewhere around ’92 or ’93, I realized that my loyalties had shifted… I knew a lot more about the Mariners, cared a lot more about their day-to-day, and felt a close kinship with Dave Niehaus, Rick Rizzs, and the team they raised their voice for in the play-by-play. Mark McGwire was still my favorite player, but Ken Griffey Jr. was just behind. I found myself being torn in the A’s/M’s showdowns. By the time I moved to Albuquerque in 1993, my allegiance had changed.

This process was further confused by the fact that my parents bought me a beautiful Baltimore Orioles jacket in 1993 from the Cooperstown collection after we essentially lived in Baltimore during summer 1993. I was attending CTY out there and we had just moved all our stuff down to Albuquerque and then flew to Hawaii and then Baltimore. My Dad spent the summer making pogs of the DC/Baltimore area and trying to bring the new fad to the east coast. I have fond memories of hawking these to people on the steps of Union Station in DC, one of the buildings depicted on his commemorative tourist discs. Like pretty much all of my Dad’s businesses, he was a little ahead of the curve and we basically broke even as I understand it and it was fun. But we also went to a game at the new palace of baseball, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and my parents, who I’d been dragging into a love of sports and especially baseball, were incredibly impressed. When I showed up to the Academy, it was in an Orioles jacket (well, I guess it wasn’t till October, since the Academy started in August and everyone is in shorts in New Mexico in August). Which made one of my homeroom teachers, Mr. “Bucky” Buck, incredibly excited, because he was an Orioles fan. It was a little hard to explain that the O’s were my second or third favorite team and that I just really liked the jacket and the ballpark from whence it came. But he was an 8th grade teacher who actually came to some of our ballgames when baseball season rolled around, so I was hardly in the mood to correct him.

I think the confusion (natural and understandable, since I wore the O’s jacket about every day of 8th grade it was cold) was part of what prompted me to wear subsequent Mariners jackets so obsessively. I’d already been doing that for some time by the summer of 1995, then the fall of 1995 when the M’s made their historic run to save their first chance at the playoffs (they’d been two games out of the division lead, despite a horrible record, when the strike hit the year before) and even to save baseball in Seattle. All the rumors were that they were strongly considering moving to Tampa Bay in 1996 or 1997, which was promptly silenced forever after the M’s made the ALCS in 1995 and reminded the city that it loved baseball. I was in a huge quandary about how I would feel about the Tampa Bay Mariners and where they would rank in my shifting hierarchy of teams, but fortunately didn’t ever have to worry about that question.

I remember daydreaming in my very early youth about being a major league ballplayer, like pretty much every Little Leaguer who loves the game does, not that I was ever close to the talent necessary to seriously pursue this dream. In more sober moments, I thought about how much I loved the A’s at the time and wondered how I would ever be in a position to regularly attend Oakland games. The irony I felt in remembering this feeling when attending lots of Oakland A’s games when I lived in Oakland and Berkeley from 2002-2009 was pretty serious. Especially in those M’s/A’s series when, once again, it was hostile environment. I think I’ve attended about 20 A’s vs. Mariners games in my life and always been rooting for the road team.

Sports, and rooting for teams, remain totally irrational, as they’ve always been. But they add a ton of vibrance and color to one’s life, not to mention fulfilling a certain competitive drive. It is kind of overwhelming to consider how much mental energy and emotional exuberance (and torment) I’ve put into baseball in my life. Some days, it’s hard not to think about that in terms of opportunity cost. But I guess, as the economists really ought to know, we can’t all be rational, self-interested utility-maximizers. Some of us have to applaud.

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KC

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

The Kansas City Royals are going to the World Series.

The last time the Kansas City Royals were in the World Series (or, mind you, the playoffs) was in 1985. They won, beating the St. Louis Cardinals, who are now facing a 3-1 deficit in the National League Championship Series to try to get to this World Series for a rematch. The ’85 Series, by all accounts, was a thriller, pitting two Missouri teams against each other for seven games, with a stunning Game 7 blowout for the Royals who had been down 3-1 in the series after the first four games. They were down 1-0 in the bottom of the 9th in Game 6 and came back to win 2-1 in a walk-off, though I don’t think anyone used that term in those days.

I wasn’t a baseball fan in 1985. I lived in Visalia, California, and wouldn’t discover baseball for three more years, unless you count being vaguely enthralled by pickup softball games I would see in the parks of Washington, DC in the fall of 1987 and the spring of ’88. But my future friend, Kevin House, who lived in Wichita, Kansas at the time, was a baseball fan. We wouldn’t meet until third grade in Gearhart, Oregon, a new and foreign land for both of us. But at the time he got to be in Kansas when the City who shared that state’s name and was at least partially within the state, just a couple hours away, won it all. He was a huge fan of George Brett, hero of the Royals, who hit .370 in that series and went on to lead subsequent Royals teams, though not to the same dizzying heights as in 1985.

My recollection is that Kevin and I didn’t take an immediate liking to each other. I remember fast becoming friends with people like Tony Cox, Cisco Treharne, and John Grotz (now Hill) who rode the bus to the same general neighborhood as I did, where I was the first to get picked up in the morning and the last to get dropped off. And then I met Bowen Turetzky, when we were both getting tested for the gifted program if memory serves, and we shared some nerdy interests. Kevin rode the bus too, but was closer to school, always boarded smelling like my grandparents’ house (i.e. smoke), wearing his signature jean jacket and a slightly disgruntled look. He was a little more ornery and standoffish than the people who’d become my friends and I don’t remember exactly what broke the ice between us.

But over time, and not much at that, he proved to be like so many people who initially seem difficult or defensive – a true and loyal friend. We discovered a mutual love of baseball and video games and baseball cards and playing baseball and, well, there was a lot of baseball. He came over often and I would trade him Royals cards for A’s cards (I was admittedly an A’s fan for a few years before the constant listening to Mariners games on the radio all season wore me down and changed my heart – I had decided a team to root for during the 1988 World Series when I saw green uniforms and an elephant on the TV at a point at which I only knew of two teams in the world). We would play 1-on-1 baseball in the front yard or play on my text-based baseball computer game or talk about baseball or listen to baseball or watch baseball. We talked about other things, too, like life and hopes and dreams and all that. But mostly it came down to baseball.

At some point in our Little League careers, we had the enormous good fortune of being on the same team together, a total happenstance as our coaches selected teams in a secret closed-door draft meeting at the outset of each season. Kevin was a second baseman, mostly, but really wanted to be a third baseman like George Brett. His arm wasn’t the best, though. I had been converted to a catcher a year before by my mentor Jim Paino, who dug me out of the right field gravel and taught me how to encourage pitchers, frame a pitch, take care of a catcher’s glove, and throw off my helmet at the first sign of trouble. We never won that many games – I was perennially chosen by losing teams – but there was one doubleheader we played in Cannon Beach against the best team in the league and managed to eke out the second game in the league’s biggest upset all year. I remember Zac Gonzales pitched most, if not all, of the game, and I hadn’t yelled so loudly or exhortedly in my whole life and probably wouldn’t again till a debate tournament years later. And when we got the final out, we celebrated on Cannon Beach’s field like the ’85 Royals. Once the fervor had died down, Kevin promptly asked his mom if he could stay over at my house and we spent the night recounting the play-by-play of our dramatic win.

I only stayed over at – or even went – to Kevin’s house once. His grandparents, the smokers, were quite strict and didn’t really support the notion of sleepovers or even people playing in the house. I think they may have been on a trip when I actually came over. It was late in my time in Oregon, late in the time of our close friendship, and I remember the night vividly. We watched TV and played paper football and I finally saw every one of his George Brett cards, since many of the nicest ones never left his room and I couldn’t get to sleep for the endless ticking of a grandfather clock in the living room that my tired mind simply refused to adapt to. I recall being so surprised that such a small simple noise could wreak such havoc, but I was all too aware when it passed 2, 3, 4 in the morning and it may have been the latest I’d ever stayed up till that point.

Kevin was of course over at the house a few months later when I had my magical snowy birthday in February 1993, a few months before my family moved to Albuquerque and closed that crazy coastal chapter of our Clatsop County lives. Kevin stayed behind, went to Seaside High, graduated, and found his way back to Kansas. Where, in 2000, at twenty years old, he was killed in a car accident.

He was living in Independence, Kansas, somewhere southeast of Wichita and southwest of Kansas City, but he was rushed to the hospital in Wichita and died just four and a half miles from the house in which he’d been born.

He and his girlfriend had visited my parents earlier that year on a roadtrip across the country, I think in part to see his sister Bev, who was living in Tucson. But I hadn’t seen him since we were both 13, though we’d talked a few times and exchanged a little correspondence. A few days after the accident, his mother called the house in tears to give me the news. I debated for a week about going up for a memorial being held in Seaside, ended up not going, and have regretted my absence frequently since. You can read some of my immediate reactions in the very early months of Introspection here.

His full name, as you can see in his obituary, was Kevin Christopher House. He sometimes went by KC.

I haven’t had any friends die of ebola, or terrorism. But I have had a good friend die in that most common of fatalities among the young, the motor vehicle accident. I had always been so upset about his grandparents smoking around him constantly. I remember a medical visit after which he related to me that he had the lungs of a twenty-year smoker when he hadn’t even been alive that long. I was always so sure that this second-hand nicotine was going to contribute to an untimely death.

I think about Kevin often, as I think about many of my old friends, though I am Facebook friends with most of them. None of them are particularly close right now, but we keep in touch, comment on each other’s lives, bicker (just the other day) about the role of the military and the nature of war. I have gotten to see how they’ve grown up, all the children they’ve had, the men they’ve become.

But Kevin will forever be a young man, childless and free, so much of his life seeming to be ahead of him.

The Royals are back in the World Series, Kevin. They haven’t lost a game all playoffs. Twenty-nine years since the last time, fourteen since you left the planet. They’re going to play for the title on a cool October night under the western Missouri skies. And I’ll be watching. And wishing you were here.

KC

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Getting Spooky

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

Hit refresh on this page.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Yeah, that’s pretty different. Basically since the inception of this incarnation of my blogging, which was in October 2007 (seven years ago!), I’ve used some version of the WordPress theme Mushblue. Almost immediately after installing it, I started periodically tweaking the colors and changing the header images and pretty soon, the theme was more or less unrecognizable.

This was my first post. And in skimming over it to see how far I’ve come since then, this quote jumps out:

“Change is naturally something that seems scary to most. But change is also rivetingly exciting, and gives us the opportunity to do things differently than we did them last time.”
-2 October 2007

I’ve been kind of afraid to change the theme because I’m accustomed to the versatility I get from using that theme. But I wanted to make a change and take advantage of some of the newer, more dynamic themes that are available on WordPress and have been developed in the last seven years as the web converts to a bit more of a twenty-first century reality.

That said, honestly, when examining this, it looks like I’ve landed in a theme that’s not all that much of a change after all. The header goes all the way from end-to-end at the top and I really like the fonts and some of the stylistic choices and the fact that I can still customize the colors. But there are things I’m not in love with about this format. It does a book-style truncation of words that are too long but still doesn’t justify the text at the right side, which seems like a really frustrating compromise where everyone loses. And it posts both categories and tags at the top of each post, which I’ve been conflating for seven years as the same thing since my old theme only posted categories.

So maybe this one won’t last that long, though it will probably be here for October since I’ve just taken the time to customize it for October. Yay.

It seems like a good time to dredge up all the old theme images, though, if only for posterity, since I was working in the exact same format for the last seven years with the 800×350 pixel headers at the top:

The first header, which kind of reminds me of today's header.  Change always comes in October.

The first header, which kind of reminds me of today’s header. Change always comes in October.

Winter 2007-2008.  I think this is some of the better photo editing I've done.

Winter 2007-2008. I think this is some of the better photo editing I’ve done.

Early 2008.  Actually made after my return from the trip, since I didn't have that sweatshirt or see that elephant until the trip.

Early 2008. Actually made after my return from the trip, since I didn’t have that sweatshirt or see that elephant until the trip.

October 2008.

October 2008.

Mid-2008 until mid-2009.  Made for the depression as it came on and it stayed relevant for a long time.

Mid-2008 until mid-2009. Made for the depression as it came on and it stayed relevant for a long time.

Summer 2009.  For the trip to move across country that Emily and I were making.

Summer 2009. For the trip to move across country that Emily and I were making.

October 2009.

October 2009.

Winter 2009-2010, early draft.  I'm not sure how long this stayed up, if very long at all.

Winter 2009-2010, early draft. I’m not sure how long this stayed up, if very long at all.

Winter 2009-2010, replacement.  It was a little less cheezy than the big snowflake, I guess.

Winter 2009-2010, replacement. It was a little less cheezy than the big snowflake, I guess.

Summer 2010.  Ah, optimism.

Summer 2010. Ah, optimism.

Later summer 2010, in the wake of the separation, obviously.

Later summer 2010, in the wake of the separation, obviously.

October 2010.  Self-explanatory.

October 2010. Self-explanatory.

Fall 2010.  Way more optimistic than I actually felt, but I was trying to commit to a new season at Rutgers.

Fall 2010. Way more optimistic than I actually felt, but I was trying to commit to a new season at Rutgers.

Early 2011.  I was still trying to get reinvigorated about staying in Jersey.

Early 2011. I was still trying to get reinvigorated about staying in Jersey.

Summer 2011, for my roadtrip across the country.

Summer 2011, for my roadtrip across the country.

Fall 2011.  This image is basically about not committing suicide.  There's really no way to dress that up.  It stayed up for 17 months, even as things started improving.

Fall 2011. This image is basically about not committing suicide. There’s really no way to dress that up. It stayed up for 17 months, even as things started improving.

Early 2013, finally replacing the bridge with some acknowledged optimism.

Early 2013, finally replacing the bridge with some acknowledged optimism.

Anticipating summer 2013.  Wound up staying up a lot longer during my blogging moratorium in late 2013.

Anticipating summer 2013. Wound up staying up a lot longer during my blogging moratorium in late 2013.

Summer 2014 until yesterday.

Summer 2014 until yesterday.

Wow, that all takes me back. And now it’s time to try to move forward. If any of you out there who regularly read the blog are so inclined, I would really welcome some feedback about readability and the experience of visiting this website and what you would like to see changed as I try to perfect it. As much as I like it to be a testament to my emotional reality, it’s really a form of communication that is only as effective as its conveyance. I don’t do comments here because of the nature of Internet comments, but you can always e-mail me.

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On Waiting

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Tags: , , , ,

It's rough when a 375-minute wait-time proves to be an underestimate.

It's rough when a 375-minute wait-time proves to be an underestimate.

Yesterday I went to the DMV to become an official resident of Louisiana, changing over the car registration and getting a new driver’s license. (I was allowed to smile this time, unlike in New Jersey.) It’s interesting, perhaps, that driving is such a ubiquitous expectation for members of our society that changing one’s vehicular status seems to be the really defining part of residency. I have often tried to discuss with people how strange it is that driving is a universally expected skill, even though it’s reasonably difficult and arbitrary and the consequences of this expectation kill 40,000 people a year in the nation (or, as I prefer to put such statistics, cause 13.3 9/11’s a year). When Alex and I went to Texas two of the last three weekends, we noticed these oddly disturbing but effective electronic roadside signs. In stark yellow letters across a black field, they announced that 2157 people had died on Texas roads this year so far, so we should drive safely.

I still think a more appropriate reaction might be that we should stop driving cars and find more efficient, safe, and communal ways of getting around the nation, but hey. One 9/11 can cause endless war, but 13 of them a year trigger only the exhortation that people should reduce the speedometer reading by 10%. USA!

While at the DMV, however, I was reminded of what a universal American experience said motor vehicle offices are. I had put this visit off till the penultimate possible day (the Prius’ Jersey plates expire tomorrow) in dread of the long lines, crabby employees, and overbearing fluorescence of the trip. None of these factors were any less potent in reality than they were in the anticipation of my mind. The office could have been straight out of Piscataway or Oakland or Albuquerque, replete with the red digital board announcing that one’s number was interminably far away, the absolutely least patient and considerate humans currently employed in customer service worldwide, and low hanging buzzing lights that augmented the shadows on the hangdog droop of one’s long-suffering plastic-chair-bound comrades.

Americans are not accustomed to waiting, as a general rule, and we do not handle it well. This is a society that complains like the bitterly oppressed and imprisoned when a webpage takes thirty seconds to load instead of two, when cars ahead do not simulate the squealing launch of a NASCAR race as soon as a streetlight turns green. It is not merely that waiting brings to mind the opportunity cost of precious seconds that could be spent in rapturous adoration of a television or smartphone, but that impatience is kind of drummed into us as a cultural virtue. We crave instant gratification, revere fast food, proliferate the drive-through because getting out of a car and walking across half a parking lot is just such an impediment to the immediacy of our needs. One shudders to think of this country being confronted with miles-long walks to fresh water or even Depression-era bread-lines. No doubt many red-blooded patriots would choose to defiantly expire of starvation, rather than participate in the self-abnegation incumbent in getting in such a queue.

It is worth noting, then, the exceptional circumstances that do lead to Americans voluntarily standing in lines. Much has been made lately of the kind of badge of honor that trendy New Yorkers wear by waiting, sometimes overnight, in lines for various hip New York experiences, e.g. cronuts, new iPhones, the experience of rain in an art museum, etc. And it is perhaps telling that our most line-prone urbanites have their own nomenclature for such waiting, being the only American sub-species who call such waiting “standing on line” as opposed to “in line”. Indeed, I have found that this slip of terminology is perhaps the best way for immediately rooting out a New Yorker from an otherwise sane batch of people – they are totally incapable of saying “in line” like the rest of the nation. And to anyone not raised in New York, “on line” sounds infinitely clunky and even misspoken. I have often wondered whether the NYC lingo for queues is responsible for the Internet being called “going online” – perhaps a New Yorker was the first person to complain of the bleeps and bloops of 1990s modem signatures and declared that this was like camping out for Yankees playoff tickets.

I have to believe that there is something about New Yorkers’ reputed impatience that makes line-waiting such a vital part of the New York experience for those who choose to partake in it. It’s like people who grew up poor flaunting their access to cash with some flashy unnecessary purchase. Look how much time I can waste amidst all this rush and bustle! Look how much and how passionately I care about the two new features of this portable telephone! And, as in all games and most of life, this patience is rewarded. If we can call the opportunity to spend too much money for something that’s probably not that great a reward.

