Categotry Archives: The Long Tunnel

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Object Lesson

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

I have learned a lot about myself in the past week. This is good. Learning is fun!

One of the things I have learned, or relearned perhaps, is how little I am surprised by things. Most people like surprises. I kind of miss them, I guess. Which is not intended as a way of tempting the fates. But if anything, I think I’m surprised that there aren’t more mass-shootings in America. About one a day is probably what I’d expect. Maybe we’ll get there soon. This is not a desire or a hope. It would be nice to have no mass-shootings in a year. But there would have to be a lot of changes to make that happen.

No, not increased security measures.

I wrote at length about the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon last October, how I saw it as a harbinger not of a revolutionary protest movement in our society, but as a reflection of how many people were left with nothing to do in our society. It would be nice if it were a revolutionary protest movement that was burgeoning in our society. Unfortunately, we have all seen too many revolutionary protest movements. We are watching several of them now! Look at Libya, Egypt, Syria. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. A bunch of people get themselves killed and do some killing and you end up with a society that looks a lot like it did before. But the leaders are slightly different and maybe this race or religion or sect has the advantages to lord over the prior victors. There is much to deter a young revolutionary in society today.

To believe in revolution, you have to believe in the future. You have to believe that there is a future worth fighting for. We are getting little stark illustrations all over the place that this is a foolish perspective. There will be a future, surely, in the sense of days that follow this one. No matter how much caves in or how much I lose, that is inevitably clear. But the idea that the right people can be in control, nay, that there even are right people, seems unlikely. And the more people who were raised and brought up to believe in an American dream and a future that was better than their parents’ and the mass accumulation of growth and so on and awaken to find the piles of debt and futurelessness waiting for them, the more people they are likely to go out and shoot.

I probably shouldn’t put in print that I understand that frustration and powerlessness of mass-shooters. I am a pacifist, of course, and abhor violence of all kinds, and am in no way trying to justify or vindicate the actions of James Holmes or anyone like him. But I get the idea of the world being so backwards and upside-down that only an absurdist and horrific reaction seems fair or justified. I have felt this way in my life sometimes and am very grateful to my pacifism for keeping me from stockpiling weapons. I know that some of you are probably surprised (there it is again!) to see me writing this, but I think you are not necessarily checking in with yourself sufficiently if so. Look inward, my friend. Have you never felt that kind of anger and despair?

This society is manufacturing anger and despair at an incredible rate right now. We’ve been over why, this worship of the magical “Economy”, and we’ve even been over how it manifests when people only turn the proverbial gun on themselves, most recently. As my friend and debater Kurt Falk often tells me, I should be the entertainment at children’s birthday parties. His idea for fixing all this is in his most recent post, where he joins Kurt Vonnegut (in Palm Sunday, just finished today, certainly influencing the style of this post) in advocating that we have new rites of passage for American youth, bar mitzvahs or quinceañeras for a culture unmoored. It’s a good idea. It used to be that graduating from high school was our culture’s adulthood commemoration ceremony. But now there is no real adulthood to be reached. In the sense of independence, of self-sufficiency, of freedom to make informed decisions, our newly minted adults are as bankrupt as someone with six figures of student loan debt. And just like those folks, they can’t file it and start over.

So they shoot people, don’t they? I guess that’s a little oversimplified, but that looks to be the size of it. Apparently Mr. Holmes is walking down the corridors pretending to be the Joker or some other masked movie villain (get it?), but I’m sure he was perfectly sane when he spent meticulous hours buying guns on the Internet or laying tripwires across his apartment. He did the math. He was good at it. He realized that he had no future, that the people of America who were being distracted to death had no future, and he tried to illustrate that. All the way down to the six-month-old and the six-year-old who were apparently watching one of the most violent franchises in movie history after midnight.

I am not trying to glorify this scumbag or turn him into some sort of dark anti-hero (I’ll leave that to Hollywood). But I am trying to dissent from the media chorus singing about the senseless unpredictable shock of all this. It’s perfectly predictable and it has a kind of logic. Michael Moore did much the same treatment of Columbine in his masterpiece movie Bowling for Columbine, which we should all probably go rewatch. Part of his thesis was that kids growing up in the shadow of defense contracting, preached to about how the country they’re supposed to love solves all its problems through violence, will occasionally take this environment seriously. And respond in kind. People are all agog about what’s wrong with Colorado when Michael Moore already told you. To be fair, Holmes did hail from San Diego, one of the biggest military cities in the country aside from those found in Colorado. When we have a society filled with people who play a little video game attached to real drones that blow up real people, how shocked can we be that disgruntled broke teens or twenty-somethings from the new Lost Generation walk into a movie and emulate the solutions found on-screen and in real life?