It is this type of line-waiting that Alex and I engaged in over the summer in Orlando, Florida when, on 8 July 2014, we attended the official grand opening of Diagon Alley in Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter and rode the new ride Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. We spent a cumulative 10 hours waiting to ride one ride.

We had first considered heading down to Harry Potter World years ago and when it was announced that a whole new section of the park would be opened and dedicated to the boy wizard, it seemed like a no-brainer to try to go this summer. But Universal became especially cagey about when precisely the new part of the park and its new ride would open just as we were planning our trip to New Orleans, so it was basically after the plans had been made (though I rarely finalize plans fully, in part to capture just such opportunities as this) that they announced the new ride would open on one of the days we were already slated to be in Orlando.

Part of the problem is that the escape from Gringotts as a scene in both the 7th book and 8th movie of the Harry Potter series already seems like an amusement park ride. One can’t help thinking that J.K. Rowling herself wrote the imagery with something like Universal Studios in mind, so the craving to ride such a ride has long been patiently waiting inside every HP fan. The other problem is that we were able to waltz into Diagon Alley the day before it opened, in the evening of July 7th, during a “soft open” that it was doing, so we naively assumed that there would be no line for the same area on the official opening day.

It is worth noting here that if you like Harry Potter, you should do everything you can to go to the Wizarding World in Orlando. I simply can’t recommend it enough. Hogsmeade is really impressive and all but one of the rides there are great, but the attention to detail, craftsmanship, and just pure love that went into Diagon Alley are rarely matched in any theme park or place of American entertainment. It feels, for all the world, like visiting the place, like the Alley itself has been made manifest, giving it a sense of place usually exclusively reserved for, well, real places. And I know part of the whole HP themeology is the concept of blurring what is real from what is not and questioning the importance of such distinctions, but rarely is such a question asked so poignantly as in this location.

So not only did Alex and I not make an effort to get to the park as early as possible on the 8th of July, but we spent the first 10 minutes in the park bum-rushing for the entrance to Diagon Alley rather than trying to find the end of the line to get in. Having no idea there would be a line because we’d gotten in so easily the day before, we missed the chance to be probably 45 minutes earlier in the line as people streamed in, shortcutting directly to the entrance and then walking all the way back along the length of the line to find our place in it.

Despite dire warnings that the line could be upwards of six hours just to get into a place we’d gallivanted through in wonder the night before, the wait for the Alley itself only proved to be a little over two hours. At first, we were able to get in and out of line and I even walked onto the Simpsons ride, which proved quite fun, while Alex held our place. But soon they cracked down on such shenanigans and there was nothing to do but settle in, try to hydrate in the wake of the intense Florida sun, and get to know our line-neighbors, a pair of Australian young women who worked at Disney and were making a budding career as journeying theme park cast members.

Alex had also followed the absolute cardinal rule of line-waiting, which is Bring A Book. During most of my life, I wish I were reading more and I actually have grown to love mass transit and even some other opportunities to wait in line because they “force” me to read. There is probably something interesting in play about our screen-based and fast-paced society that makes reading something hard to choose over other, more exciting seeming options, even if what I really most want to be doing is reading. Part of the problem is that reading is often soporific by nature, especially since most people recline when reading, and thus big plans of a night spent reading for hours often yield a half-hour of reading followed by sleeping more than one wanted.* Which, for all its other foibles, makes the subway or the streetcar or even the fluorescent-drenched DMV office or auto repair waiting-room an excellent refuge for actually getting to read.

*I realize, of course, that “sleeping more than one wanted” is possibly a concept unique to me, especially as an adult American in his mid-thirties. This is the difficulty of trying to bridge one’s experience into more universal ones.

I honestly have no recollection of why I forgot a book that day. I may have assumed that the lines would comport to some reasonable standard of timeliness and that I would be bouncy and excited instead of bored while waiting. I may just have wanted to reduced the load in my backpack or I may have, incomprehensibly, left my backpack in the car and asked Alex to carry a couple things in her purse. There have been so many quick trips to places that somehow yielded unexpected waits, though, that I almost never violate the Bring A Book rule and am constantly admonishing myself to follow it, much like its equally important cousin rule (in my life), which is Bring A Layer. But for some reason, I had no books. Alex had brought Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

In the sun-soaked line for Diagon Alley, we joked idly about Alex making significant progress in said tome during line-standing. Shortly after stowing our stuff in the requisite lockers in Diagon Alley (the locker-line itself taking on the order of 40 minutes while Alex sat in Knockturn Alley’s dank to recover from the sun), we discovered that this progress might not be such a joke. When we entered the line for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, the sign warned us that 375 minutes of waiting (6.25 hours for those scoring at home) may, well, await us (see image atop this post). Since entering the Alley an hour prior, this number had steadily been increasing as I waited for a locker and we downed some cool refreshments and gawked at how well crafted the overall place was. The safe assumption seemed to be that the wait times would only increase, that if we waited another hour, the sign would say 500 and another hour after that might close the line altogether and deprive us of our chance to experience the ride. (We were leaving the next day for New Orleans, though we ended up going north up the coast for an amazing sea turtle experience instead that I may someday recall in a different post.)

So the only thing to do was to get in line.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to talk about the experience of waiting for what proved to be 8 hours in a line without a book.* I was trying to capture my observations and the different feelings during the experience, but nothing much stuck or was terribly salient, the probable result of the inevitable brain-scramble that comes of such experience. And while my waiting experience pales in comparison to the life of those in Guantanamo Bay or some other detainment facility, let alone the millions our society keeps incarcerated round the clock, it does have the counter-point that it was voluntarily chosen. And thus an experience for which I had no one to blame but myself. Which is probably not how DMV or auto-repair purgatories feel, but a little like cronut waits, I guess.

*Can you believe that they do not sell a single book in Diagon Alley? This is the place’s largest flaw, by far. One can acquire the entire Harry Potter series in Hogsmeade, but no book of any kind is available in Diagon Alley. I would have paid an exorbitant markup for just about any book some four hours into the wait.

It should be noted that we were allowed, by virtue of there being two of us, to get out of the line and return to our original position. We didn’t discover this fact for the first 3+ hours of the wait, when it first occurred to us that they had to let us go to the bathroom at some point in a 375-minute span. When assuming there was a bathroom somewhere in the swirling line matrix, I was told to simply proceed to the rest of the Alley and find a normal bathroom out there. Which opened up a new world of relief possibilities, including alternately going to get food, beverages, look at the cool things in this part of the theme park, and get cool in Knockturn Alley. Unfortunately, riding other rides or exploring the rest of the park was not an option as it would entail another 2-4 hour wait to return to Diagon Alley, so our options were still relatively limited.

The other issue in play was that the ride kept breaking down. Being a brand-new ride and one suddenly ramped up to the expectations of thousands of simultaneously descending American tourists, the attraction buckled under the weight of being asked to constantly run at capacity. Frankly, it probably wasn’t ready for an opening they’d already delayed and equivocated about. But engineering is no match for the advertising dollars of an announced opening, so there we were facing extended delays periodically announced in a fake British accent over the tinny loudspeaker. These would occasionally be refuted by a more joyous announcement that they were pleased to tell us either half or all of the ride was functioning once more and we would soon have the experience that we truly had all been waiting for.

How to capture the backflips one’s mind starts to do in hour five of a wait? How one grows tired of standing, gives up and just sits on the ground, grows tired of sitting on the ground, sits on the rails of the switchback line-holder, grows numb from that, starts dancing in place, thinks about something else. The biggest problem with waiting in line is how powerfully the act itself captures one’s imagination, how being in line makes one think so chronically about being in line. Sure, one’s mind is able to wander a bit to other things, but most of those are uses of time that one could spend that are not being in line, even those in the theme park itself, and the inevitable question of whether it was, in fact, worth it to get in this line in the first place and at one point it might have made sense to follow a handful of people seen leaving the line after 1, 2, 3 hours. After about 3 hours, no one leaves. That seems to be the tipping point at which one is “pot committed” to borrow a poker phrase, the point of proverbial no return.

Or how to illustrate the horror of looking back in line two hours deep and realizing how much shorter the aggregate line now is, that one could have saved the majority of the last two hours by simply doing something, anything else? That those things would have been active and fun and nothing like the fate that has not only befallen the last two, visibly wasted hours, but that one has two more sessions of two hours just like it ahead. The amount of palpable regret in the process is almost as painful as the feeling in one’s feet after four hours of mostly standing.

How to describe the elation of finally leaving the outdoor portion of the line, most of which was at least covered and had some industrial fans posted and blowing on the lucky few for a while, entering the hallowed halls of Gringotts and its pitch-perfect depiction of the solemn white marble entranceway, complete with surprisingly lifelike animatronic goblins who blink and stare in a quizzical way that one only thinks at this stage, hour 5, is meant to question one’s life choices at voluntarily being in this line so long?

How to explain the incredible effort it takes for a deeply introverted woman who is actually, horror of horrors, in this line alone (and without a book*) to start talking to me in hour 4.5 of the line? This person going on to explain that she is an annual local-pass holder and was here for the Hogsmeade opening as well, the last part making me question why we spent extra money on individual tickets to be here when there are some people who are doubtlessly here for free, save for the already much-thought-over opportunity-cost of being in this line instead of any of the other fun parts of the park which, no doubt, have almost no line since basically everyone who is in this park is here to be here, namely this interminable and constantly extending line.

*Worth noting, also, that the aforementioned lockers indicated that one is supposed to carry nothing onto this ride and thus, also, nothing into the line to wait for the ride either, except disposable things. We actually tested me pocketing Alex’s copy of Chamber of Secrets three times to ensure that we’d be able to keep it on the ride. Although, by hour 3, it’s pretty clear the value of the book and that we would be willing to buy a book that we’d be forced to dispose of three hours hence just to have those three hours with access to a book!

Or whether to bother with the bubbling resentment for the fourth member of the party of teenage girls that, unfortunately, can only be described as a “gaggle”? The one who, just before it was impossible to have return-to-line privileges, showed up for the first time all line, in hour 6, yes, hour 6, to join her friends after 6 carefree hours* running around the various empty rides and attractions of the park while the rest of us, her three cohorts included, toiled away in the psychological gymnastics of standing in this interminable line for three minutes of fun, albeit new fun, at the end.

*Admittedly some of these 6 hours must have been spent in the same 2-4 hour line that we all endured to get into Diagon Alley in the first place, though since we did that too, it is not a marginal harm of her avoiding the first 6 hours of the Gringotts line.

When I was in high school, we had to do various “experiential education” trips, which was just a codeword for hiking/camping as sponsored by the school. There was, at one point, an entire curriculum around it, but I think that had more or less died out by the time I got to the Academy, possibly because the department was chaired by my least favorite educator at the school of all-time and the one I was convinced was the least intelligent, which was something I used to be very mean about. This being the same guy who, in the nascent days of e-mail, my friends and I created a group e-mail chain relating the mistakes he made about American history in his two sections of AP US History, this being a daily occurrence, usually with multiple instances from each class. I kind of suspect he had just been too active in certain outdoorsy extracurricular activities popular in earlier decades, which were in no way part of the curriculum of so-called “experiential” education.

Regardless, we got to choose our sophomore-year trip and, traumatized from a Philmont trip in which it had rained torrentially for five solid days, I opted for a more minimalist venture, the Wilderness Solo, in which we did a brief group hike to a serene lakeside mountain spot, then hiked around a bit alone to scout out some spots for the next day, then embarked early in the morning for 24-36 hours of completely solo time in the woods.

The two trip chaperones of course checked on us twice, once actually having us acknowledge them directly, which I guess was necessary for liability, but it kind of spoiled the sheen of the event for me. What I didn’t realize, of course, is that a disproportionate portion of our trip’s cohort were drama types not just because this trip was less exhaustive than most but because it was the easiest to sneak alcohol and/or drugs into and most of the folks on the trip used the whole adventure as an excuse to get entirely wasted in the wilderness. I, of course, not being that type of person whatsoever, actually had taken the guides seriously the night before when they talked about getting us to refrain from reading or writing or other “distractions” and really trying to get into our “theta waves” of a totally meditative and relaxed state without normal stimuli.

I almost went crazy.

And it wasn’t just the typical camping crazy of late-night sounds and the “oh my, even though I’m normally not a fearful person, the realization that it is dark to the point of invisibility out there and I am protected by very thin nylon and a flimsy zipper and every gust of wind is surely a giant wildebeest with a craving for human meat” crazy. It was some serious crazy. Like “am I really a person?” crazy. Like “life is probably just a simulated illusion meant to inflict pain on us as some sort of trial” crazy.

I also distinctly remember that I spent a majority of my solo time with the Kinks’ song “Lola,” annoying in the best of times heard once, stuck in my head. A song which I only knew a small portion of the lyrics to, making the loop of the repetitive refrain of it being stuck internally shorter, making the entire feedback loop of having a song inexorably in one’s head that much more catastrophically frustrating. Doubtlessly, the perfection of contemplative nature-bound meditation is just no match for pop culture’s infectious rhythms in even the most introspective brain.

When I started to get too crazy, I just broke down and read, which had been my plan all along before the impressionable prior night of theta waves and the rapture/enlightenment that would surely come from simply doing nothing in the woods all day. As though I had briefly lost my mind and forgotten that doing nothing and boredom had been lifelong sworn enemies which I had created entire imaginary worlds to combat. I was pretty big on enlightenment in those days and the quest therefor.

I think the Wilderness Solo was the last time before 8 July 2014 that I felt so crazy and in my head, so self-doubting about an individual decision to sign up for nothingness. And, like the Wilderness Solo, the process of resurfacing to normal levels of stimulus was euphoric. Just entering the building and seeing adornment, the decorated hallways of Gringotts and its various winding vaults that still comprise about 90-120 minutes of line-waiting was a total thrill on the order of a first drink of water after days in a desert. There is this little small part of the ride that you get before the actual ride, that you think is the actual ride, which consists of an elevator into the deepest parts of the vaults as they go over safety procedures, and that felt like winning the World Series. Of course there was a commensurate letdown when we stepped out of that and not onto waiting minecarts but… more infinite line. Snaking through the fake-stone circuitousness to a spiral staircase that ostensibly led up to the real line.

We lost another 45 minutes in there, but this wasn’t by design. The ride broke down when we hit the steps and didn’t resume for a good long while and we all had to contemplate the possibility that our 7.25 hours thus far were all for absolute naught, that this really was a torture chamber and there wasn’t even an inkling of gold at the end of the rainbow. But this extra span gave Alex just enough time to charge through the last few chapters of the Chamber of Secrets, our subterranean time matching Harry and Ron’s, such that she completed the entire tome while in line that day.

The ride was amazing, for a ride. It was truly impressive and awesome and we even got to go again right away because it broke down at the very end and we didn’t get the full experience so they put us on 5 minutes later to start all over and that time it worked. The two-for-one (1.75-for-one?) experience was an extra elating bonus, but the deflation experienced right after exiting and hitting twilight in the expanse of the park made December 26th look like Christmas. It was, objectively, a crazy thing to have done. It seemed, altogether, a waste. Though something kind of cool to have experienced and gone through nonetheless, a fable for the children and grandchildren, though possibly when they are at an age to not so impressionably take the irrationality of the decision to heart.

If nothing else, we concluded, heading over to ride the Hogwarts Express, it would make a good story.

I’ll let you be the judge of that.

But there’s something in waiting, also, that I think is about the lack of knowing exactly how long you’ll be waiting. And I think, not to get too political at the end here, this is what distinguishes Guantanamo Bay from even an extraordinarily long prison sentence. While surely cynicism about ever leaving must be kicking in now for those who remain, those in Gitmo never know when they’re going to leave. Any day they wake up could be their last in that situation. But they don’t know. They have no way of knowing.

And I think waiting as a test of patience can be conquered if one has a definable sense, especially if it’s exact, of how long one has to wait. It can be counted down and quantified and realized. This is why they at least try to post a reasonable wait-time estimate at the gate to these amusement-park ride queues. It is the not knowing how long one is in purgatory that made last year so impossibly hard for me. And what makes Gitmo worse than a normal detention center. What makes being held without charge a universally reviled crime. And what makes getting in line the first day of a ride a very irrational decision.

One never makes good on the promises one makes to oneself in such a setting to savor every non-bored minute thereafter. But at least the remembering and the going through it again can be a bit of a start. You are not in Gitmo. Go out and do something awesome.

Or at least read a book.

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The Trouble with Memory

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Let's Go M's, Metablogging, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , , ,

Yesterday, I told a story here about the 2001 ALCS and the shadow it’s cast over the next 13 years of my Mariner fandom.

There’s just one problem with the story. It wasn’t entirely true.

It was true as I remembered it at the time. “True to the teller,” I believe the phrase goes. But it was a dangerous combination of real memories and the ironclad realism of the Internet’s record-keeping that actually fabricated a memory in the conflation of 2001 and 2000.

You see, 2001 was not 2000.

The story I told was actually about the year 2000, before 9/11 and all it entailed, and about an entirely different ballgame (literally). I can probably be somewhat forgiven for the confusion from some of the details: both the 2000 and 2001 American League Championship Series (ALCS) pitted the Mariners against the Yankees. Both were won by the Yankees. And both, improbably (or probably, depending on perspective) involved pivotal moments in which Arthur Rhodes came on with a late-inning lead and coughed up a pivotal home run that led to a Yankee victory.

But the story I was trying to tell and picture in my mind’s eye was about Game 6 of the 2000 ALCS, not Game 4 of the 2001 ALCS.

The key detail that got me thinking about this was in mulling my post after writing it and realizing that my most vivid visuals of the night in question were definitely situated in Russ’ senior mod. Russ was a senior in 2001, not 2002 like me. The following year, we lived together, in the same house, the fabled Mep House, which had a TV downstairs in the main room on which we played countless hours of FIFA. Yet I distinctly recalled that we were holed up in Russ’ small room of his mod, upstairs, where the infamous Brandeis debate party of that year’s tournament had been held. And as much as I tried to tell myself a story wherein friends of Russ’ were living in that mod and we went over there to watch the game, it made zero sense. We would have gone downstairs to the Mep House where there was more room.