What no one seems to realize is that you need to do something with these people. I don’t mean to sound pejorative when I say “these people” – many of them are my closest friends and confidants. I coach them, I talk with them, I worry about the very concept of a future around them. They need things to do. They have active minds and have been raised on poisonous dreams about growth and accumulation. They need to put their mind to something other than disappointment, despair, and the soulless thresher we call “The Economy”.

Many would suggest a war. I have no doubt that’s one plan being hatched in the corporations funding the Obama/Romney campaign. A nice big war to sweep everyone into the old employer of last resort. You wouldn’t even need a draft, you’d just have it de facto. I’m sure a land invasion of Iran or North Korea would keep many hundred-thousands of a Lost Generation occupied and out of the way. The legend is that this is what saved America from the Depression, what saved the Baby Boomers from totally overwhelming the system in the sixties. There’s little doubt that part of the lack of enthusiasm to really make jobs and work for the youth of our society has to do with making the incredibly unappealing military look a little more enticing.

I, of course, would never suggest a war, any more than I would advocate you going down to your local movie theater and shooting up six-year-olds. They are the same thing. Only in a war, more six-year-olds die. Usually more horribly, more painfully.

I would suggest make-work programs. We certainly have things that need fixing. Let’s build a free wireless Internet network for the whole nation. Yes, even rural North Dakota and Alaska. That would require some people, wouldn’t it? Give them room and board and a college-like camaraderie, a little spending cash (so they can – gulp – see a movie), maybe access to a shared fleet of cars on weekends. Let’s build some high-speed rails so we can take all these dangerous overpriced gas-guzzling trucks off the road. Let’s build some solar and wind plants. I know, I know, it would require a total resignation from the very concept of The Economy. It would mean government was actively putting corporations out of work, and some of their employees too, and treating the youth of America with dignity and respect and like they’re people who can do things. Heaven forbid.

But what are your alternatives? These people are going to be on the dole one way or the other. There aren’t jobs, there aren’t opportunities, and everyone in The Economy is doing their damnedest to make sure there are fewer jobs and fewer opportunities to come. I guess you can repeal minimum wage and make everyone punch each other in the nose for a scrap of bread you throw from the tower at midnight, but these people are increasingly going to leverage their debt and take matters into their own hands. And they’d have to believe in a future to make a revolution. If all they believe in is despair, then you get Aurora or Columbine or Virginia Tech. You get little dark knights everywhere, believing they are extolling some kind of neo-nihilism with every bullet, not realizing governments cornered that market with wars centuries ago.

I envisioned this post a long time before there was a movie theater shooting, and it was going to be about another kind of object lesson, back to the theme of learning about myself. It was about the fact that I bought a new coffee maker I didn’t need a few months ago and haven’t had the heart to set it up and replace the old one. The old one looks like this:

CoffeeMaker

I won it at the Yale tournament in the spring of 2002. They gave out useful or fun objects like rice cookers and Gameboys and coffee makers with the budget they would have spent on shiny trophies. I actually initially took the rice cooker at Emily’s behest, but quickly swapped it for a more practical (for me) coffee maker with Steph Tatham, who’d won some lower award. The thing has worked perfectly for a decade. It’s a relic of an American era of making machines that lasted, even though it didn’t come from that era at all. I’ve probably had six-thousand or so cups of coffee out of this thing. It still worked perfectly this morning.

My intent was to replace it with this model that I got at Target for like twenty bucks:

Sunbeam

It shouldn’t take much imagination to see why I picked this out. The color is like the font of this page, the color I would pick for nearly all objects out of a pantheon of a thousand hues. It has a timer so that it will brew the coffee for me and have it ready when I blearily awaken at six in the morning to go to a tournament or fulfill some other wakeful task of existence. It is in every way perfect. Whereas the old one is dingy, off-white, wearing the stains of thousands of brews, incredibly simple in its design. It doesn’t even have digital numbers! In an era where you can’t dry your hands in public without interfacing with a motion-sensor, holding on to this thing is as old-fashioned as not having a cell-phone (I’m coming up on two years with a cell-phone!).

And yet I can’t seem to make the transition, to get rid of the old thing. It was free. It has served me so loyally for so long. It still works.

I am such a bad capitalist.

Or maybe, to borrow a phrase, I’m just committed to commitment.

Maybe we just need to take everyone in the Lost Generation and have them paint our coffee makers. Have them fan out in the neighborhoods, house by house, and ask what everyone would like updated or changed or painted or retooled so that life feels new and fresh again. So that it feels like there’s a future that’s not just austerity and decline. So that people can feel like a rich person without actually being decadent or aspiring to buy and sell people.

That kind of house-by-house work sure beats the hell out of what that phrase is being used for in Afghanistan right now.

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Life on the Brink

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

On the first night of this month, I was in Los Angeles at the fabled Grove shopping center/farmer’s market complex near my friend Russ’ Beverly Hills apartment he’s rented for the last decade. I was with Russ and my girlfriend and we dined on delicious global food, contemplated seeing a movie, and walked back toward the parking garage only to discover the path blocked by fire trucks that looked for all the world like a new high-end trolley ride to match the overpriced prestige of the Grove’s glass-fronted stores. The crowd closed and swelled ahead, with people doing the sideways shimmy of attempting to sneak by each other without bumping rear ends against their neighbors. Two firemen with an empty stretcher pushed by us coming from the opposite directions, indiscernible poker faces on their visages.

Then we rounded the corner to make the parking lot visible and saw an opening, a police line, a white sheet unflat upon the ground. And just enough skyward fingers to do the math.

You can fill in the rest of the blanks here.

The event dominated the rest of my thoughts for the night. I tend to get a little obsessive about suicide conceptually, something I’ve struggled with being tempted by for 22 years and something that has touched just enough of my life periodically to keep the morbid fascination going. It’s something that always seems far more prevalent than people want to admit or talk about. Such a high percentage of people love life so irrefutably and unquestionably, and/or are so terrified of death, that their voice tends to shunt suicidalism off to the corner of the unthinkably mad or the blindingly stupid. And there’s this incredible shame that seems to follow suicide around, preventing newspapers and other media bastions from reporting the true nature of death for so many, scrupulously avoiding the cause of morbidity as though they’d died from an STD one can only contract from sheep. Which seems grossly unfair treatment of someone who made a deliberate and definitive statement as their last act. Sure, maybe you’re protecting the next of kin from the shame of not preventing the act and they are the ones living, after all. But I don’t think anyone seriously blames loved ones for the suicide of an individual, at least no one other than that individual themself. Who, presumably, already knows. One has to jump from the seventh floor of a parking garage in broad daylight before a hundred shoppers to get recognition publicly for what one is doing.

I don’t mean to glorify suicide, much less advocate it, but I think there’s so much obfuscation and sugar-coating in our society that it’s important to call things what they are as often as we get the opportunity. I can understand and relate to it and that’s enough for me to recognize that I would be angry if I chose that action and newspapers chose to spread ambiguity on how I left the Earth. Within days of our near-miss with the Grove jumper, NPR reported a story on an increasing epidemic of suicide-by-train in the LA area, perhaps equal parts the fault of the worsening quality of life in this country and the increase in mass transit around the favorite city of the car. As they always seem to, they managed to find and interview a miraculous survivor who reported what I imagined would be a common sentiment of not realizing the impact of his decision on the driver of the train who was left with literally no alternative to de facto ending a life. Trains occur to us like anonymous agents of the mechanized age, not volitionally driven vehicles. No one commits suicide by jumping in front of a car without thinking of the driver. It’s something about the tracks and their inalterability, as opposed to the appearance of control we all have in a car, the choice of lane and speed and turn on an otherwise structured road.

It was also worth noting, I guess, that one of my first questions about the jump was whether someone could stop it by getting under the jumper. The reality, of course, I quickly realized, is that one would probably trade one’s life for that person’s, or maybe just add a suicide to the one already in progress. I didn’t actually witness the event and I don’t know how I would’ve reacted then, but my gut feeling is that I would’ve gone to catch the person. Or at least thought to try before stopping myself. Even though it would be potentially fatal and even though I believe in a personal right to suicide. I envision myself split-second calculating whether sacrificing my arms to arrest the momentum would be a fair trade and whether I would have enough of a read on the person’s downward trajectory to make sure I didn’t put my cranium under them. Like fielding a fly ball in right field. Like the catcher in the rye. And then I consider myself on the descent instead of sizing up its slowing, and I can easily see my first comment to the attempted catcher, should I survive, being “The hell you do that for? Can’t you see I’m trying to die here?”