The other thing that didn’t sit well about my constructed recollection was the image of Lou Piniella tapping his left arm. This is the signal to the bullpen to get the lefty out to the mound, but it is not conventionally done on pitching changes between innings. The manager only goes out to the mound to make this symbolic gesture when making a switch in the middle of an inning. Otherwise, he just has the pitching coach call the bullpen and the pitcher runs in while the grounds crew is raking the infield. So as I was reading the play-by-play of Game 4 of the 2001 ALCS and trying to remember the fateful moment, it seemed bizarre to me that Rhodes had been hauled in between innings. I definitely remember screaming at the television while watching Lou tap his left arm. I believe I was screaming “Don’t you dare touch your left arm, don’t you dare bring Rhodes in right now!” during his mound visit.

If only I had some sort of record of my daily feelings and emotions and actions from that period of time in my life to confirm.

Oh wait, I do.

“Sigh. I’m applying for the job of Seattle Mariners’ manager within the week. When Lou ran us out of the inning with a Dan Wilson-based hit-&-run, I shouted at him not to. Much more importantly, when he brought in Arthur Rhodes, I screamed “noooo” at the top of my lungs. Clearly, I’m far more qualified to guide the team with the greatest potential in baseball to their first World Series. & I’ve been telling everyone all week that Rivera was due. & he was. But the damage had been done by incompetent managing (Lou) & pitching (Arthur). Crudbuckets. March is a long way away.”
-18 October 2000

I definitely watched the other game, though I don’t quite remember if it was with Russ or at Mep House. It was just after the Vassar weekend of “Justice!” with Eric Sirota where we ran the tipping case in his first out-round ever. I was a little more succinct in how I felt at that time:

“Damn Yankees.”
-21 October 2001

In the prior game, Game 6 of the 2000 ALCS, the closest the M’s had ever come to the World Series, Arthur Rhodes entered the game with 2 on and 1 out in the bottom of the 7th. The Mariners led 4-3. He promptly gave up a three-run homer, two more hits and an intentional walk, and left down 8-4 without getting a single batter out.

And that was the decisive game. That was the haunting memory, the one that has stuck with me the longest, almost as deep as Edgar’s double in the bottom of the 11th in 1995 or the 9-1 one-game-playoff against the Angels earlier that year with Randy Johnson’s dominance and Luis Sojo’s improbable run around the bases.

I think it was my haste to make the recent post about the poetry of 13 years of waiting and the promise of fulfillment of all that lost time that led to this mistake between 2000 and 2001, aside from all the other similarities. And if I hadn’t been able to find a game wherein Arthur Rhodes coughed up a key homer late at Yankee Stadium in 2001, I definitely would have caught the mistake before it “went to press,” so to speak.

I periodically go through bouts of thinking that the M’s made the playoffs in 2003 because they had such a good year then, but they finished 3 games back of Oakland that season despite winning 93 games. Their record that year was better than 3 playoff teams, including both Central champions and the NL Wild Card (the 91-71 Florida Marlins, who went on to win the World Series that year). We were 2 back of Boston for the AL Wild Card, having survived almost the entire season to be eliminated on September 23rd with a walk-off loss to the Angels. We had had an 8-game lead in the West in June, but it all went away, like the glorious strike season of 1994 (but this time we got to play it out).

I really fear that we’re facing another 2003 season. For all my optimism in yesterday’s post, Kansas City won last night and a fateful pitching change yielded disaster in our game against the Angels, with Lloyd McClendon (who I generally love) pulling Paxton after a fluke single and error put him behind 1-0 in the 7th after a tightly-matched pitching duel. Lloyd elected to signal for the righty, Danny Farquhar, who promptly coughed up a game-ending (functionally) 3-run homer. We lost, 5-0.

It’s September 18th and we’re 2 behind both wild card spots, Oakland and Kansas City tied therein. We have 4 games left against the Angels, 4 against Toronto, and 3 in Houston this weekend.

I’m hoping to be there to see at least some of the Houston series live. Hopefully that will leave more rock-solid memories 13 years hence.

Arthur Rhoes stares down into the murky sands of memory.

Arthur Rhoes stares down into the murky sands of memory.

by

Diary of a Mariners Fan, Circa September 2014

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

I wear a Mariners jacket frequently in the cold cold poker rooms I’ve been trying to turn into my office of late. Sometimes I wear a matching hat that attests to my fandom. When I was nearing the money-bubble of the tournament I wound up winning last month in Biloxi, Alex and I were admiring custom card-protectors that an independent vendor was selling. We decided to get a Mariners one if I cashed. But then Alex snuck off and got me the M’s one anyway and plopped it on my table for good luck. Worked pretty well. Now I bring it with me everywhere, even though I’ve now had a bad week that’s starting to make me question the whole project as only poker slumps can so routinely do.

With all this adornment and living in Louisiana now, I frequently get mistaken for a tourist from the northwest. Maybe I always have been, in a way, though my sense of home is receding more and more every day having now added another major region of the US to my list of lived locales. An Atlanta tourist on my left yesterday asked if I lived here and I said I just moved and he said I bet I can say from where and I said you’d be wrong. I’ve actually never lived in Seattle, never been there for more than a week at a stretch, if even that. Probably four days is my longest consecutive stint. People can’t really imagine what someone who hadn’t lived there would be doing with all this Mariners gear, though my interest was of course initially local. I explain “I lived in Oregon when I was growing up and got into sports.” And then people often ask about what it was like to be in Oregon in my teens or twenties and by the time I get to the Bay Area or Jersey on my corrective list, their eyes are glazed from all the movement.

People want to relate to people in a poker room, make a connection. The practice can be almost as solitary as writing sometimes, the struggles with one’s own discipline just as intense. Other people help as a distraction or a buffer, a way of making the idea of sitting at a table with strangers and trying to take their money more pleasant and palatable. And so many people in New Orleans are tourists and hoping to say that they know what your hometown is like too, that they have a past experience that connects with yours. But unless they are Cubs fans, they probably don’t, at least not when it comes to my jacket and card-protector.

In 2001, weeks after September 11th, I holed up with one of my best friends, a Yankees fan (Russ), to watch Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. The Mariners were down 2-1 but had just crushed the Evil Empire 14-3. It wasn’t totally PC to call the team the Evil Empire in the wake of them losing the city’s two tallest buildings the month prior. But after setting an American League record for wins (116) that season after consecutively losing Hall-of-Fame-caliber super-stars Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, and Randy Johnson in three straight seasons, it seemed like the M’s had finally found a way to outwit the perennial favorites, who were sitting on a paltry 95 wins by comparison. The matchup pitted Paul Abbott against Roger Clemens, the back-burners of the rotation for each team that year despite Clemens’ reputation.

The game was a nail-biter to end all nail-biters. Both pitchers escaped danger, gave way to bullpens that did the same. No one scored till the 8th. The M’s scratched a run, Bret Boone belting a homer, Russ threw something, and with the Mariners bullpen that year, it looked like we were bound to tie the series in Yankee Stadium and shades of 1995 were coming back. In 1995, the first year the M’s ever made the playoffs, they lost the first two games of a series with the Yankees only to win 3 in a row, including an 11th inning comeback in the decisive Game 5. Dropping the first two to the Yankees, even at home, was nothing.

And then, at the start of the bottom of the 8th, Lou Piniella went to the bullpen. I couldn’t believe that he was touching his left arm. A smile started to curl on the side of Russ’ face. He was going to get Arthur Rhodes to pitch the 8th.

I love Arthur Rhodes. He’s one of my favorite Mariners of all-time. But that year, he was struggling mightily down the stretch. You could just tell something was wrong with him, every fan could see it. It was the weight of the series with the Yankees or the magnitude of events unfolding in the country that had pushed the ALCS back to October 21st. It was the cold. It was something. And everyone involved with the Mariners knew there was a problem, except for dear Sweet Lou. He blithely stood by his veteran lefty and let the chips fall where they may.

The chips fell in the outfield seats. Bernie Williams clocked a 3-2 pitch out of the Stadium and my yelling at the television since Rhodes had been brought in died down. There was nothing to do anymore but watch.

By the time Kaz Sasaki, record-setter that year for saves by a Mariner, gave up a home-run to Alfonso Soriano, it seemed like I had known the script the whole time. From the moment Lou tapped his left arm or maybe even from the 116th win or maybe from the time the towers fell. This was a Yankees year. You can’t fight destiny. I silently departed Russ’ dorm and he silently let me go, both of us knowing that had the outcome been the opposite we would have been screaming at each other. He’s a sore loser; I’m a sore winner. We are both quiet and contemplative the other way, him seeing winning as his natural state and me the opposite. A lifetime of rooting for baseball franchises with these outcomes.

Game 5 in the series was a formality. The Yankees scored 4 in the 3rd and won by 9. The Mariners have not played a playoff game since.

October 22, 2001.

Two nights ago, I watched the Angels put that kind of a beat-down on Seattle. I made myself watch every inning, every pitch, even when we were down 5-0 early, then 7-0, then 8-0. An 8-1 loss. The M’s are chasing Kansas City for the second wild-card and Oakland for the first wild-card and sort of Detroit, who is winning the AL Central, in case they drop into the wild card. Oakland was off, but Detroit broke a 6-6 tie with 2 in the 9th and won. Kansas City was down 3-0 for most of the game and down 3-2 in the ninth when they used a wild pitch and an infield single to beat the Minnesota closer and win. After spending all summer tempting fans into believing that this could be the year that 13 years of suffering and the memory of Arthur Rhodes end, it looked like one bad night in mid-September was gonna wreck it.

And then there was yesterday.

Yesterday, the M’s were down 2-0 and unable to get any runs. They were getting shut down by another middling starter as they so often do, the bats just refusing to connect with the ball, Seattle looking lost and frustrated. I was deciding how much longer I could watch this series in Anaheim, a matchup with baseball’s best team this year, a series the Mariners desperately need to win if they are to stay in the race. And then, the Angels somewhat inexplicably pulled their pitcher.

It was only the 5th inning.

Walk. Hit by a pitch on an 0-2 count. Bunt that was initially ruled safe at first but overturned on replay. Double, 2-2. Double, 3-2. Pitching change. Strikeout. Double, 4-2. Intentional walk. Groundout.

Okay! This we can work with. The M’s new pitcher, a replacement for Roenis Elias, who had gone down with an injury (because why not?), went 1-2-3 in the bottom of the 5th. Hoping for a little insurance in the 6th…

Single. Double. Single, 5-2. Hit by pitch. Fly out. Single, 6-2. Pitching change. Sacrifice fly, 7-2. Single and a misfired throw to third, 9-2. Single, 10-2. Pitching change. Double. Lineout.

10-2. Holy cow.

The Mariners won 13-2.

Kansas City lost. Oakland lost. Detroit lost.

And suddenly, the Mariners were 1 game out of one playoff spot, 2 games out of a better one, and had remembered how to bat.

That was last night. There are twelve games left in the season.

The Yankees will not be making the playoffs this year. Their biggest star from last year is now a Mariner, though Ichiro Suzuki is still a Yankee. The Mariners have five more games against the best team in baseball. Who they just beat, 13-2. Who fatefully collapsed in 1995 to save baseball in Seattle, leading to the playoffs and the ALCS and eventually blowing up the Kingdome.

Twelve games to decide the fate of thirteen years. Even if the playoffs now can just be one game. A one-game wild card “series” to determine who has the right to play for some real October baseball. Twelve games.

All I can do for now is grab the card-protector, put on the jacket, play my best, and be home for gametime. 9:10 Central. Let’s go M’s.

I know this is stressful, Roenis.  The runs are coming.

I know this is stressful, Roenis. The runs are coming.


NB: This post confused events in the 2001 ALCS with those in the 2000 ALCS, as clarified and corrected in the subsequent post. This original post remains unedited, however, save for this note.

by

Revolving War

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

“And our own safety — our own security — depends upon our willingness to do what it takes to defend this nation, and uphold the values that we stand for — timeless ideals that will endure long after those who offer only hate and destruction have been vanquished from the Earth.”
-President Barack Obama, 10 September 2014

Obama, last night, with the flag of the eagle.  Please note that the arrows are all visible, while the olive branches are neatly tucked away.  Everything is just as carefully crafted as this flag to make you support endless war!

Obama, last night, with the flag of the eagle. Please note that the arrows are all visible, while the olive branches are neatly tucked away. Everything is just as carefully crafted as this flag to make you support endless war!

Last night, Barack Obama finally made me fully proud and vindicated that I did not vote for him in 2008. Yes, there have endless disappointments with his presidency and I’ve been glad that I didn’t give, say, his mandates a mandate, or the drone strikes my support. He is about as progressive as Reagan on most issues and has done a great job of cementing the political “divide” in this country between the right-center and the far-right, all the while making it look like some sort of actual historical left vs. right battle. Trust me, there’s been almost nothing I’ve been able to point to about his presidency and say “Yeah, I’m down with that.”

But last night he cemented himself as exactly what he’s been leaning toward all this time, George W. Bush II. The policy of endless war, revolving war, war without end or hope of end as the American Empire continues to try to prove itself to the world was reinvigorated. After years of winding down failed wars in failed states abroad, Obama finally found the war that he was willing to start, officially, after carrying on secret ongoing murder-raids for the duration of his six years in office. He took to the national airwaves on September 10th to make a Bush-like case for a war that will outlast his presidency so that we can ensure that every President comes into office a horse in midstream, a warrior with the same war to keep fighting. It’s always the same war.

Last time, it took an unprecedented terrorist attack on American soil to prompt the regeneration of war-without-end. Yes, there was a lot of fearmongering and sleight-of-hand to include Iraq in the war cycle, but both Afghanistan and Iraq were fundamentally prompted by 9/11. And whoever actually carried out 9/11, at least most people were convinced that it was people who were somehow associated with the countries that we were demolishing by air, land, and sea, so that seemed like a reasonable response.

This time, it’s two dead. Two. ISIS killed two Americans, albeit brutally and publicly, and they get the endless war treatment.

I look forward to the time when an American exchange student visiting a foreign country gets poked on the playground and the President takes to the airwaves next day to announce that all of the poker’s countrymen will die.

Look, I understand that the beheadings were shocking and appalling. We just went over this yesterday, how violence seen is infinitely more horrific than violence unseen. I am not defending beheadings, any more than I defend any violence at all by anyone. It’s all wrong and it’s all abhorrent. But, as I’ve discussed before, we created ISIS. The invasion of Iraq single-handedly created this organization and all of its nefarious deeds. To my surprise, the entire US mainstream media agrees with this assessment. Everyone understands this. And yet, when confronted with the exact same decision and the exact same mistake, no one seems to think it’s a good time to pause and wonder what new monster we might be creating by attacking this one.

It’s almost like there’s an ancient Greek myth we could turn to about a monster that kept getting stronger and regenerating no matter how much you attacked it. And as I explained, it’s not because the “monster” is innately monstrous, but mostly because it’s mourning all the family that the US killed last time and the time before that. Killing people makes their relatives angry. Then they want to kill. Repeat ad infinitum.

Why was the speech on September 10th? So that all the assessments and feedback about it could carry the date this post does: September 11th. Because we are a nation so in love with our own PTSD about the one day we were vulnerable in the last sixty years that we are committed to punishing the rest of the world for our suffering forever.

There were three absolutely shocking moments in the speech itself, which I watched live, that really shouldn’t shock me at all. But I watch little enough mainstream media news that it kind of floored me that Presidents can get away with this kind of hubris and be lauded by even people from their “opposite” party directly thereafter. But this is the Cowardly New World we live in.

“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”

I almost choked when I heard this line. These secret wars, conducted throughout the Obama Presidency, are something that brought denial and refusal to comment for most of that term. These operations consist of the “kill list,” where Obama decides personally who should be assassinated in foreign countries through undeclared wars, obliterated from the air, often taking families, friends, neighbors, and strangers with them. There is no evidence that there is anything resembling “success” to this strategy. Somalia remains an anarchic failed state and both Somalia and Yemen remain hotbeds of people who hate the United States, most often because they live in a country constantly perused and bombed by anonymous unmanned killer planes from said nation. And yet we are expected to hold up these operations, which the administration denied for years, as models. It’s like if Nixon had held onto the presidency after Watergate, invaded Cuba, and touted our secret war in Cambodia as the example of successful action that proved this war would be unlike, uh, Vietnam.

“My fellow Americans, we live in a time of great change. Tomorrow marks 13 years since our country was attacked. Next week marks 6 years since our economy suffered its worst setback since the Great Depression.”

Using the “change” line here for any actual progressives still listening to this speech was such a low blow that I still feel like I’m physically recovering. I wasn’t on the front-lines of supporting Obama, didn’t even vote for him, but I sure understood the fervor and excitement he generated. I wanted to believe in it, even though I knew better. I got swept up at times, the person citing visionaries and progressives of the past, saying that we didn’t have to wait any longer because we were the people we had been waiting for. It was contagious and infectious. And just because I didn’t get the full-blown disease, I was sick enough with the fever to get my hopes up.

Here’s the thing that’s so insidious: there is no change at all in any of Obama’s actions. The things he cites, 9/11 and the Great Recession, existed before he took office. This is not change we can believe in or the change he was going to bring. This is regressive, retrograde, W. Bush stuff. Saying “Gee guys, did you know there were some planes in the towers a while back” and bailing out the banks were the last administration, the last war. The people who put Obama in office did so to get away from that kind of rhetoric, they believed there was a change from these kind of citations coming. But there is no change. There is the exact same policy and the exact same approach. We can quibble about whose boots are on what ground when, but the policy of war-without-end, bomb-em-all, let’s start a fight in Iraq, guys, is the exact same thing we’ve seen for most of my lifetime. This is the fourth straight President of the United States who announced to the country that what it most needs to do for “peace and security” is to drop explosives on the people of Iraq.

And we keep lapping it up. Every one of those campaigns has met with majority approval at the time of announcement. Every one of those campaigns has been a disaster for the US, let alone the long-suffering and infinitely war-torn people of Iraq. Do you think it’s a coincidence that every time we bomb Iraq, the enemy is more ferocious and angry than the last time? Do I have to walk you down the “Red Dawn” thought-experiment about if your nation had been bombed to oblivion by the same blunt idiotic foreign superpower for a quarter-century? Are we really this stupid?

Really?

“We cannot erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm.”

“…long after those who offer only hate and destruction have been vanquished from the Earth.”

At the outset, when he’s trying to be reasonable and build the case slowly, Obama recognizes the fundamental truth that I’ve been trying to express in different ways on this blog for years. You can’t just kill everyone who disagrees with you. That is not a successful strategy. The lesson of the arcade game whack-a-mole is that there are always more moles that will pop up and maybe, just maybe, the moles keep fighting you because you keep bashing their friends over the head. But by the end, it’s the old lie and the old myth. Our strategy is to vanquish. The American Empire subsists on the lie that we can bomb everyone and everything into submission, that if we just kill enough “enemies,” eventually everyone will agree with us. Even when in the same 15-minute speech, Obama acknowledges that we cannot do this. The failure is built right into the recipe. He’s telling you that this doesn’t work.

But he’s also telling you it will never end. He’s telling you that the policy is that small groups of killers will always exist and we will always fear them and always attack them. That the official stance of the United States of America in the world is that it must always be conducting these kinds of wars against anyone who harbors ill will toward the country. This is a game that has no end. There is no exit strategy, no strategy at all other than to play whack-a-mole forever while people commit themselves to a state that scares them and the industries and machineries of war make select Americans rich and the victim nations poor. Winning isn’t even the objective. As soon as we “destroy ISIL,” we’ll have new and scarier enemies to target.

In my teenage years, I used to lament that I’d been born thirty years too late, that the great moment of pacifist activism in the US had passed and that I’d missed out on the opportunity to show the ills of war to this country. Now, I just lament that we have been so fully manipulated and that the military-industrial complex has so thoroughly consolidated its power and abilities that the idea of protest or disagreement is somewhere between passe and ridiculed. I remember how depressed I was going into work in 2003 on the day that we invaded Iraq, how my boss told me the war would be over soon. The war will never be over, as long as this country persists with these kinds of policies. We will kill and kill and kill and enact the very horrors on other people that we so fear for ourselves, all in the name of safety.

We are, for a long time now, become our enemy. It’s almost like we’re all in it together. Do you think, for one second, that ISIS beheaded those journalists and thought the US would react in any way other than exactly as it has? If not, please explain why you think they conducted those actions. Your only viable alternatives are the American exceptionalism to believe that we do things for reasons, but all other people are barbaric animals who just act on impulse and instinct for no reason (discussed earlier) or that they are the most naive and stupid people ever to live on the planet. ISIS wants this war even more than Obama. They know it will be just as successful for the US as the last one and just as galvanizing to their cause.

The war is what ISIS wants. You think that attacking ISIS, that bombing Iraq is fighting ISIS. It is working with ISIS. It is doing exactly what they were trying to get us to do.

There is this section of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which I just finished, where the narrator struggles with the phrase “fighting with” and how sometimes that means fighting against and sometimes it means fighting alongside. And how context in language makes that same phrase useful for both purposes and that people seem to get the author’s meaning regardless. And how much of a struggle that makes for her in her efforts to be clear, which is pretty much the struggle of the whole book.

But it’s the perfect illustration for us today. We are fighting with ISIS. Both/and. Both meanings. By fighting against ISIS, we are supporting their goals and objectives and fighting on their side. Forever and ever, amen.

by

Obliviate

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Read it and Weep, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , , ,

“Had four brothers once upon a time
He said they toured the country far away from the Rio Grande
But the road just wore them down
So they bought a house beside a lake
Outside of New Orleans
And stared in the direction of the escalating sound.”
-Counting Crows, “Cover Up the Sun”

David Foster Wallace tried to write a book about boredom and it killed him. There was some other stuff there in between, including electro-shock, sorry, -convulsive “therapy” and a lifelong understanding that the world has some things that need fixing and may just never get fixed but it’s still important to spend all your energy trying anyway. I’m trying to write a post about memory loss/confusion/destruction and I don’t know where it’s going to go. But I’m probably going to spend a little less time on it that DFW did on The Pale King.

This will either be up today or one of those posts that sits in my pending limbo box for years and greets me every time I log in and reminds me, like everything, of my failings. Actually there’s really only one of those and it’s called “Seven Billion Ghosts” and it’s been sitting in that prime position since Halloween 2011 and it was all based on a false premise, which is why it never got posted. The false premise was that there were more living humans than there had ever been cumulative living humans before and what that meant about the planet and its currently dominant species. But as I was researching the last little bit of it, I discovered that this idea is a common misconception that has been thoroughly debunked and that we probably have something like a hundred billion ancestors haunting our past, depending on exactly what you count as a human.

No wonder people feel pressure to procreate before they die.

There’s this scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, right at the opening, where Hermione, having realized how unsafe her parents are in the wake of a world that contains a resurgent Voldemort, has come to the disturbing decision to wipe out their memories so they can’t give her up or be tortured to death while refusing to do so. She doesn’t have the opportunity cost in time and energy to keep them safe otherwise and the best thing for everyone is for them to just forget they ever had a daughter. The movie rendition of this scene is pitch-perfect, Granger shakily aiming her wand as the four syllables in the spell “Obliviate” echo through a room otherwise illuminated by only the mundanity of a Muggle television. And she vanishes from pictures on the mantle, her image receding into oblivion, and then she turns to go.

Obliviate

There are days, days like yesterday, where I think this would be the best spell for me to cast on the world.

I just finished reading Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in half a decade, maybe ever. I don’t know quite how to grapple with the fact that it’s a book that exists in this world, it hit me like a ton of bricks, almost like a Counting Crows album, which I incidentally bought on Tuesday, when it came out, like always. There’s nothing terribly unique or profound in the book, but like the movie “Boyhood,” it just feels so much more real than a novel. I’ve been reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress too, and that book is trying so damn hard to make you feel like a butterfly dreaming of being a man, but Colorless just does it without trying. At a certain point between all these influences, I can almost squint and believe that I’m not really who I have been all these years, that I don’t really exist the way it’s felt, that this is all kind of a thought experiment or an exercise or just a dress rehearsal. Feeling like one’s on borrowed time always carries that connotation a little bit, but it’s somehow so much stronger when in the midst of artists who seem to be feeling and saying exactly what you’re feeling all the time.

Of course what this really speaks to is the universality of experience because we really do all exist and there is meaning and no matter how hard to see that it becomes, we can’t let go of that reality. There are people, we’ll call them “Chris Baia”s for short, who believe that the world is just shit and it’s stab or be stabbed and you might as well pride yourself on your ability to stab first. And if there’s a reason to keep going, near as I can tell, it’s to prove these people wrong. I don’t believe in evil, but if these people win, I don’t think a nuclear holocaust could wipe us out faster. There is something here. I don’t know if it’s real, I don’t know how much it matters, but it has meaning and purpose and it’s important to value that, somehow, against all odds. “Don’t let the Chris Baias get you down,” a future generation may someday say to each other as they go out to face impossible pain.

This is the first weekend that I’ve not been with the Rutgers University Debate Union for a competitive start to a season in six years and I don’t even know how to process it. The team has been asking me to help with things from afar and I have been pretty remiss about doing it because I feel so guilty and bad for leaving them in the lurch of an administration that seems hell-bent on dismantling everything we built. There seems to be so much of life that makes everything into sandcastles and the inevitability that the next tide will render all your energies and efforts moot. And the only answer I can find for this in a world of mortal fallible idiots is the mandala, some of the most beautiful art in the world, created by Buddhist monks and then deliberately wiped out, wrecked, destroyed, left only to exist in the fleeting hollows of memory.

People fail to do so many things out of the fear of facing themselves and their shortcomings and, mostly, guilt. We all feel so bad for so much we’ve done to other people and it makes us just not want to try or face other people and the longer time goes on, the more things seem to meld together into just one big ball of wrongdoing. And so we don’t contact the old friend, we don’t open up to the next one, we just hunch our shoulders and try to get through a day without feeling pain. And it doesn’t work and it never happens. And it’s easy to say we should just open ourselves up and be vulnerable but that hurts and it’s too hard sometimes, like when we’re sick or busy or hungry or lonely or breathing.

No wonder people get electro-shock-convulsive treatment-therapy willingly sometimes.

I wish them so well, my cherished debate team. I know they will do well against the mounting odds and I will try to help them as best I can in my mired mind about everything. I never was good at drawing boundaries or putting limits on my time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this post I made before any of that. Before the divorce and the team and I hired Chris Baia and any other countless numbers of mistakes piled up to make me feel like every coinflip I made in those days was disastrous. And yet, and yet, there was last year’s National Final, there was even this tournament in Mississippi just weeks ago, there’s so much that makes me feel like pre-birth I chose to have the most extremes, the highest highs and the lowest lows, just so I could see it all before I go.

Eventually, if you live long enough, and listen, and read, everything just becomes a reference to everything else. And I guess if you live an emotionally charged life whose past you dwell on all the time, you’ll start seeing it in everything and then even the pain of a character or memory of someone else’s becomes your own and eventually it can snowball until you don’t even need to supply your own new experiences at all. I saw a movie last night about a misanthrope’s misanthrope, a classic Woody Allen proxy in a classic Woody Allen movie and halfway through I thought “is that me?” and it reminded me of seeing “Wonder Boys” with Stina in Boston in 1998 and she reassured me that I shouldn’t see myself in the hopeless bumbling of the main character but I still do and I can relate so hard to all our mistakes, hard enough that it almost makes me want to forgive these people who have shaken my mandala so hard. It’s so hard to dance in colored sand and not care about the edges one took so long perfecting.

But it’s what we’re here to do, right? I mean, no one gets out of this world alive.

“I said goodnight, goodbye
Seems like a good thing
So you know it’s a good lie
You can run out of choices
And still here a voice in your head
When you’re lying in bed
And it says that the best part of a bad day
Is knowing it’s okay
The color of everything changes
The sky rearranges its shade
Your smile doesn’t fade
Into a phone call
And one bad decision we made.”
-Counting Crows, “Possibility Days”

by

Let’s Talk About Suicide

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

Robin Williams (1951-2014) in Good Will Hunting, where he talks about emotions!

Robin Williams (1951-2014) in Good Will Hunting, where he talks about emotions!

“And when the guy said, ‘Well, do you ever get depressed?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sometimes I get sad.’ I mean, you can’t watch news for more than three seconds and go, ‘Oh, this is depressing.’ And then immediately, all of a sudden, they branded me manic-depressive. I was like, ‘Um, that’s clinical? I’m not that.’ Do I perform sometimes in a manic style? Yes. Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh, yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh, yeah.”
-Robin Williams, Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, 2006

The way people talk about suicide in this country infuriates me. Because most of it is very much a way of not talking about it. People treat suicide like it’s ultra-contagious ebola, that it is unspeakable, unthinkable, and that even discussing it without a biohazard suit on will somehow create a wave of copycat suicides and an epidemic and therefore we should just zip our lips and praise the person who just “died” (not, never ever, “killed themselves”, even though that’s what actually happened) and ignore the gargantuan elephant busting down the walls of the room that the person in question just chose to publicly end their own lives as a statement. If the monks in Vietnam had lit themselves on fire in 2014, the bylines would just talk about their clinical depression and how it’s really sad we couldn’t have shipped more therapists into Vietnam along with our napalm, but gosh they did some good praying before they died.

I am really angry.*

*I know this is an emotion and it’s a strong one and also a negative one, and therefore I probably have several clinical things wrong with me that require pharmaceuticals to pacify me, but buckle up kids, because we’re going to talk about emotions like they are real.

Before Robin Williams killed himself earlier this week, I posted this on Facebook about roughly the same issue:

“Reading David Foster Wallace always makes me think deeply about what it means to be a person and the importance of imposing that question on daily life. Which I would imagine would be a legacy he’d be immensely proud to be known for. That said, it drives me utterly crazy that book jackets and flaps insist on the perversely simple ‘He died in 2008’ to explain his current absence from the world. It’s as though he were hit by a helicopter crossing the street or something equally hapless and mundane, not that he’d made a deliberate choice. I suspect he’d be equally bothered.”
-26 July 2014

And while a lot of people echoed the sentiment and agreed that there should be more open discussion of this, some people complained that suicide gets “fetishized” which seemed to me akin to the idea that we should censor the information of people’s suicides, its methods, any note or parting thoughts they left. And while I agree that some people are fascinated by suicide and its details for the wrong reason, the same is true about pretty much everything bad that ever happens in the world. But failing to talk about anything bad ever, while it may be the ultimate direction of our media, is not yet the norm, and of course stifles a conversation about, y’know, how to make things better.

Suicide is complicated. It’s icky, it makes people feel bad, and it is completely unrelatable for those who don’t experience suicidalism. I have to believe that the main reason suicide and its details are such a third-rail for so many is that it is so completely alien to the average person that they truly believe thinking about it or talking about it will give it to them, like ebola, and that something they find abhorrent and scary and awful will just infect them if they read about it or do anything other than say “blah blah blah I can’t hear you, please go talk to a professional”. But it is precisely this attitude about suicide and this shunting it off to the side that prevents the actually suicidal from feeling like they have a place to go or an outlet for talking about suicidalism the way they want to.

Indeed, this post from the Washington Post has been getting a lot of social media traction and includes the line “Suicide should never be presented as an option. That’s a formula for potential contagion,” attributed to Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and, I promise, someone who has never wrestled personally with being suicidal. This line so fundamentally misunderstands the suicidal mentality that it would make your head spin, and does. For the suicidal, it is always an option. The issue is keeping it at bay long enough to delay it until the option doesn’t feel as wildly present anymore.

Like alcoholism, suicidalism is always present for the suicidal. You never get over it completely, it never fails to be an option. It’s just not something you want as much in the better times, something you can keep at bay. But no alcoholic ever thinks of a beer as not an option, much less does someone sharing “gosh, I want a beer” on social media constitute a clear and present danger to their sobriety. (If it does, they are completely and totally hosed in their efforts to stay sober in the United States of America.) And while I might personally say that a campaign to ban alcohol advertising everywhere to support alcoholics recovering would be a good step, no one else in the world would agree with me. It would be as ludicrous as Ms. Moutier’s statement should be considered.

True, not everyone, especially not vulnerable young teenagers first wrestling with the idea of being suicidal, has developed their strategies and coping mechanisms and ways to survive suicidalism. They are more vulnerable, susceptible, and prone to influence, like teenagers everywhere. But what kind of message does it send them to say that we shouldn’t talk about Robin Williams’ death as a suicide, shouldn’t mention how he did it, shouldn’t even deal with anything other than his wonderful career and “mental health issues”? Which, I’m sorry, but is a codeword for Feelings Which Shall Not Be Named. It’s a way of saying the only person you should ever begin to discuss your extreme feelings with is your therapist, because only they have the proper biohazard suit to deal with this ebola you are suffering from.

Yeah, that sounds like a really reassuring recipe for scared and vulnerable young teens wrestling with suicidalism. You have your hour a week with a trained professional to discuss those feelings. Otherwise, your feelings are invisible to us, kind of scary, and will be ignored even though it’s obvious they are impacting prominent people in our society in a profound way.

It would be like displaying the 9/11 footage and talking about United and American’s great track-record of safety and that anyone with concerns about how the planes came to end up in the buildings should discuss it with a local building engineer of their choosing. Anything else might inspire other people to crash planes into buildings!

When I was working at Rutgers, I would discuss the nature of suicidal feelings with some students struggling with same. I was later admonished against this by the administration that was trying to use some controversial aspects of my coaching as a way of ending the debate program that they felt was not a good use of money, as supported by the betrayal of my Assistant Coach at the time. One of the many reasons that I decided to quit my job was that it was very hard to imagine how I could continue to do it effectively without being able to discuss emotions and feelings and sometimes, yes, even suicidal thoughts, with the students who I’d spend forty to sixty hours a week working with. The attitude of the university and its official policy was that such thoughts and feelings were to be immediately referred to crisis staff, whose only role was to whisk the students off campus and into seclusion fast enough so that they would not become a negative statistic for the university. There has been a lot of public discussion lately about how university policies around suicide are actually encouraging and promoting the feeling of life-collapse for those already vulnerable to harming themselves. That somehow removing someone from their support and community, calling them a failure, and telling them to stay away until they get better is exactly the recipe for getting someone already suicidal to be even more serious about that effort. But universities, as a general rule, don’t institutionally care about these people and their ultimate fate. They care about liability and responsibility and our society says that no one can blame them if it didn’t happen “on their watch”, even if they were entirely the precipitating cause of an eventual suicide.

But something that I would discuss with people included my own personal strategies for surviving 24 years and counting as a suicidal person. I don’t know if these things are taught by therapists or not because I’ve never seen one, primarily in the last few years for fear of being locked up, shocked, and/or medicated against my will. Unfortunately our society sees these outcomes as ultimately best and once that ball starts rolling, it’s impossible to stop if you took the first step of your own free will. And sorry, but my free will is more important to me than being deemed “healthy” by a jury of this society’s standards.

Here are things they don’t discuss in these prissy little articles telling you to say that Robin Williams merely “died” and it was “unfortunate”:

1. You are more vulnerable to an impulsive suicide than a planned one. Planning takes time and effort. Set the bar and standards high for your suicide so that it will take longer to plan and you will have more time to talk yourself out of it. Don’t settle for something quick and mundane, no matter how much you’re hurting. When you are suicidal, you are also depressed and exhausted, have low energy, and the effort of doing something elaborate will be overwhelming and you will sleep instead and tomorrow might be better.

2. Hide your knives. Hide the utensils if necessary. Don’t leave anything dangerous lying around. You will of course know where you hid these things, but those extra few seconds of rummaging may be life-saving and critical. Again, it takes effort, which you tend not to have the energy for in the worst times. Put as many little barriers between yourself and something impulsive as possible. Stay back from ledges. Do not stand on the edge of train platforms, even when you’re doing better.

3. Set a very high bar for your suicide note. It is the last thing you will ever leave on this planet. It must be the best thing ever. It must say everything possible to everyone. Does this seem hard? Does this require a lot of planning? Might it not be better to deliver some of these messages in person? Good, wait till tomorrow and go talk to those people, tell them what you have to say in person. Keep revising the note. It’s not really perfect yet, is it? Maybe next week.