And yet everyone who has survived a jump from the Golden Gate is grateful that they lived through it.

Which brings me to the more unsettling and haunting theory that overshadowed my recent, mostly glorious, trip to the west, to hometowns and favorite places (La Fonda, Grand Canyon, Pacific Ocean), something I’m thinking about writing a novel about and simultaneously thinking all three of my extant novels are already about. Maybe what my whole writing career will be/could be about, what three decades as a student of human behavior has led me to conclude. I’ve long discussed that everyone tells themselves a story about their life. That everyone is the hero(ine) of their own story, that they explain their faults and foibles in the grand narrative arc of self-affirmation and improvement, and that no one is ever the bad guy. Sure, a small fraction of suicides may have finally, irksomely concluded that they may be the bad guy, but most of even those who no longer want to live are tired of being the victim or of having irreparably bad judgment that loses them hope, not concluding that they themselves don’t actually deserve to keep making decisions.

As a searing but inadvertent illustration of this, Russ showed me a comedy sketch on his Roku by someone he’s come to appreciate, his alleged heirs to Monty Python. I wish I could remember who it was, but they were British or Canadian and thus capable of humor. In any case, the skit was two Nazis in a trench with skulls on their sharp gray uniform caps coming to the horrifying realization that “they may be the baddies”. What made the scene funny is actually a dual absurdity. On the surface, it seems funny that Nazis wouldn’t realize that of course they are the bad guys – they’re a group so reprehensible and notorious that they’ve launched a century of trauma, terror, atheism, and disbelief in the potential of our very species, not to mention justification for ongoing militarism and violence. But the more profound humor is that of course the Nazis didn’t believe themselves to be the bad guys, because no one does. The idea of the Nazis having this discussion is the truest absurdity, because no one reflects on their surroundings and is really capable of ultimately concluding that they are the villain of their own story. Or statistically no one.

Which brings us to the Golden Gate jumpers (or the interviewed SoCal train jumper, for that matter) who suddenly feel that they’ve been spared for a reason and life’s worth living again. Even though many of them are paralyzed or endure such excruciating pain and injury that it would drive other healthy whole people to the brink of their prior act. Is there something profound in this about the innate livability and worth of life? Or is this actually something far more insidious and disheartening about the nature of the narratives we tell ourselves? That in a society bent on progress and obsessed with growth, we can’t merely say that our lives got worse and stayed worse. That we are driven to tell ourselves a story that everything that happened is some form of advancement, of improvement, that even the act of colossally and crushingly failed suicide can be a notch higher than what came before it because heroes must proceed.

It’s a pit-of-stomach-churning thought. Its implications are as deep and as strong as everything we feel about everything that happens to us in our lives. It’s a question I don’t even want to ask you, reading this now, for fear of its reverberations on your life. It’s more than the already notorious “are you happy?” inquiry, for there’s such a strong drive to find ways to answer that one affirmatively. But this one makes quicksand out of our daily assumptions and the way we’re inclined to react. How much of my present self-image is motivated by the desire to feel good about myself, my standing, and to justify everything I’ve slogged through before?

I think this is why people were so unsettled by my baldly pessimistic statements about my life after Emily left me. People don’t make baldly pessimistic statements about their life. They find hope, even crazy irrational unreasonable hope. And not just for the long-term, for forever from now, but for tomorrow, for the next day, just to keep themselves hanging on. And not doing so is seen as so irrational, so unsettling, so disabling, that we have come to diagnose and treat anyone who dissents as though, well, they had that sheep-based STD. Or cancer.

Yesterday’s “This American Life” (NPR radio show) episode was about Longshots and how people who have basically no chance at doing something which is on-paper impossible still get their hopes up. Damningly, two of the three depicted groups/people wound up initially losing but then actually getting what they wanted, reaffirming our self-affirming mythos about constant upward spirals. Two days ago, my girlfriend and I watched the documentary “Waiting for Superman” for the first time, watching kids with impossible odds pin their entire future to a ping-pong ball with their number on it so they could be salvaged from America’s broken public school system. Even there, a kid gets in off the waitlist and keeps our hope of the ineffably improving future alive in the midst of tragic heartbreak and despair from so many of his cutely illuminated peers.

The truth, of course, is that things don’t always get better. They don’t always improve. People get debilitating diseases that take their mobility and will before they take their life. Wars start. People lose jobs, houses, spouses, friends, lovers, parents. Every day, the sky falls in for millions and they are expected to carry on as though the sun’s just a little higher than it was the day prior. What’s good about this departure?

Of course, there are always opportunities in these losses. I’m not saying that change and alteration and loss are unsalvageably bad, or even as bad as they first seem to anyone. But to pretend that even with the inevitable growth and learning that comes from pain that pain is somehow making things better is utter nonsense. And to expect it of others is as crazy as jumping off the seventh floor of a parking garage.

The most recent suicide statistics available for the whole country are from 2009. That’s a remarkably notable 2.5 years ago. I don’t know if there’s regularly this kind of lag, as investigators and analysts sift through countless instances of insurance fraud and single-car crashes and euphemistic obituaries looking for the despondent self-inflicters hiding in plain sight. Or if someone’s put the brakes on the reporting because of recent spikes. The chart already looks like what people want out of their stock charts since 2001 (see below) and maybe reports about the jump in suicides in the military have less to do with the military than I’d normally believe. Maybe everyone’s getting off the train, or getting in front of it, or whatever vaguely macabre metaphor you want to invoke. Maybe there is something real and tangible going on in a country that’s invested everything it has in the idea that everything always gets better realizing that reality is not so predictable.


Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Maybe we all just need to take a good long look at each other, help each other through this nonsense, and find things other than the unending improvement model to get us through the day. Hope is fantastic, but delusion is not grandeur. Hope can be tempered and reasonable and sufficiently tamed to make life something other than an unstoppable series of denied disappointments. Maybe by setting our sights a little lower, we can actually see the ground ahead. Otherwise, how can we help but trip and fall?

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One Year Later

Categories: A Day in the Life, Keepin' it Cryptic, Metablogging, Read it and Weep, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , ,

This blog still exists, by the way. This isn’t a conscious decision to never blog again, but the combined product of possibly the busiest year of my life and some factors therein that haven’t seemed to lend themselves to public scrutiny. It’s a weird feeling, not wanting absolutely everything out in public, and one unfamiliar to me, but nonetheless there. It’s a bit of a crossroads, but there is no doubt that May and the ensuing summer will bring more use of this venue to communicate and more interest in projects on this site, or at the very least more time. I love the team I coach, but they are draining in all the ways a group of people can be draining.

Anyway, it seemed fitting to mark a year. No, not since I last posted in my blog. Something a bit more personal and more difficult. It’s been a year since I’ve spoken to Emily, a year since Chris and Ashley pulled me away from despondency in a debate meeting and convinced me what so many others had tried to before, that a person who callously hurts you without regard or self-awareness is not a friend no matter what kind of premium you or that person puts on that word. It was an important lesson, and one I needed to learn from people younger than I am who knew me better at the time.

What a difference a year makes. But does a year make any difference? She’s allegedly coming back to Jersey, so I hear through the backchannels. Coming to finish a small part of what was started that fateful year when she moved us out to this state I can’t seem to extricate myself from. I have a variety of choices, as everyone does, always, in life. I could reopen the channel, stem the flow of absence after a year, try to rehumanize and poke around for any signs of life or remorse. Or I could continue to persist in a cocoon of relative comfort, the illusion of her death replacing the reality of her betrayal, the lines blurred. There’s the old metaphor I used to use in the rehab case, of course, about not being fully well until you can walk past your drug dealer and say “no thanks” – bubbles don’t really count. But if you need to be in a bubble in order to survive, surely it’s preferable to expiring in the open air?

May Day is a pregnant spot on the 366-slot pantheon of the year, loaded with associations and allusions and metaphors galore. It’s a distress signal and a call to action. Occupy is apparently calling for a general strike of the 99%, something I’d consider honoring had today not already been designated for RUDU’s Senior Banquet, a four-hour festival consisting of the conclusion of our annual Ironman tournament, senior speeches, a team picture, and dinner. To see RUDU’s next step in its blossoming as an institution is something I couldn’t dream of missing, no matter how much the calls of labor leaders and communist organizers hearken to the importance of May 1st. It was also May 1st, of course, when I went in for my Glide interview in 2006, with an HR Director wearing a T-shirt in solidarity with the marchers outside but deciding that Glide was worth working for all the same. Labor leaders. The longer one lives, the more patterns and associations become fraught. No wonder my mother can’t listen to music from the sixties.