4. Take risks. Big ones. Keep in mind that suicide will prevent all of your other options, ever. If you’re willing to go there, you should be willing to do everything short of that. This includes running away, disappearing, renaming yourself, taking out all of your savings, if applicable, (or debt if not) and going on the trip you always dreamed of. If you’re really that suicidal, start treating yourself like a terminal cancer patient. Get all you can out of the next few days and weeks. You’ll probably find something fun or enjoyable or livable or good in there. Give yourself a chance to be happy after all you’ve been through. Even if it’s just for a few days. You’ll be glad you did, even if you ultimately make the same choice, but odds are that it will lead you down a different path that’s more livable.

5. It is okay to be sad. Everyone is sad. If you are not sad in this world the way it is structured, you are a nincompoop. This does not mean there isn’t joy in the world, or elation, or things to look forward to. But the people who aren’t sad, frankly, aren’t paying attention. Look at how people treat each other. Look at the wars and the famines and the plagues and the poverty. Look at it! But here’s the thing. You can’t just stew in your room about these things. Go talk to someone about it. If they just don’t want to go there and think about sad things, who needs them? Find someone who can take it. Everyone is truly sad about these things and the ones who aren’t are just in denial. Sadness does not mean you have a fucking disease. It means you have your eyes open in a place with real horror in it every day. But the horror only continues if everyone who sees the horror leaves. Your ability to actually see it gives you an obligation to do something about it to make it better. If everyone did that, the world would have wayyy less horror. So go talk to someone about it. Even if you have zero energy to do anything about it right now, talking to someone and feeling that sadness together will make you both feel a little less alone.

6. What do you like? Is there a new thing of that coming out soon? Books, movies, video games? I bet you can’t really wait till the next big one of those comes out. Wouldn’t it be sad if that were the best thing ever and you missed it? I know it’s a long painful time to wait. Why don’t you spend all of your time before then reading/watching movies/playing video games? Yes, all of it. All of it. You could! If you’re not going to live at all, if you’re really willing to go there, shouldn’t you be willing to just do the one thing you enjoy doing 100% of the time first? It beats the crap out of dying.

7. What if your best friend/mother/favorite celebrity killed themselves? Wouldn’t you feel awful about that? Wouldn’t you feel personally rejected and like there must have been something you could have done to help? Now, do you really want to put your loved ones through that? Really and truly? Even if you think some of them deserve that, do all of them? Even if you think no one in the world cares about you at all, is that really true? Really? Find the one person who might be an exception and tell them how you’re feeling and how much you need them. If you don’t, they will spend the rest of their life wishing that you had and that will be on you that you made them feel that way.

Now, many of these may not work for you. I’m sure some of them sound trite or trivial or stupid. But every single one of the above strategies has prevented me from killing myself at least once in the last 24 years. Every one. And in case you don’t think I have enough cred in this department since it’s been 24 years since I made a serious effort, I’ll tell you a little story. Last fall, under immense suffering and a confluence of seemingly ruinous events, I banged my head into a plaster wall, hard, eight times in a row. It was the back of my head, sure, because I was hedging a little, but I gave myself a concussion and have had floaters in both eyes since about a month after the incident. There’s a particularly bad one in my right eye that gives me more headaches than I used to have, especially when I read a lot, one of the things I truly love doing.

I get mad at myself every day for doing this, especially when the floaters are really prominent (there are better days and worse days). And it fuels my anger-spiral and my self-hate and all the things I wrestle with. These things are not a fucking disease, but they are the realities of living on this planet and having feelings and experiences that are not always cheery. Robin Williams did not have a disease, he was a person, complicated, feeling, compassionate, with a deep understanding and fear of the human condition.

And maybe if he’d lived in a society that made it more okay to talk about those things, to reach out to others (not just “professional experts”), one that didn’t shun and shunt suicidalism off to the corner and call depression ebola, he’d still be with us today. Your silencing of this discussion is killing people. And it’s not okay.

My floaters have given me another little strategy, another thing to be upset about. Even though they’ve diminished my quality of life, they are a reminder that acting on my suicidal feelings does harm to me and that I’d rather live most days without harm. So it’s made the consequences a little more real. And that’s a good reminder.

Every time a celebrity kills themselves, it’s a little totem of the same thing. It’s a reminder that we need to talk about feelings and emotions and the state of our world and work to improve all of them. Not in our biohazard suits, but raw, openly, laid bare, with all our thoughts, feelings, and real experiences on the table. If we were all just real and open and honest with each other about our darkest hours, we’d all realize how un-alone we truly are.

by

Institutional Idealism

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , , ,

When I worked at Glide in San Francisco, I worked with an intern from Germany on a project about the nature of Glide as an institution. It was a special project for the then CEO, newly hired, who wanted to study why Glide as an entity was so resistant to change and data despite being so effective at providing help for the poor and homeless of the city. The metaphor my co-worker came up with was a unicorn, which stood in for the mystical Glide culture that pervaded everyone’s image of Glide as a place and an institution in the community. Which is not to say that Glide isn’t a truly magical place, but that the image everyone had in their mind was that this more deeply magical than perhaps was real. And it came down to this unicorn that needed to be protected and sheltered, when it should actually be running free through the streets of the Tenderloin.

The issue is this: Glide became what it is (revolutionary, radically inclusive, a church without walls, a life-changing place) by taking risks, sometimes risking everything. This was easy to do at first because Glide was young and had nothing to lose. Glide was just an aging Methodist church in a decaying neighborhood when Cecil Williams arrived in the sixties and he had a vision that he was able to put into practice because he was totally unafraid of the consequences or the risks. This kind of fearless abandon is the heart of the unicorn, it was what was so downright inspiring about the early years of Glide, and it is what spawned such radical and amazing change and possibility.

But here’s the problem. The more success that this methodology encountered, the more success there was to build on within Glide as an institution. Over time, Glide was no longer just the fringe radical group that accepted gays and fed everyone. It acquired powerful friends like Maya Angelou and the Clintons and Warren Buffett. It acquired donors by the thousands, volunteers by greater thousands. It got government contracts, grants, and a certain institutional entrenchment that meant Glide suddenly had things to lose and thus to protect. No longer could Glide risk everything so freely because there was nothing to lose. Now there was influence and ability to lose, with thousands of San Franciscans relying on the services Glide could provide that was made possible in large part by these key connections and assets.

This success, this accumulation of power and influence and assets, this process makes institutions more conservative. And what the intern and I identified and proposed is that there is a tipping point where the component parts of the institution (staff) believe there is more to be potentially lost from the future than gained, and at or around that tipping point is when an institution goes from being idealistic and radical to protectionist and conservative. And the grand irony at Glide is that what everyone most wanted to protect was the mythical unicorn of Glide culture, whose every aspect was non-conformity, radicalism, inclusivity, and risk-taking. In other words, what everyone wanted to hunker down and preserve was the exact opposite of the attitude of hunkering down and preserving. And thus we presented our findings to an all-staff (or maybe all-manager?) meeting and started to put about a plan where Glide could both preserve its radicalism but become fluid and idealistic as it had always been and everyone always wanted.

I post this little vignette not to publicize somewhat internal information about Glide, an institution that I believe in fully and you should support, but because since doing this study in 2008, I have found the lessons of this understanding to be true about almost every institution everywhere. And not just institutions, perhaps, but people. It is complete cliche that the young are idealistic radicals and the old are cynical conservatives, but no one really analyzes why this is the case other than the shorthand that age creates conservatism. The older conservatives would argue this is because experience teaches you that conservatism is correct, but I think the flaw in this reasoning is obvious from the above. It’s not age itself, but the process of accumulating things that one fears losing. This is why the rich are more conservative than the poor, because they have more to lose. The entire spectrum of idealism can be measured by whether one fears the future more or finds it offering more hope. And that, in turn, is based entirely on what one feels one has to lose.

This is also why children are, in general, so wide-eyed and optimistic and idealistic. The future is where everything sits for children and, as a rule, even if they have things they don’t appreciate them fully because they can’t contrast it with the concept of not having them (unless, of course, they’ve experienced many different qualities of life over the course of their few years). Teenagers especially find the future and the immediate present to be vibrant with radiating possibility and freedom and thus take the most radicalism on. And by the time people are settled with jobs and relationships, suddenly the future looks like it’s coming for their stability more than offering more possibility. Doubly so if there are debts like student loans and mortgages to be paid.

Thus the challenge of the would-be idealist, the person who aspires to be King or Gandhi and reach much older age with idealism fully intact, is to be willing to take risks and not feel like there is much to be lost even if there are material things or stability to be lost in actuality. This, I suppose, is the heart of bravery and fearlessness, to act as though there’s nothing to lose even if there is, and is certainly what King and Gandhi called on from themselves and their supporters. Of course the lesson of those individuals precisely is that there is, indeed, everything to be lost, one’s own future time on this planet is completely at risk from behaving this way, yet both lived for years with the assassin’s bullet as a fully formed threat in the future and proceeded heedlessly and to great and wonderful effect.

Our society is a raging torrent of influences to get us to be more conservative, to fear the future, to hunker, bunker, and protect. The entire world of advertising, arguably the most powerful, constant, and influential voice in our world, tells us to fear this, that, or the other, and that only a product or service they are selling will mitigate the impending doom. Our news-media is a disaster-hound, teaching us to fear hurricanes and gunmen and people who don’t look like us who are coming for our stuff and our lives and our livelihoods. Our government, especially in the United States, is in endless paranoia about things being taken from a country the envisions itself as having absolute power, influence, and dominance, and thus absolutely everything possible to lose. This is why 9/11 can spawn the Patriot Act and war without end, because we are so darn afraid of losing anything that we flail hopelessly at the rest of the world for even thinking it could take anything from us, no matter how small that something is or overreactive our lashing out.

But there’s a reason that we idealize childhood, that being young is associated with joy and hope and the way we aspire to see the world. It’s because the world of the young is full of possibility and hope and a future that looks bright, whether or not it actually proves to be. Deep down, this is the way we all seek to live, the way we all know we should be living. We all have dreams that we’ve wanted to sacrifice for at some point. And it’s harder when the things we’re hunkering and bunkering to protect are marriages and children and the house with the white picket fence we’ve just agreed to pay off for three decades. And 100% risk is not for everyone. But I think examining your own calculus of more-to-gain or more-to-lose from the future is a great guidepost to looking at your own idealism and getting back to a place where the future is pregnant with possibility, not portentous with loss.

Certainly the institutions in which we interact, work, and play could learn a lot from this. But that starts with each of us being idealistic enough to take those chances and inspire others to do the same. Only then are we really living, are we really free, and are our unicorns real.

The corner of Ellis & Taylor, San Francisco.

The corner of Ellis & Taylor, San Francisco.

by

Elegy for AC

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Hypothetically Speaking, Know When to Fold 'Em, Marching to New Orleans, Metablogging, Tags: , , , , ,

I didn't take this, but I might as well have.

I didn't take this, but I might as well have.

The first month I lived in New Jersey, Fish and I went to see Counting Crows play at the Borgata and then stayed up most all of the night playing poker. I wrote about it here, at the time. The month I moved away, we did the same thing. It’s just one of those things. Like the only PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans on Earth outside of the southern US being in Highland Park, New Jersey when I moved there and closing the month I move to New Orleans. It’s enough to make you a solipsist, or at least to be very focused with one’s own life, something Counting Crows shows always have a way of doing, as I’ve talked about recently in the wake of a just earlier show.

There’s a theory I have sometimes, that I think about more than I’d care to, about life as Contract Bridge. It’s a version of solipsism and probably something that just missed inclusion in The Best of All Possible Worlds but might even make a decent sequel if that book were up for that sort of thing. In any event, the idea doesn’t necessitate solipsism, though it certainly implies it or a warped expanded kind of meta-solipsism. The idea is that there are a million of each of us out there, living on parallel worlds, and we’re all basically playing our own individual video games of our own lives, but it’s being scored and at the end you get compared to the other versions of yourself out there. I use this notion to both berate and reassure myself, the idea that there is a Storey Clayton abroad in some far-flung galaxy who took exactly the opportunities I had and is a renowned and well-regarded author with several books that are even now changing his society. Or hell, just a Storey Clayton who was able to not have a marriage taken from him. That would be neat. It’s not always a way of lamenting my fate, it’s at least half the time a way of trying to kick my own rear into gear and remind myself how much potential and opportunity I’ve truly had, which only occasionally slips into a reminder of how pathetically I’ve squandered it.

The circumstances of August 2009 were so vastly different than June 2014 that they don’t even seem like the same planet. But we kept making references to the earlier time, overlooking things like spending the day seeing “500 Days of Summer” earlier that weekend, how significant I found that movie at the time without being able to envision any portends of my own impending doom (reason: there weren’t any portends). We didn’t wait as long in line this time and weren’t quite as close, but the show itself was so much better for the lack of accompanying bands going crazy. The Toad opener was awesome, especially being able to get to see “Something’s Always Wrong”, Fish’s old them song, live with him. And “Windmills” again, which always kills me. The lead singer of Toad kept referencing how crazy it was that the band had broken up 16 years ago and you could feel this kind of reference to the idea that Counting Crows had been together the whole time and what could have been for him and then. You got the feeling that the decade and a half felt like a wasted blur to him. I haven’t seen their VH1 special (if applicable) and don’t know what demons, chemical or otherwise, he may have spent the last few years wrestling with, but I could really relate to the implied sentiment. Of course, one goes to Counting Crows shows to relate with what’s on stage, whether it works or not. That’s just what you do. Hearing him say “We’re hear to sing songs about sad people so you don’t have to,” made me boggle that I’d never heard Adam Duritz drop a line like that.

It would be a fitting epigraph for half my own fiction. Or maybe all of it. There’s always more novels to come.

Fish had sort of promised Madeleine and/or himself that we wouldn’t stay out quite as late this time, but we’d gotten a hotel room in anticipation of breaking that pledge and break it we did. Fish had perhaps his best night of his life on the poker table and then I went to show him Revel before they close it. For the uninformed, it’s a casino that was built to be high-end, 1% style that started building in 2008, which is every bit the disaster you’d expect it to be. By the time they opened it in 2012, it was already bleeding money from every drain. The state owns it now, functionally, and is probably shutting it down in September unless they can find someone to buy it. It’s one of the most beautiful places to gamble I’ve ever seen (I’ve been seeing a lot lately) and the poker room was perhaps my favorite, a place where I always made money and spent one really fun weekend when they’d just opened sipping luxury coffee and scooping some pretty big pots. The poker room closed a while ago, shortly after I cashed in a tournament there, but the rest of the floor is still really beautiful if you can avoid eye contact with the suicidally depressed employees. Revel convinced thousands of people with great casino jobs in NJ and Philly to quit to come to the only place anyone was supposed to be playing after 2012. But the place was bankrupt less than a year after opening and it’s almost all over. We put five bucks on three numbers of a roulette wheel, hit one of them, played a couple more rounds, and walked away with even more of the state of New Jersey’s money.

Then we ran out to the beach to watch the sun rise and take in all the things people feel on beaches when it’s way past bedtime. (Yes, CC played “A Long December,” and there’s all that baggage out there too.) The sands of time, the tides of time, the significance of half a decade spent in a state that I’ve always hated (and it’s grown on me, but only in terms of a few people and really just RUDU, to be honest… even Rutgers as a whole did next to nothing to endear me to the institution), a state that’s made me suffer more concretely than any other by a long shot. The relief and exultation I feel to be leaving the physical state of New Jersey, even despite missing RUDU and access to Philly and AC, is constantly palpable even now, a month and a half after departure. I don’t really believe in curses, but I do believe that significance is infused in time and space, even if it’s only in how we think it makes us feel. Good God.

Since getting here to New Orleans (and playing poker a lot, which is my trial job for now… so far, so good, and yes, I’m monitoring it closely so don’t panic), a lot of people have been talking about Atlantic City like it’s in hospice care. And to be sure, casinos are drying up left and right. Not just Revel, but Alex’s favorite, Showboat, itself something New Orleans themed in New Jersey, is slated to close in September, even though it’s still turning a profit. Pennsylvania just passed NJ as second state in the country for gambling revenues and explains a lot of why AC is falling apart… the Philadelphia market and I-95 corridor now have alternatives that don’t require burning as much $3.50 a gallon gas. Honestly, I just tell people these days that the Mob couldn’t shut down competition forever and I think that explains AC’s demise as much as anything. There’s a lot of grand metaphors to be made about how much America has turned to gambling in the last decade as a balm for its problems and I should honestly be the last to complain given my new attempted livelihood and its enabling, but it does feel like the habit of a country in decline. But then we’ve always been a nation of get-rich-quick and when the bootstraps snap in our hands, I guess the craps table looks as enticing as anything else.

Before I left, a lot of people expressed concern at the proverbial crosshairs I was putting myself into by moving to New Orleans, what with the crime and especially the flooding and the hurricanes. I hastened to point out to them that in the time I lived in New Jersey, New Brunswick got hit with two hurricanes while New Orleans experienced zero. Yes, the specter of Katrina looms large over everything here, but the larger point is that you can spend your whole life running from certain things and planning for certain others. You don’t have any more control over your life than you do over how those dice land. It sure feels like you do because you threw them, but really you’re just facing a series of decisions with very limited information and the best of hopes and intentions but no real power. It should be liberating in a way, though it doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility of doing the best with the very limited control you do have. You need to savor what you’ve got. But in the end, it’s the sun and the tides and the seven billion other people who are running this show, not you.

I’ve been struggling with how to write about the past and the present now that I’m ensconced, sort of, in New Orleans. It’s complicated by the fact that the move still isn’t settled here and I don’t know how to talk about that and am not sure I really even want to, at least for now. But there were so many experiences along the way that I was too busy and overwhelmed to discuss, the move (never ever use All-in-One Moving, ever, people), the trip to Orlando and the Georgia beaches where we watched a sea turtle lay eggs and crawl back to the water, everything that’s happened in the city of the fleur-de-lis. And maybe these are best discussed in reflection. One sure as heck doesn’t know how to describe waiting eight hours in a line for an amusement park ride while that’s happening. But it feels crazy to be posting a Counting Crows setlist five weeks in arrears. Or it would if I didn’t spend every morning singing “Cover Up the Sun” to myself in anticipation of the new album now less than a month away.