And what else of getting older? Certainly one is more surprised by life with each passing day, or at least I am. The feeling that this is now twice over borrowed time, both liberating and demanding as the time is both precious yet unexpected. The question of whether those patterns make life more navigable, or less dramatic, or merely serve as distractions while the universe carries out its destiny on your behalf. And while forgiveness continues to elude me conceptually, the idea of letting someone’s transgressions stand as warranted and valid, the process of turning cheeks and baring souls never seems very far. I seem to always find a way to reopen the path, even if that path is marked with wounded, strewn with dead, mined and booby-trapped all the way up to its foggy conclusion, itself inevitably another murky fork.

If there is a lesson to be found in all of this, I don’t think I’ve learned it yet. Which probably means more pain to come, the best professor in the business. Trying to be mindful of one’s own actions sufficiently to make them valid, to make interactions meaningful, to demonstrate the kind of compassion one hasn’t been afforded. Inevitably, though, the bubbles we live in puncture those of others, the defense mechanisms we construct deal damage as an exchange for not taking it, and the alternative seems to be being so vulnerable that the mere air pressure of a May day is enough to crush one’s skeletal structure into white powder. Where is this balance to be struck? Every day, you can walk outside and see people doing it wrong. Passive-aggression, aggressive aggression, timidity, fear, paranoia, meanness. No one intends any of this. They’re merely trying to protect themselves from the dangers they’ve felt, or worse, the dangers they’ve only imagined and seen reflected in others’ pain.

The Hunger Games series seems a fitting backdrop for all this contemplation of mine of late. There is probably no more important reading for a member of the first world in this age on this planet. The mere reading of an allegedly young adult series has pitched me back into an uproar of whether living in America at all is too great a burden and harm on the planet itself, whether the exploitation of others innate to our local quality of life makes us all complicit if we don’t tear down the structure or flee. We are in Omelas, but the dungeons are lined up a hundredfold, the screams reverberating off each other in harmonious cacophony. To say nothing of what we do to each other, ourselves.

The only prescription I can give myself is thought. More time to think. About contact, about withdrawal, about the nature of a society so determined to use others that we all end up using ourselves. I am keyed up with the lightning reflexes of the debate world, argument turns and split-second timing and case choices on the run. Life doesn’t have to be like that. Not in May, with a view of summer, reminding us that no matter how abysmal April manages to be each year, it will eventually be replaced by something warmer, more relaxed, less stringent.

In the meantime, someone stole my laundry detergent from the basement and even such mundanities of life cannot be overlooked on May Day. It’s a neighborhood where I’ve accidentally left my car unlocked and GPS in view for days at a time, but one’s own neighbors will take detergent. And, as always, there could be confusion, miscommunication, an explanation that makes it a mere trifling misunderstanding. The question becomes one not of intent, for everyone intends always to be a good person and believes they are. I know you think you are. The question, rather, becomes one of how much thought and care goes into any given action. How much do you think about the implications of what you do?

In today’s world, we are all merely fragile butterflies, but our wings are bringing up tidal waves everywhere. Mayday.

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Feasting and Dancing in Jerusalem Next Year

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

One of the few things I forgot to post about the Weakerthans concert set in New York last month was how good the warmup music was. I don’t mean the opening bands, which were hit-and-miss, though Said the Whale the first night was pretty darn awesome. I mean the music they play over the tinny loudspeaker between said act and the main event. Not only did it occasionally include personal smashes like Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”, but all four nights included the Mountain Goats’ personal anthem to, depending on how you look at it, mid-2010 to mid-2011, or probably more pertinently, just 2011 by itself, “This Year”.

Here, have a look and listen:

I know they didn’t write the song for me, really, any more than they wrote “No Children” for me. But the best music is about you, with all its rolling details and turns of phrase, and these are no exception. Although there is the ubiquitous soaking of alcohol in the Goats’ lyrics that doesn’t quite apply to me, no matter how close I came in New York that afternoon I landed from Liberia. The point, largely, is that this song seems a little more past tense than present, which is something. It’s not to say that I’ve made it, particularly, through anything other than a year. But reviewing 2011 seems a pointless exercise, while bidding 2011 farewell seems a bit more productive. The only thing that makes 2011 look like a tolerable year is that it wasn’t 2010.