I will probably never again visit an Atlantic City that looks like the one I spent a decent amount of time in during my five-year tenure in New Jersey. But that’s okay, change is the only constant. All these “New”s are attached to these cities and states to remind us of that. Someday maybe I’ll take a tour of only the olds, hit Mexico and Jersey and Brunswick and York and Orleans. All places, save Mexico I guess, trumped by their newer bigger better counterparts. Before we all hit the tables and gambled away our fortunes. You do remember that’s what happened in 2008, don’t you?

This underwater city seems like as good a place as any to hole up for now. If the apocalypse hit, everyone would help each other out. They’ve done it before. That’s enough change for me today.

God, I didn’t even really talk about the show as much as I wanted. That’s what happens when you let it sit for five weeks. It was a short but powerful set. And they even played Mr. Jones, sparing me the ability to rant about one-song-fans for another few months, though I tell you the rant is pretty sweet. I sure wasn’t expecting that, but I was expecting “Potter” somehow right after “Earthquake Driver”, which I want to put on the record would be the Crows’ biggest hit in years and years on the charts if they release it as a single. Instead, it seems like they’re releasing the 9-minute “Palisades Park” first, which seems to show that now 50-year-old Duritz likes his current touring regimen and is done with big-time fame, even if they did just sign with Capitol. The song does sound like a stream-of-consciousness hybrid of his favorite themes of the last few years. Ah well, we all just want to be understood. That’s what this particular video game/life is about.

Counting Crows
28 June 2014
The Borgata – Atlantic City, New Jersey
with Toad the Wet Sprocket

Round Here (Palisades Park alt)
Untitled (Love Song)
Richard Manuel is Dead
Mr. Jones
Colorblind
Start Again
Omaha
Earthquake Driver
Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby
A Long December
Cover Up the Sun
Hanginaround

Palisades Park
Rain King (Oh Susanna alt)
Holiday in Spain

by

Getting Mugged

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

Moving is difficult. It’s not refugee-camp difficult or even traumatic-crisis difficult, which actually distinguishes it from a lot of this year, which has been harder. But it’s one of those things where the work is long and sloggy and contrasts highly with the ability to see the mission which is to go to a new place and have fun and exciting new adventures. There is nothing new-adventuresy about the process of taking all your accumulated junk and carefully nestling it in cardboard cubes so someone else can drive it across the country. It’s tiresome, exhausting, makes you question why you’re not a would-be monk with a penchant for arson, and, lately, kicks up enough dust to give me marginal respiratory problems (I’m going to the hardware store for a mask and goggles later this morning).

But, you might think, it’s worth it for the sentimental stuff. After all, who keeps all this garbage if it’s literally just a burden in every sense of the word? Surely the reason for keeping things is their reminder of past days of halcyon, times that shimmer in memory with an emotional gleam. Oh, this is when I got that. Oh, here’s the book I read when. And no doubt, there is some of that in my process. Ticket stubs from when Alex and I went to Tennessee on our first real trip together. Books from all ages. My turtle collection, though it’s been bound in the same plastic wrap in plastic tub from the last move (I know, I know). Debate cases from two different eras.

But then there are items like this:
GettingMugged

That is a mug, gifted to me circa 2002, bearing a statement that was true at the time.

Why have I kept it? What on Earth would possess me to go through my divorce and hold on to a cheesy undergraduate keepsake that was a half-joke at the time (we had friends who would seriously gift such items in part as the Ivy status symbols they were intended to be and that sentiment was not one we shared)? Why would I go to the trouble of keeping it, separating it from the mugs for daily use, and bunging it away to serve as a little land-mine for myself a year and a half later when it would spring on me, unsuspecting, while packing for the next move?

Pondering this question quickly gets me down a certain rabbit hole. Emily’s mother and I were standing in a dusty makeshift market in Monrovia in July 2010 at the conclusion of an absurd tour scheduled for us by a wife who couldn’t be bothered to take a minute off from work for her husband flying out to try to save their marriage. And the reality of suggesting some little trinket or souvenir immediately soured on Em’s mom’s tongue when she mentioned it, but the words were already out in the air, nearly as insensitive as the daily drivel of her offspring. She attempted a retraction, some quick sort of recognition that maybe I didn’t want to remember being here. As though that were an option.

She said “Maybe you don’t want a souvenir of Liberia.”

And I said, immediately, having thought about it for three seconds, “Everything I own is a souvenir of Liberia.”

To her credit, she started crying.

But it’s true, or it was true at the time. I revisited this seminal phrase, if not the precipitating incident, in a blog post fifteen months later, one that makes my webpage the only Google hit for the full-quotes search of said sentence. And while I do not expect that uniqueness to change, the reality of the statement has certainly diminished over time. I’ve lived and accumulated and not everything is a painful reminder of being married for seven years and suddenly having that revoked as though it had never happened. I’ve developed a relationship that I’m really excited about, excited enough to be the partial basis of a move several states away that necessitates all this packing in the first place. One that will surely make some people find this post itself to be unseemly and regressive, as though people become one dimensional when past hurts they feel are only a secondary aspect of their personality and not primary. I’ve even cut off communication, for three years, one month, and seventeen days, and counting, pretending that the object of my affection and ire is dead to try to find some semblance of peace. The illusion doesn’t hold, obviously, merely from blocking Facebook and asking friends not to inform me of her whereabouts (the emotional lift of knowing when she had left Princeton was tangible when I passed those haunted exits on Route 1). But the inability to interact with her cruel indifference has been a profound relief, one that tempers me every time I consider lifting the blockade.

And it’s the contrast between that cruel indifference of a woman trying to justify an affair as the first non-mistake of her life, a liquid personality who’d found a new solid container in which to imbue all her hopes and fears and immediately adapt to (thank you Ben Brandzel) and the mug that made me keep the damn thing in the first place. The mug is solid, physical, and literally bears writing which conveys the message she so viciously denied. You are loved. This feeling is real and shared and is worth proclaiming.

The idea that this mug is necessary to understand this message is patently absurd. I have, for example, our wedding rings. A DVD of the wedding ceremony in which she professes her love and undying commitment. And these items, no doubt, are landmines too, laying in wait as I sift through the sedimentary levels of papers of the last few years. But there’s something about this mug that is so unabashed and simple that it seems to give me the solace I crave and, simultaneously, fuel the rage I still have unresolved. And its roots are no doubt in a deeper past. After all, we are always fighting the last war.

When the person I used to call PLB betrayed me (it’s honestly just easier to continue using this moniker because it’s been a reference point here and among friends for decades, though most of my issues with this person have been resolved, though I still strongly question her ongoing judgment for, in part, other reasons), the most painful part (or maybe the most painful tied with the assumption that I couldn’t forgive her for lying) was that she denied that the feelings had ever been meaningful. Despite her last spoken words to me for years being “I still love you and we’re still getting married,” she told everyone at our high school who would listen that we’d broken up long before those words were said and that our relationship had been typical casual teenage fare in which she’d never emotionally invested. In short, I was a fool and an idiot and carrying on about nothing. And over time, it was this denial of feelings that outraged me so greatly, compelled me to routinely spit on the object I saw in front of me that reminded me of what cruel denial she was engaging in (her car), made me so untrusting of people in my future when they said that they felt something real.

And in October 2010, as I was scraping along rock-bottom and had nothing to lose, I saw PLB for the first time in fourteen years and she acknowledged the wrong she’d done, fully and completely, and gave me a solace I wasn’t even fully aware I needed. The irony of this timing will never be lost on me. But she said that her feelings had been genuine, that despite all the lies and uncertainty of everything else in her life, she had meant the promises she’d made to me. We were not just young kids fooling around. We were really feeling something real.

Somehow, this stupid inane trivial mug conveys that message to me, stands in counter to a person for whom making such an admission would crush her identity and make her narrative of tilting ever-upward in progress a sham. I have never understood the people who break up or get divorced (there is a difference, and people referring to divorces as “break-ups” is now a lifetime pet-peeve) saying “we really love each other, but timing/circumstances/life just didn’t work out,” but of late I envied them because they depart with a huge satisfaction of knowing that they didn’t feel and strive and love in vain. It is the feeling of standing out alone on the rock, of being the idiot who thought a marriage meant something when the other person is so callous and thinks and professes that the marriage is just obviously tissue-paper, that makes me want to hold up this mug and say “You lie! You loved me. Even if you won’t admit it, I know.”

I know, intellectually, that the evidence that she loved me is overwhelming. And I know that all her cruelty is just a series of defense mechanisms, the armor she embraced so she wouldn’t have to face the pain she was causing. Any third-grader with a two-bit interest in psychology could tell me that and they’d be right. I know. I know. But emotionally, it doesn’t make it any less damaging. Not one bit. Which is deeply unfortunate and prompts all this exposition.

And I hasten to add that all this obsession herein about the mug and the marriage does not undercut what I’m feeling about my current relationship and the future whose theme decorates this blog and most of my thoughts that are not angst about the mundane struggles of the moving process. I know that most people prefer to have an uncomplicated emotional perspective, whatever their feelings might be about the past, that it’s easier to disregard and diminish past loves in favor of the future so that one’s feelings about that future can appear uncomplicated. But this is dishonest and untrue, and I suspect not just for me. And I had a realization fairly early in my relationship with Alex and told her the next day, namely that if Emily came back and knocked on the door and begged for another chance, I would have to turn her away and say that I had new commitments and would have to see those through first and that if they never waned, she would never get that chance. It was a big moment, huge, and Alex sincerely told me she never expected it, let alone that quickly. So let’s not take anything away from the present with all this about the past.

But the past is real. That’s the whole point. It really happened and no amount of defensive denial is going to change that.

I’m going to discard the mug. Donate it, I guess, to Goodwill or someone, let someone use it in the absence of any emotional resonance or past feeling. It can be one of those discordant images of objects in the possession of the poor, like the T-shirts worn by homeless in the Tenderloin celebrating some tech conference that utterly failed to draw its expected audience. Or that proclaim the championship of a team that never won it, though those more often head to Africa where they are less likely to spur a confused reaction. The image of an Ivy trophy sitting in a thrift shop is almost as satisfying as one of Emily sincerely apologizing and admitting that the time we spent together actually meant something to her.

Besides, I have this post now. I have the image and all the thoughts that flow from it. Maybe I should do this with every sentimental object in my life. Make it a study, an object lesson, then let it go, send it on its way of being a metaphor for something meaningful rather than a collection of solid atoms I have to hold and transport. Everything in my life could be a mandala. And while my Dad’s voice in my head notes the possibility of an EMP or a paradigm shift that destroys our electronic virtual world, the Internet is generally perceived to be pretty permanent. Or sufficiently so for this life. Maybe this is a model for how to get rid of everything, to pack light, to meet the goal of getting everything down to a backpack.

But no matter what we own, we all have a lot to carry.

by

A Walk in the Park

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

It’s been quite a week.

I would like to be poetic and hip and write one of those rambly but ultimately reflective and incisive posts that I aspire to write nearly every time I sit down at this screen. But I have a weird mix of energy and productivity and what (for lack of a better way of putting it) I would call morningness that actually debilitates the more loquacious and important post. When I wake up in the morning and want to be awake, my brain is trained for the pragmatic, the practical, the mathematical, the straightforward. This is why I do basically all of my fiction writing at night, when my brain has entered a state far different and more creative. Not everyone sees the morning this way, but I think it makes sense. The brain hasn’t had time to fog up and adjust to the more lyrical side of life… it’s about procuring food and sustaining itself and getting from point A to point B in the morning. And while I really prefer to be in the hazier more creative state all the time, the morningness certainly serves its purposes well, like in today’s dealing with bank accounts and furniture and all manner of practicalities innate to the moving process.

So this will mostly be about basic updates, the kind of things I want to chronicle but may not be in the mood to chronicle poetically.

I will be moving to New Orleans, officially. I know there was some equivocation before, but signing a lease and putting down a deposit is about as definitive as things get in my life, so that appears to be that. Alex and I will be living in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans for at least the next year and very probably the one after that. No, I still haven’t settled on what I’m doing yet, but I couldn’t be much more excited to head to the city after spending a whirlwind 60 hours there.

I spent most of the time there with dear friends Ariel & Michael who’ve seen me near my best and at my absolute worst in a decade and a half of friendship (with Ariel at least). They are erstwhile New Orleanians who’d not been back since they traveled there to marry. I got to join them in Audubon Park, location of their nuptials, as well as all over the city as they remembered it fondly and frequently and compared it to itself both before and after Katrina. It may be the last time I see them before they are parents and this brief visit was full of things to tell their child, not least of which was a visit to pick up a sign bearing her future name.

Walking through the French Quarter at night not only made me giddy at how lucky I am to be moving to New Orleans, but reminded me how big an impact New Orleans Square in Disneyland had on my imagination as a young child. Ariel, Michael, and I talked a bit about influences on children and the extent to which parents can control them, an increasingly relevant concern for many of my friends as they all start to procreate. I think I am constantly amazed at something rarely discussed in person but often captured in fiction, the little inadvertent magic that happens to young children without design or motive as they encounter unexpected beauty or captivation in the world. Many influences can be traced to parental or societal direction, but others come trailing in on the whim of a particularly good day or a very memorable scene that strikes a young person’s fancy just so without clear explication. The results are often more powerful than all the deliberate guidance in the world. I have always adored Disneyland and New Orleans Square has always been my favorite stop therein and a bit of the French Quarter at night (more secluded, less Bourbony) hinted or overtly referenced the calm fireflies of the opening waters of Pirates of the Caribbean, the long shadows of intriguing homes of the Haunted Mansion, or the raucous bravado of the rest of the former ride.

It is rare that we get to reinhabit what felt magical in our childhood and live it even more robustly than the first whispered promise of unseen delight. I do believe this hope is why most of us have children. To be able to live this way, or even to imagine doing so, makes me so grateful and even more excited.

Okay, maybe there’ll be a little poetry in this post after all.

Of course, there’s also the concern with something like this that it will quickly become pedestrian. And by that, I don’t mean prone to walking, which this entire week was, because that was awesome. I walked more than 5 miles the first day in New Orleans, traipsing around from lovely to horrendous to so-so apartments and back again, ducking around the streetcar line that is sadly being repaired in long stretches and replaced by bus. It was hot and humid and exhausting and wonderful and got my mind in just the right setting as walking extensively always does. No, my fear is that like Sarah once said about living in the Grand Canyon, that one will become used to the most beautiful place on Earth, to lose an appreciation for it as it becomes the normal setting for existence. I think this is part of why I’m being careful about employment or commitments of time just yet as I head for Louisiana. I want to be sure that I keep the magic and excitement involved in the decisions that I make, that I can keep that fresh joyous feeling about life for a long time to come. It not only makes the days fuller and richer, but it preserves an amount of hope I haven’t felt in some time. I can’t remember the last time I felt I had chosen where I was and what I was doing, fully. And even here, terms were dictated by Alex’s employment and other forces. But I am finally digging out from under the oppressive weight of Emily’s decisions and the fallout therefrom. I’m doing something on my own terms and it tastes like liberation.

And a little bit, perhaps, like veggie gumbo. Something I still have yet to see outside of Anaheim. Though I might just see it in Orlando next, coincidentally my stopover city on my return flight from NOLA, since the plan involves a stop in that city’s various attractions between Atlanta and the new home.

The visit also entailed a trip to Atlanta to see Alex and whale sharks and the world of Coca-Cola. The Georgia Aquarium continues to be the most impressive in the world and probably my favorite… I could probably spend open till close staring at the largest tank in the world (the one that houses the whale sharks). A late discovery that they do have cuttlefish (Alex’s favorite and easily the most underrated fish in the sea) meant a lot of extra time and a brief audition of Alex as the ambassador from one species to the next as family after family tried to figure out why we were so obsessed.

Alex is living at Georgia Tech for the month of June and being back on that campus brought a nice round of memories up as well, even if my visit to see Jake there was relatively brief back in the day. Revisiting some of these cities reminds me how excited I am to see Austin, by far the city in America I’m most excited to visit that I never have to date. With the quantity of friends there and its proximity to Louisiana, I have no doubt it will be a new home away from home in the coming years.

This post was going to be part of Quick Updates and it now is too long for that and the rest of my morningness is probably better spent on the mundane tasks of moving on which I am already behind, though starting to catch up quickly. There will be plenty of time to weigh in on the political developments of recent days (including Iraq, the war that keeps on giving) and sports (the World Cup! The Mariners in playoff position!). But it will all have to wait. I must go and do, now that the future is taking a little more shape, a little more color.

We’ll start with yellow.

A glimpse of what the future looks like.

A glimpse of what the future looks like.

by

Confessions of an Accidental Accumulator

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , ,

“I’ve been known to say that I live much of my life as though I can assume that some archivist will eventually come in and take an interest in my old papers. Granted, that archivist may just be an older me at some point, but I still see a paper discarded as a grave tragedy.”
my post on this page, 28 April 2010

Hi, I’m Storey and I’m a pack-rat.

(Hi, Storey!)

As mentioned yesterday, I’m moving soon. And besides seeing friends and thinking deeply about the nature of transition and being, that means confronting the unsettling reality of my materialism. The truth of the matter is that while I aspire to not be materialistic and I kind of disdain the acquisition of stuff, I feel an overbearing attachment to almost everything I’ve accumulated. Not just papers, as mentioned in the quote up top, but pretty much everything.

Part of this stems from the belief that I will someday be a known novelist and thus all of my papers will be interesting to archivists who want to understand the roots of my writing better. I am aware that this sounds fairly egotistical, but then, as I discussed once with debaters on a long car ride back from somewhere north (I remember Henry and Jasmeet were novices, so it was some time ago), writing is a slightly egotistical pursuit – one has to believe that one has something worthy of convincing others, worthy of saying to people, worthy of their time and attention. (Incidentally, this is part of why my writing took such a hit in the wake of the divorce – such a rejection is about the most crushing thing one can face to the idea that one has worth in the world or advice worth giving.)

But I have to admit that I found an eerie familiarity in a This American Life piece on Andy Warhol’s “time capsules” that I heard while sanding luminarias in the run-up to last Christmas Eve. In brief, he boxed 621 of these “time capsules” full of personal junk and passed it off as “art”. While the veneer is that Warhol was once again doing something transcendentally original and avant garde and before his time, the reality is decidedly more pedestrian and human.

“[His assistant] suggested to Andy that rather than viewing the boring old cardboard packing boxes as just ways to transport his stuff from one place to the next, he should think of them as time capsules. It was exactly the kind of trick you resort to when your kids won’t eat their vegetables by making a chore into a game. And it worked. Big time… He’d found the perfect outlet for his hoarding impulses. Instead of having to throw anything away ever again, he could just stick that thing into a box and call it art.”
-Starlee Kine, This American Life Episode 514

One of the problems with debaters is that we are notoriously good at justifying things. Anything. It’s even an exercise I have people do when they’re coming up in debate. Some people call it “defending the indefensible” but my version is called a Two-Minute Drill where you have to talk, no matter what, for two solid minutes on a pre-determined stance that absolutely no one would agree with. People get good at this in debate, to the point where if they lose sight of their moral compass or never had much of a functioning one to begin with, they can become truly effective awful people. More on this later (not today).

So I’m good at telling myself, every time it’s time to pick up, pack up, and move, why I have two land-line telephones or five ethernet cables or that string of Christmas lights that would probably work if I switched out the one bulb with that one from the set of extras. Why I have my entire archive of papers from Glide (multiple boxes) that I was going to use to put together a non-profiteer portfolio for possible use in future hires, but that has remained taped shut through two moves and possibly counting, depending on whether I can just get the gumption to get rid of it already, or significantly pare it down. Why I have a Gamecube that Fish and I bought a decade ago that I haven’t hooked up in seven years.

My first inclination when I make these embarrassing revelations about myself and have to confront them is to get red-faced and hot-necked and have my eyes water up a little and try to forget this knowledge. My second, better, inclination is to talk about it on a public website so maybe there’s a chance I will have to face it head-on, fully, and, you know, do something about it.

My Dad has spoken to me a lot lately about what he calls the “Depression mentality” wherein those who lived through the Great Depression in America all became hoarders out of a survival instinct that stemmed from an era when nothing was taken for granted. He cites it to contrast with what he sees as the contemporary sense of entitlement that those in my generation and younger carry, the disposability of an era when shortages aren’t real and durable goods, while perhaps not actually durable, are cheap and plentiful. And while I can see the point that he’s making sometimes, I think that somehow I inherited the Depression mentality straight from my grandparents. Part of it, I know, is an inborn frugality whose precise roots I can’t trace that I’ve only recently (probably post-divorce) been able to shake off enough to have a little fun and relax about money. But once I’ve plunked down money for something, I have a really hard time letting go of it, especially if the resale value is paltry in comparison to what was paid upfront. I don’t really care that much about money in the day-to-day, but confronting taking a heavy loss on an item or its purchase being wasted just seems intolerable to me for reasons I can’t fully grasp.

And some of the stuff, or a lot of it, carries a sentimental burden. I’m a more emotional and feeling person than most and was raised from a young age to anthropomorphize objects of all sorts (my mother was raised on “crying peas,” but pretty much every appliance in our household was capable of speech). There’s the box of photos that I’m sure no one would begrudge (though some might prefer to organize). There’s allllllll of the books. All of them. Which is an issue I revisit frequently. I care deeply about the books I buy, even though most of them are used to begin with, and keeping all of them like a little memory of everything I’ve read. I love the look and feel and heft of books and the feel they give when reading them and I am truly one of those people who believes this process can never ever be replaced by screens no matter how many trees it costs, even though I know there’s probably something wrong with that sentiment. But. But. When I really examine how often I’m going back to these books, it’s a little uncertain, a little fishy. I’m not a re-reader at all… I can count on two hands the number of books I’ve read even a second time. It just feels like opportunity cost to me in a world where I’ll never read a fraction of what I want to. So, why keep them all?

I have this fantasy I’ve long harbored around the idea of having a child or maybe even children someday and having a library, shelves and shelves floor-to-ceiling, all with ramshackle uneven copies of books in the editions that I read along my journey. And my not-yet-sleepy 12-year-old comes bounding into the library where I am typing away on my umpteenth novel and shyly asks if we can pick out a book together. And as we peruse the shelves for new discoveries, I tell stories of where the book came from and the layout of the bookstore or the friend who gave me that copy and what life used to be. And later, as I tuck the child in after they’ve long since fallen asleep, I slide a gentle bookmark into the place where they’ve sandwiched their index finger, look at the old worn pages and my child and feel that everything has been for a reason.

I spend an inordinate time thinking about this future, doubly so for someone who is still quite uncertain about the desire to have children and how good a father they might make. For one thing, I should probably first learn how to throw something out before I try to raise someone else to make decisions on this planet, no?

(Brief Pascal’s wagery aside: Hi, future child! I’m really glad I had you! Isn’t it crazy that we invented the Internet so you can read about all your father’s insecurities at an age when I probably am unsure if you should even have a computer yet? Love you!)

I think the deepest roots of all this accidental materialism come from a really fundamental irony. Namely, that my discomfort with throwing things away is rooted in the idea of a deeper discomfort with the notion of waste. It’s bad enough, it goes in my mind, that we have to have stuff at all or that I am often convinced to buy it. But to get it and then no longer have use for it, to fill the landfill with items whose purchase could have bought food for hungry people who were dying, this is unforgivable. But instead of make use of it or do anything purposeful, I pay still more to lug it around from one state to another, replacing one guilt with a slightly shallower one. It’s actually kind of sick when you think about it.

Wow, I just really figured that out when typing this thing out. The values of writing in an unbridled and on-the-fly fashion never cease to impress. Huh.

So, yeah, I’m carting around a lot of stuff I’ll never use so I don’t have to feel even worse for having never used it. When I think about it like that, it makes me a lot more optimistic that I will actually get out some trash bags tomorrow, or at least spend some time on EBay (there’s till a market for used land-line phones, right?).

And then there’s the in-between stuff, the occasional-use stuff, that’s harder to discern. Tabling for a moment the notion of whether I will someday have a great library of well-loved books to proffer to my offspring (and whether they will even read non-digital books), what of infrequently played board games? Papers of some greater significance than work archives but still uncertain use (e.g. movie ticket stubs, cards, ballgame tickets, scribbled concert setlists)? Halloween decorations that I decided to collect at some point because of a love of the holiday but barely manage the organization to actually utilize? Cheap but replaceable pots and pans?

And then there’s all the stuff that most people would probably not think twice about parting with that I feel most tied to. Old T-shirts of fondly recalled events or places. Oldish stuffed animals, somewhere between the oldest and most loved (obvious keepers) and the newest and most relevant (hey, I have a lot of stuffed animals, okay?). Did I mention books? Because there are a lot of books.

There’s a point in this process, every move, when I decide that I’m going to create a great pile in the yard and have a bonfire and that I will feel this immense liberation at seeing the last few items smolder and turn to ash that will override the pangs of remorseful sadness and loss that would no doubt accompany. But an hour spent lingering on certain books, stuffed animals, and photos convinces me this isn’t a realistic option. So too, of course, the need to not live in an empty box in polite society. The desire to have furniture on which to plop and tables on which to set things and dressers and hampers and dishes. Modern life is all about the stuff, even for those who don’t like stuff. You need stuff to function, you’re constantly interacting with it. So even the bonfire just means a big bill is coming as you replace it with more stuff. Cue the horrible guilt about waste.

So what is to be done? How do I navigate the relatively few days I have to convert this sprawling apartment into a neat row of folded, taped cardboard squares? Having not made it big yet, the Andy Warhol option is regrettably out. And the shed in the backyard looks a little too flammable for my more pyrotechnic plans. Finding the right balance in the middle, to find just the right blend of freedom, sentimentality, wastelessness, frugality, and reasonability is something I must face on my own. Unless, of course, I can interest you in a used ethernet cable.

The current state of my office.  Spoiler alert:  it was never really better than this because we never really moved in fully because... stuff.

The current state of my office. Spoiler alert: it was never really better than this because we never really moved in fully because... stuff.

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Marching to New Orleans

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, Metablogging, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , , , ,

From my first visit to New Orleans...

From my first visit to New Orleans...

You may have noticed a burst of color around here. If you haven’t noticed said burst of color, hit the “refresh” button on your browser.

Ah, there we go.

I’m moving to New Orleans in a little over a month. My girlfriend, Alex, and I are heading there so that she can Teach for America. We both acknowledge that there are some things TFA could do better for the way our society is headed overall, but she wants to be a teacher and this seems like an easy way to test that desire and do so in an awesome new place.

I will be leaving my job coaching debate at Rutgers, one that I have unofficially done for 5 full years and officially done for three and a half. I could not possibly be more conflicted about this decision. In fact, I was so conflicted that despite announcing to the team that I would be leaving at the Senior Banquet on May 7th, I did not officially submit my resignation letter until about an hour ago. And I still am kind of in a shocked awe of that decision. I actually decided to leave. I have loved almost everything about coaching the Rutgers team and watching their incredible hard work, dedication, and perseverance pay off in untold unpredicted ways, culminating in this year’s trip to the National Championship Finals. And yet there have been challenges, as there are with any pursuit, and I’m starting to feel restless, as I always do after 5 years anywhere. Anywhere, much less New Jersey.

My relationship with this state is weird and circuitous. I can honestly stay that no state has brought me more overall pain during my time here, but almost none have brought me more joy. I never would have predicted that I would spend so long living here, but I wrote two books, coached for five years, lost a marriage, and started another quite serious relationship. But I’m not here to just tick off milestones and put New Jersey in perspective. It will be a long time before I can fully do that.

Perhaps the better thing, as suggested by the glaring colors and header of this blog as of today, is to look forward to Louisiana. I’m not sure what I’ll do there, but I have lots of ideas. I will probably start out focusing a little bit on poker, since that’s been going really well lately and I hear it can be done as a job. But I’m considering very seriously doing more with writing, with this webpage, and possibly getting back into non-profits. I might take a job in a coffee shop or library to get involved in the community and support some creative pursuits. I might work at Tulane, doing something vaguely administrative. I think I’m done with debate for a while and I’d like my nights and weekends back, but that can always change… someone in Alex’s TFA cohort apparently went to my high school and started the Tulane debate team, which apparently will be seeking to join APDA next year. You can’t make real life up.

It is too strange, early, and overwhelming to contextualize all this transition, except that it feels right. RUDU is poised to be a self-sustaining force for the foreseeable future of APDA at this stage, with two National Finalists returning and a ton of talent convincing the administration to maintain its commitment to the team. My work there could continue, but is largely done. The five-year bells for a location in the back of my head are jangling hard. I have always been fascinated by New Orleans and even have a novel plot set there where I could do some of this alleged “research” I sometimes hear things about. Maybe I’ll finally manage to go on a ghost tour, or even start running them. I think my visions of New Orleans were long defined by its Square in Disneyland, easily the most random but enthralling part of the plastic kingdom. I mean, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, and veggie gumbo? I think New Orleans Square might be the only place I’d be more excited to move than the actual city itself.

I will be doing a small tour of the eastern seaboard before I head out to make sure I see those I’m going to miss most before I go. I’ve contacted most folks about this, but please feel free to e-mail so we can hang out before I go. I’m also going to be heading down to the Maryland summer tournament on June 14th as sort of a last goodbye to APDA. Even though it won’t be a last anything, of course, because are we ever really done with APDA? I have every intention of showing up to a tournament or two next year to judge and see RUDU again and get back in the world that has been a bigger part of my life than any other single community.

There is still a tiny chance we end up in Finland next year, actually. And a still tinier chance that we end up in a third, indeterminate, place. But with Alex in training to teach in New Orleans as we speak and time passing just as quickly as ever, this seems like as good a time as any to call it. So there you go. Or, rather, here I go. Again.

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I Miss You Already: Glide, Maya Angelou (1928-2014), and the Ever-Renewing Past

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

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
-Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

There is a place at Glide called the Maya Angelou Room. It’s warm and cozy and the perfect place for stormy summer San Francisco days, a place with plush green couches and a well-worn table and pictures of Maya herself and long-suffering people who have come through Glide’s doors seeking salvation, or at least a meal. It has wide windows looking out on the desolation row below, looking out onto the meal line and the pigeons and the occasional shouting or shoving that define the Tenderloin.

Here, why don’t you look at a picture to see what I mean:

Shamelessly lifted from Barbara Lin's Facebook

Shamelessly lifted from Barbara Lin's Facebook

We would have meetings in that room, serious ones or birthday celebrations, or planning for the next big project or visit. It’s a locked room much of the time, unlike most at Glide, with Vicky running around hectically with keys to open up one of the hidden little sacred spaces in the ramshackle earthquake-prone building at 330 Ellis. The room is the center of the internship program at Glide, where new fresh-faced students from surrounding universities come to learn about how non-profiteering is done, with hard work, sweat, love, and sometimes frustration.

I never met Maya Angelou, an apparently fairly frequent visitor to Glide and one of its most ardent supporters. Her room, though, felt like I’d imagine talking to her would have been. Somehow warm and simultaneously austere, comforting and reassuring but not immune to conflict and confrontation of the truth. I have no idea if she had a role in designing it or if it was simply named in her honor, but I’m sure she sat a spell there at least once and probably appreciated it. Maybe it inspired a poem or evoked a memory. I always felt like writing when I was in that space.

There’s a lot I have to write. At some point, I’m going to have to come forward with some untold stories that are burning a hole in my keyboard, stories of pain and betrayal and institutional failure and all the old tropes that seem to be a big part of what life is about on this planet. I don’t believe in battles between good and evil, but I do believe staunchly that there are people out there who want you to believe that life is just garbage. That it’s always been garbage and always will be, so why don’t you go out and get yours, whatever the cost. As I told some of my debaters recently, what keeps me going is the importance of not letting the message that life is garbage win. Life is hard, grueling, and filled with misdeeds. But it is more, far more than garbage. Maya knew it, and her life was way harder than mine will ever be. Glide knows it, every day, and inspires those whose lives are harder than Maya’s.

But life, as we are reminded in the ensuing online debates from recent events, is also not a battle over martyrdom, over whose pain is biggest or whose obstacles are greatest. It is, perhaps, an effort to see who can come the farthest through such setbacks that we all must face and try to bear. The most-quoted Angelou line of the time since her death and perhaps of all-time is this one:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
-Maya Angelou

I think the ability to make people feel better, more positive, more hopeful, more understanding of each other and the life that we are trying to lead, that’s perhaps the greatest aspiration any of us can have. We all want to change the world, even if it’s only for the lowliest of reasons, but changing how people feel about going through this arduous journey is probably far nobler and more important. And the only way to find out how that’s going is to constantly communicate with those people, to engage, to offer stories of one’s own as illustrations for what could maybe be reached in the future.

Angelou was masterful at this. Through the spinning of words, in poetry and prose, she could keep people hanging on a thread and make her hard hard life relatable to anyone, inspiring to everyone. She was one of the first people I read in high school who made me realize that childhood was something stripped from many people, who alerted me to the fact that lives like those lived by the children of Seneca Center, where I would later work, existed. She reminded me of the power of a simple honest story and how it could resonate, reverberate, ripple into the memory and actions of others.

As I stand on the precipice of another transition, another move, another series of goodbyes already in progress, I think back to the foggy environs of Glide’s second floor, to the cavernous echoes of the neighboring sanctuary, to the peeling tile and hearty smiles of the last place I toiled. I miss you already, though I haven’t even left. In missing the last thing, I am missing now and missing things yet unmet. A full heart is a heavy one, and there is much to be grateful for about that, even if it feels like sorrow. Benevolent sorrow, but sorrow nonetheless.

Maybe I’m just trying to live up to one final quote from Maya:

“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.”
-Maya Angelou

Doug Gaines, myself, Barbara Lin, Jesse Mendeola, and Burgious Frazier after briefly simulating a baseball game in Glide T-shirts on an intersection in the Tenderloin, c. 2008.

Doug Gaines, myself, Barbara Lin, Jesse Mendeola, and Burgious Frazier after briefly simulating a baseball game in Glide T-shirts on an intersection in the Tenderloin, c. 2008.

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Legal Troubles

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

This is going to be a post about George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. In other words, I may be part of the problem. But the problem is that there is a problem and ignoring perceptual reality in today’s society is like not existing at all. Perceptual reality, increasingly, as it has been for over a decade, is reality, or at least a sufficiently hefty chunk that it bears grappling with.

Here is your picture for this post:

Look!  It's a metaphor. After all, another word for picture is illustration.

Look! It's a metaphor. After all, another word for picture is illustration.

I know why you think you care about the George Zimmerman murder trial. You think you care because of your sense of justice. You believe that this case says something about race in our country or whether you and yours have a right to defend yourselves, your neighborhood, your property, your livelihood, your freedom, or about what rights those who have less privilege among us actually can exercise and whether those rights are equal to those who have the most privilege. You believe that this case is a litmus test or a clarion call or a precedent or any number of the other things that we mistake court cases for in our society. You believe that justice is something meted out by judges with gavels in courtrooms. You believe that justice either was or was not done.

I believe that you believe any and all of these things (if you do) because you have been told to. Because the media has pumped these concepts and images into your brain to get you riled up into believing these things because it’s better than you thinking about larger issues of societal structure that affect the, y’know, actual reality.

I know I sound like I’m breaking out the tinfoil here. Bear with me.

There are myriad problems. I discussed last week why the media focuses on these kinds of dramatic race-baiting issues and brings them to the forefront in place of more systemic or larger societal issues. As alluded to in that post, you hear a lot about missing children. They are exclusively young white girls. Nearly a million people are reported missing in America every year. While most are found fairly quickly, a majority of those people are actually men and you can guess that the number of minorities is at least the statistical average percentage, if not disproportionately high. Now name or raise the issue of a single person you have ever heard of going missing who was not a young white girl. The girls they found in Cleveland earlier this year who were young but at least one was non-white don’t count, because they were only news (outside of Cleveland) because they were found, not because they were gone.

Now index all the names you know only because they were young white girls who went missing.