What a great decade we’re off to.

I know last year at this time, when I sat down in this same room (my Mom’s lodge office) on this same computer (my then new laptop), I was emphasizing both looking forward to the West in the near future and not heaping pressure on myself to do much. Here, you can read along at home. Resolutions 2, 3, and 4 were basically entirely punted, a little bit because of 5, but almost entirely because 6 got altered in February when Farhan’s letter-writing campaign to the Rutgers administration turned into a full-time job and an indefinite lease on New Jersey for the foreseeable. How did I put those a year ago? “Significant reasons to stay.” The opportunity to actually make a living as a debate coach qualified, though I’m not sure I could have imagined it just a short 365 days ago.

What I think is most impressive about reading that last set of looking forward to this year is how much I overestimated the energy I’d have. Somehow writing a novel, trying to publish two prior ones, sinking myself into debate, and looking into Western cities seemed like a really minimal path. Maybe that says something about me, and I’ll grant that I went from spending 40-50 hours a week on debate to 70+ when the job came along, but I feel really overly ambitious in looking at that list. And I distinctly remember how constructing that list felt like cutting a lot of things and being really minimalist. The best conclusion I can draw is that you simply can’t understand how debilitating it is to go through a year and a half like the last one I’ve completed unless you’ve had a similar experience. Getting out of bed most mornings felt like a medal-worthy achievement. I’ve had several conversations with family and friends in the last month where I review a point in 2010 or 2011 and truly don’t understand how I lived through it. It’s like some deus ex machina that I don’t believe in some poorly written novel. There’s a gap in the action where the character randomly decides to ditch all his prior motivations and obvious conclusions and just keeps plugging along as though there’s some reason to. I don’t relate directly to the amount of despair I felt in most of the past year, but I also don’t quite fathom how I survived it.

Which makes looking ahead to next year a bit of a fool’s errand, except that there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last, to coin a phrase. I did once describe the entire project of blogging as giving myself the opportunity to look back a year later and see how stupid I was just a short year before. I wish I could find the exact reference or quote from sometime in the Introspection era, but I can’t. I may actually go to Jerusalem next year at some point, and/or Egypt, and/or India, and/or other possible places. Maybe I’ll hunker down and write a 4th book. Maybe I’ll never write again. The only constant of certainty is a certain amount of debate, and for that I am grateful. All of the highlights of 2011 revolve around a team that was not only the source of my strength in terms of self-confidence and enjoyment, but also friendship, camaraderie, and focus. RUDU spent the entire year in the top ten in the country, be it the top five of the last semester of 2010-2011 or the slightly lower rebuilding efforts of the past few months. We’re poised to not drop out of that perch for any of the foreseeable and some recent adjustments make me believe that we can have maybe our best semester yet open 2012.

What I don’t feel like doing for 2012 just yet is getting into specifics. Compared to 2011, there’s a lot that’s nailed down. I will be in Jersey the whole time. I’m not moving. I’m not changing jobs. I’m not doing much else besides maintaining the debate life I’ve built for myself. And I’m not complaining. I’ve been very fortunate that debate has gone as well as the rest of my life has gone poorly in the last 18 months. Every time the chips have been low in my life since 1990, I’ve doubled down on debate and gotten paid off. I don’t see an exception coming up. There may be only one thing in my life that I’m good at, but when you have the opportunity to focus on that and you really love it, that’s maybe all that you can ask for and expect out of life. Especially this year, in a global context, having confidence in a job and a community may put me ahead of most anyone. Perhaps most fully the person who I decided to excise from my life for a while in May. I have less curiosity about her life and her existence than I ever have since we met. It’s actually occurred to me for the first time in the last few weeks that I may live a long time and never want to reopen that line of communication. I don’t like giving up on people, but there are just some things in life that may be too awful to recover from. I’m not trying to turn this into a diatribe or an excoriation – it’s not becoming of a year-end wrap-up or a hopeful preview of the annum to come – but 2011 has helped me realize that maybe being the perpetual victim is not something I have to exacerbate. Emily may be right that “there’s just something about people that makes people betray [me]”, but that doesn’t mean I have to aid and abet the cause.