I’m not saying this is part of some vast conspiracy to get us to only care about young white girls. The problem is, most people care disproportionately about young white girls, either because we’ve been conditioned to find them the most attractive and vulnerable or because we actually do or some combination of them. Those related to young white girls also have the kind of money and influence you need to get your sob story in the media over the sob story of, say, a Pakistani woman whose entire family was just killed in a United States drone strike. And the media follows the audience, follows the dollars, then carefully augments and crafts the audience to create more dollars. It’s simple math. Simple, but profoundly insidious because it creates a perception of what kinds of people are and aren’t valuable in our society and how urgent a particular case that is actually relatively common is. This elevation of certain people over others is inevitable to an extent – we’re always going to have famous people and celebrities who enjoy more personhood than the rest of us – but it’s damaging when it creates a misperception about the nature of certain realities in our society, such as how many people go missing and what they look like.

Which brings us to George and Trayvon and the rapt attention they have commanded from America over the past weeks and into this very day, when social media is erupting in fence-building, line-drawing, and outrage outrage outrage. I’m not saying the verdict was right or the verdict was wrong. I’m not qualified to make that judgment, if for no other reason than I haven’t been drowning my attention in details of the case. Frankly, you and many of your cohorts may be just as qualified to make this judgment as the jury since you saw as many minutes of the trial as the jury did. Maybe you’re an expert and you know why this verdict was a travesty or a vindication. I can grant you that.

The mistake you may be making, though, is thinking, as this whole country does, that this case goes beyond this case. That this case sets a tone or a precedent for the whole society, enabling anyone to shoot down anyone they find suspicious. (Or, conversely, that it would have struck a blow against guns or racism had the verdict gone the other way.) This is the problem with a litigious society. We take what happens in one particular case, riddled with nuances and specificity and individual details, and cross-apply it to the whole world of laws, justice, and reality. All that was judged this weekend in Sanford, Florida, was what happened in this one particular instance. And not even one particular instance, honestly, but one shadowy legal interpretation of precisely what we can construct and admit about what happened in a particular instance.

There are two key distinct problems here – the cross-application of one case into a world of cases and the nature of what goes into a legal decision.

As far as the first, we can all be forgiven for making this leap. The court cases that are not murder trials that the media chooses to replace an entire 24/7 news cycle with which we follow most closely actually do set or change precedents. The entire legal system is founded on the baseline myth that we can interpret future interpretations of the law based on one we made in the past. I know a lot of you reading this are lawyers and aspire to be and are about to inundate me with protests of how precedent is the very backbone of legal theory, especially in a country with a Supreme Court. Yes, I know. This is the problem.

Most of lawyering, near as I can tell, is about mining the rich and over-documented history of law for cases that can be bent into seeming similar to yours and then finding favorable interpretations to proffer as precedent. And then people, be they judges overly steeped in legal theory or juries underly so, interpret the things you have offered as binding forethought and determine whether this holds water or not. Obviously this assumes that people were never wrong in the past, which is deeply problematic as a system, as well as assuming that past determinations are the most important factor in determining future behavior. Despite the fact that most of the world understands this to be one of the most baseline, if intuitively appealing, logical fallacies we can muster as a species.

And I know precedent changes and gets overturned all the time. But if so, why would it hold water in the first place? If tradition or past usage is a justification, but can be changed at will by courts, especially high ones, then what is this incredible weight we ascribe to tradition for its own sake? The only argument I could imagine is that it keeps the law knowable, but when we literally bar (get it?) lay people who have not paid their literal and figurative dues steeping their minds in arcane legal mystery from even approaching a courtroom to seek justice, how knowable is the law? I would submit, as I have in the past, that the law is literally unknowable – that no human being has the cognitive capacity to absorb the entirety of what we consider to be law in this country and apply that to daily living. The fact that we require our most well regarded and highly paid experts to navigate even rudimentary elements of this Law is a good indicator that this is true. You can’t possibly know the law when making daily decisions in your life, so precedent and past ruling should be no comfort.

At that point, while we know that the Supreme Court can whimsically choose which cases are worthy of possibly changing laws in our country and which are not, there’s nothing truly meaningful about the very concept of precedent, let alone its solubility in the long-term. To say nothing of the literal fallacy, even if you believe in legal theory and reject my critiques, of applying a non-Supreme Court case as a wider precedent to law and behavior. So other than in the perceptual media reality of exaggeration and the choice to focus on this case, there is no precedent of any kind being set by the George Zimmerman acquittal.

Nor, frankly, do these sorts of precedents make a lot of sense. You could argue that this case will ring in the back of someone’s mind the next time a member of the neighborhood watch of a gated community is confronted with an individual they find to be threatening. That they will be more inclined to shoot because Zimmerman wasn’t blamed for shooting Martin. I find this argument vaguely preposterous. The person is unlikely to think about long-term ramifications of their actions and rather be governed by fear, fight-or-flight, and their own personal moral backgrounds on killing, self-defense, desire to live, conflict resolution strategies, and so forth. If the long-term does enter their mind, they will realistically have to gauge the quality of lawyers they can afford, the absurdly low likelihood that their case will become even slightly noteworthy, and perhaps the nature of the local police and their likely gut-reaction to the incident, which will determine 95-99% of its outcome.

And if they are at all sophisticated about factoring in the Zimmerman precedent, they will also have to recognize that Zimmerman’s life is probably not going to be one they would want to survive to anyway. While he will not be imprisoned, the rest of his life will be dominated by this case and even the attempt to go underground and change his name will probably be thwarted by our corporate surveillance state. The best he can hope for is fame and book revenue from further publicizing the incident, but he will still be someone who half the country militantly regards as a murderer and will probably have to be nearly as fearful for his ongoing safety as he would have been in jail or on the night in so much question.

But the possibly more problematic question than precedent is the idea that what goes into a legal decision has anything to do with what the lay person would conventionally call justice.

There’s an increasingly common reality coming out of a lot of cases, most of them issues of corporate accountability and responsibility. One was documented in a recently rebroadcast NPR show about the suit of a casino that knowingly manipulated a gambling addict into owing them six or seven figures worth of money she didn’t have. Others arise every day in questions of manipulation, lying, cheating, and otherwise extorting people, the environment, or other common goods out of their money, property, safety, or health. This reality can be well summed up in this judgment from the transcript of the referenced show, a This American Life episode on blackjack:

From a moral standpoint, Caesars’ predation and prosecution of a pathological gambler is repugnant. … [But] [t]here is no common law duty obliging a casino operator to refrain from attempting to entice or contact gamblers that it knows, or should know, are compulsive gamblers.

Law is not about morality. It’s about the letter of the law being applied to a specific case. This is the system which we’ve constructed.

And many of you will think this is a good thing, because to you morality is whatever the Southern Baptist church says it is, and that means that gay marriage will always and forever be illegal and that would make you sad. Of course, no one has even been able to show what would be immoral about gay activity or gay marriage, and most of you are atheists who believe that there is a morality independent from God, yet whenever the word comes up you assume its most detrimental interpretation. I can’t understand this entire chain of logic, but if you believe morality can be separated from a hard-line originalist interpretation of religion, then what’s the problem with infusing law with morality? Why can’t these concepts have more in common than they do?

Many would respond that this is because morality can be individual and variable, whether there’s religion involved or not. Fair enough, but surely this is true of law and justice as well, especially as actually applied in a courtroom. Because at the end of the day, the written unknowable law doesn’t determine legal outcomes anyway. It’s just people. Flawed, human, mistakable people, making their own weird biased decisions.

I believe I’ve discussed here before the jury I served on in California a few years ago, involving a contract dispute between a sole proprietor who did events management and the quasi-non-profit who hired him to run an event. The case was really ambiguous and difficult and fascinating and hotly contested. And it hinged on one clear question: whether a sole proprietor signing his name to a signature as an individual also served as signing for his proprietorship or not. Did he have to sign twice, once for his business or once for himself? Or would just once work since it was a sole proprietorship, meaning he was basically the business?

(It just occurred to me, perhaps for the first time, how fascinating this question is in the context of corporate personhood… an aspect of the case I’d somehow never considered before. Ah well, for another time.)

Anyway, it was clear to most of the jury that this question was the hinge question for the case. If one signature counted for both, we’d side with the non-profit. If you needed two signatures, we’d side with the sole proprietor. But none of us felt qualified to make that legal determination. Surely there was something in the law library that could help us out. So we asked the judge to see the relevant statute so we could deliver the legally correct verdict.

We were all hauled back in from deliberation with the judge and both sides of the trial and their lawyers to have the question, which I’d phrased, read aloud by the judge. The judge then smirked and scolded us for asking it. He said he wouldn’t pull some statute from a law library even if the relevant one existed (he didn’t know – the law is unknowable!). He said that we’d been charged with making this decision, not the law. Whether one signature or two were necessary was up to us, not legislators or judges or even juries past.

So we voted, and on an 8-4 decision we decided that, in this case, two signatures were necessary. Largely because there had been two lines drawn up on the contract, one for the guy and one for the business, and the business one was blank. Had there been only one line, signed, we probably would have gone the other way.

Hopefully this case illustrates, at least a little, how variable and minute and interpretative the law is. And look, you may be a believer. You may look at my real-life parable and celebrate the wisdom of Jefferson and how the intent was always to have yeomen citizens deciding and interpreting the law on the daily and making flexible changes that went with the times and the individuality of every circumstance. Fair enough, perhaps. But confusing that process for some sense of “justice” seems misplaced to me. Justice is, as I understand it (it’s never seemed the most vital concept to me in the pantheon of lauded concepts, honestly) is supposed to be cosmic and righteous and ultimately fair. There’s very little of that in an individual decision hinging on a small biased interpretation of a few details. These jury decisions probably have almost as much to do with the hunger levels of the jurors and the past backgrounds of their own myriad flawed experiences as they do with some aspirational sense of justice.

So how can you confuse what American courts do with justice? Or injustice? I know we throw these terms around a lot, but is this even what the courts are attempting to do? I doubt it. They’re just trying to get things close enough to what seems legal (not moral, not necessarily even fair) at the time. And if the law says you can shoot someone because you’re scared, then they’ll try to uphold that. If the law says even the slightest nagging doubt in the back of your mind means you let the guy go, then they’ll try to uphold that. These jurors don’t want people to be able to shoot other people – these jurors are just hopelessly trying to apply an unknowable entity to an only partially knowable set of circumstances.

It’s a little like getting a bunch of people studying physics for the first time in their life to interpret a very complex set of circumstances and come up with some sort of equation to justify it. They’re in their first semester of physics and you tell them to write an equation for why a baseball flies off a bat in a certain speed, direction, and trajectory. They’re not going to be terribly sophisticated at doing this, they might get the question wrong, and in no way are they trying to do anything other than apply a set of rules within a given system (in this case, physics) to the circumstance they poorly understand (the baseball flying off the bat).

Now even this is probably a bad example because you’re likely less skeptical about the ability of physics to explain everything than I am. So let’s make the thing they’re trying to explain the existence of dark matter (something no one understands yet) instead of a baseball flying off the bat. We have no idea if physics can explain dark matter or if dark matter will rewrite physics. It’s unknowable and certainly not objective. But we’re asking these people to navigate the darkness and come up with the best equation to illustrate something we don’t know.

How could we possibly say if what they determine is right? Especially when the system we will use to help them is not a detailed course in physics from an objective perspective, but two angry professors arguing vehemently that physics is totally different than the other professor says it is? That they will present diametric and contrasting theories of physics and equations that both selectively take only a small portion of physics favorable to their side, then manipulate this information to their advantage? How on Earth could that system be confused for teaching or learning, let alone a moral outcome or even justice?

And yet we have structured almost our entire society around this system, willing to cede who lives and dies (literally, actually), who is free and who is tortured, who owes whom millions of dollars, all on this way of explaining physics.

It’s bad enough that so much hinges on these outcomes. It’s worse to magnify and augment that system by crediting it with also being a symbol of how the entire society views race or killing or guns or anything else that you care about. Do not misunderstand me – it’s good and right to care about those issues. Your passion is well-intentioned. But it is being badly manipulated by our legal obsessions and media motivations to create a firestorm. The media loves conflict, loves creating two polarized sides and exaggerating the differences between them. This is how you can be led to believe that George Bush and Barack Obama are polar opposites when they basically share beliefs and approaches on nearly everything that matters, something that is finally coming to a more common understanding after the revelations about the NSA. This is how you can be led to believe that there is political discourse in this country on real issues instead of shouting and grandstanding over deck chairs on the Titanic.

Take a step back. Breathe. Ask yourself why you care so much about these two people, this one night, this one situation. Ask yourself whether you would design courts the way they are if you were seeking justice and truth, or even (gulp) moral outcomes. Ask yourself if this is the best place to be putting your energy, your thought, your creativity, your anger.

3500 words in, I have to ask myself the same thing. Maybe I’m just as much a tool of what I’m trying to fight as any of us. Maybe that process is the all-too-inevitable reality of contemporary America.

by

33 at 33: The 33 Best Books I’ve Read in the Last 11 Years

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

I know a decent number of these numbers are going to appear random, or somewhat so. At first you might think that this is the list of the 33 best books I’ve read of all-time. This is not so. That list would be some sort of amalgam between the list that follows (the 33 best books I’ve read in the last 11 years) and the original list of the 25 best books I’d read to that point, which was the summer I was 22. That list actually probably has no right to call itself the “original list”, either, since I wrote a really original list four years prior, the summer before going to college. I’ve been making lists of books for a long time. This one happens to be exactly eleven years and three days after the last one I personally made, though I’ve of course been compiling a cumulative collective top list (most recently updated to 1,276 total books) here ever since.

In 1999, when I posted the 1998 list to my fledgling website, I wrote that “I’m sure that in 20 years, this list will have completely changed, excpet maybe the top ten.” It’s not 2018 quite yet, but the top ten didn’t even last four years. Tales of the Night, a book of Peter Høeg short stories, cracked the list at 6th in 2002, displacing the rest of the books. And John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany debuted there at 8th, causing further disruption. I’m reading a John Irving book currently, as I was for most of my trip west (which I should probably post about at some point). It is no Owen Meany. Nothing Irving has written comes close, in my opinion, though my second book on his list is A Widow for One Year. I’m currently meandering through Last Night in Twisted River. It may well be the last Irving I read. Irving, like Sherman Alexie, is a writer that gets worse the more of his books you read. Read 2-4 books and you think he’s brilliant. Read 5 or more and you start to realize he’s repackaging the same story and themes over and over again in increasingly tired ways. These concerns will not apply if you haven’t read Owen Meany yet because, despite the appearance of these same cornerstone themes, that book is special.

All of the books below are special. Probably only the top three are worthy of discussing in the company of the top ten from years past, though the overall top twenty-five would face significant alteration from the 33 upstarts below. I should probably consider compiling that updated top twenty-five, but it would be hard. And I want to let this list breathe a bit and have its day for a while too. How many times can you look at Watership Down, Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451 in order? A lot, if you’re me. But it doesn’t tell you anything new.

This list below is new. Not all of the books, of course. A decent number were written in the 11 years in which they were read, but some are much older, like selection #2. I can only imagine that I’m going to get some flak for my #1 choice, but it wasn’t really even close for that spot. And probably even more flak for #2 being such a classic and being upended by such a young and oft-trivialized book. But I don’t care what people think, any more than I did when I declared my 1998 list “The Hundred Best Books Ever Written”. That’s kinda how I roll.

So here we go, 33 from the last 11 years – three for each year (though that’s not how I read them… I’ve actually included, with almost guaranteed accuracy, the year which I read them because online tools and a few of my files have helped track that information). Each year is represented at least once, though 2004, 2010, and the current year (really a half-year), 2013, are represented only exactly once. It’s harder to tell the impacts of things that are extremely close in temporal proximity, which may explain why 2012 is over-represented with four books (including two in the top five and three in the top ten) and also is ironic given the title of 2013’s entry. 2004 really barely made the list with its lone entry at 31st (I only read 7 books that year, probably my all-time low in my life) and 2010 may be suffering a bit from how awful that year was for me, though I also spent much of it reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, which may well be 34th and just out of this list. (Honestly, if I’d never learned that the whole last section was basically lifted from reality rather than actual fiction, it would probably be in the teens.) Meanwhile, 2005 and 2008 lead the pack with five entries each. Four from 2005 are in the top twenty, including #1 and #8. Given how long ago 2005 was, these have some real staying power. All right, enough analysis, on to the list!

Look, I even made you a graphic of the top ten:
RecentTopTen

1. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (read in 2005)
2. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (read in 2007)
3. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (read in 2011)
4. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (read in 2012)
5. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami (read in 2012)
6. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (read in 2006)
7. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (read in 2008)
8. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (read in 2005)
9. The Elephant Keepers’ Children by Peter Høeg (read in 2012)
10. Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley (read in 2007)
11. White Noise by Don DeLillo (read in 2010)
12. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (read in 2008)
13. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (read in 2006)
14. The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan (read in 2003)
15. Eyeless in Gaza by Aldous Huxley (read in 2005)
16. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (read in 2003)
17. July, July by Tim O’Brien (read in 2002)
18. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (read in 2005)
19. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (read in 2011)
20. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (read in 2012)
21. A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut (read in 2006)
22. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (read in 2007)
23. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace (read in 2008)
24. One More for the Road by Ray Bradbury (read in 2003)
25. Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card (read in 2009)
26. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (read in 2013)
27. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (read in 2008)
28. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (read in 2008)
29. Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver (read in 2002)
30. Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut (read in 2002)
31. Let’s All Kill Constance by Ray Bradbury (read in 2004)
32. Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons by Kurt Vonnegut (read in 2005)
33. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (read in 2009)

It’s no surprise to see DFW lead the pack with three offerings (and his miniscule This is Water was in late contention for the list as well), in a tie along with old favorite Kurt Vonnegut. Though Wallace’s #3, #7, and #23 substantially outpace Kurt’s #21, #30, and #32. New friends (to me) Dostoevsky, Atwood, Murakami, and Rowling are joined by old friends Huxley and Bradbury with two each on the list. And I have no doubt that people will question The Pale King soundly out-ranking Infinite Jest, but I will defend that decision extensively to any who question it. Infinite Jest is surely a brilliant work of our time, but The Pale King has deeper and more poignant insight into the human condition, often speaking more incisively through its humility than the former does with its absurdity. Both, of course, are stellar.

Really, all of these books are worth reading, of course. And before I get to questioning too much too much more, I should just put the list out there and let you consider it for yourself. Happy reading! Or, given my taste, should I say… Thoughtful reading!

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