Maybe the better part of my personality is that which frenetically likes to dance, to throw myself into the cauldron and just doesn’t care what other people think. Emily said she spent a lot of time feeling very embarrassed by my behavior and attitudes in public. Maybe I should just live each day as though I were trying to embarrass Emily. She said I had a lot of growing up to do. If anything, I think I had to get even younger. Maybe the lesson of having someone excoriate and attempt to ruin your life is that embracing that very same life is the only ticket to hope. My reaction to Gwen’s constant lying was to start this entire effort to tell the truth, in painful detail, about everything. Maybe my reaction to Emily’s stressed-out concern for the opinions of others should be to ritually burn public opinion on a joyous pyre of the pursuit of life.

What better way to ring in the new year? What better way to embrace the fact of still traversing this crazy unpredictable forlorn but ever-hopeful planet?

This year didn’t kill me. People celebrate birthdays, holidays, and all other annual events most traditionally as a rallying cry for the fact that they remained alive, often against the odds. That plagues and storms, famines and droughts, wars and failures failed to dampen their spirits or take their last breath. So on the first day of 2012, I give you the full-throttled embracing of existence, maybe just for its own sake. It’s not what’s most important in life, but it does seem to be some sort of pre-requisite. As long as you keep walking the path, you might find your way. And you’re probably more likely to find your way if you’re dancing while you wait.

by

Indeterminate

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Pre-Trip Posts, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

It’s been a week. I realize, increasingly, that this space is a good inverse litmus test of some combination of how overtly busy I am combined with how ruminative I’m feeling about my life in general. While ideas and thoughts of what things mean or feel like are percolating, I tend not to write much here. When things are feeling calmer and more distilled, the outpourings tend to inundate this page. And the past week has brought much reflection.

I wanted to hold back on writing this post, or something like it, until I’d ruminated sufficiently to draw some conclusions. But as is often the result of meaningful mental inquiry, the questions have only yielded a fractal chain of infinitely more questions, with very little hope of satisfying answers on the horizon. And so I’m inclined to reflect on bathing in the questions rather than hoping to sew things up in a neat little bow. Fair warning, though, by the end of this (whose final sentences I can’t begin to envision yet), I may find some trite little cap to put on it, but I doubt it will be as holistic or satiating as normal.

A lot went wrong last week. My car, Emily’s car, the gift car, the daily needly little reminder of my past life (just in case you need a reframing of what my emotional state constantly confronts), got hit by a hit-and-run overnight driver exactly a week ago, on the eve of our departure for the GW tournament in DC. My discovery of this, which happened at some point early Friday morning between, say, 1 AM and 7 AM, between my return from the debate meeting and my departure for more debate, was made by looking for a mirror that was bent all the way back the wrong way. Further investigation revealed significant paint leavings and denting on the front-left part of the vehicle, along with broken headlight pieces from the offending party, which I petulantly picked up and put in my trunk as though life were some sort of CSI show where forensic evidence could be traced (and as though a hit-and-run-fender-bender were sufficiently significant to merit utilization of such tracing). I care less about material possessions than most and far less about the prettiness of my car than anyone (average car-washes per year: 0.33), but it’s still the type of event that just makes you hate your species. I had no time to file a police report when having to keep a schedule to make the tournament, and have functionally kind of lost the will to consider same since. It’s already blended into my reality. Something about losing everything makes you a lot more comfortable with losing a little more without seeking recourse. One’s sense of justice kind of loses its bearings when one has confronted enough unfairness.

Then one of our top debaters landed in the hospital in DC not once, but twice, facing a 103 fever and complications from dehydration and possibly bronchitis. I joined the waiting party for one of the two 5-hour late-night stints in the ER, envisaging flashbacks of my last big late-night ER waiting session and even the night I drove myself to the hospital with what proved to be kidney stones. Amidst the bleary off-lit reality of every hospital, the surreal pallor of medical danger and overtired health care professionals, I had time to reflect on how we enter and leave this society and the lives of those for whom this brink of death and destruction is as commonplace as debate has become again for me. The delirious walk back at 4 AM with the rejuvenated debater and our two cohorts felt like seeing between the lines of reality, peeking behind the webbing of the virtual reality and playing with the planes. And then of course I had a belly-punching kidney stone come in the next day, distracting me back almost out of any semblance of reality as I dealt with emotional upheaval of the vibrant community in which I am ensconced on all sides.

The weekend was not without joy, mind. There were connections and cross-connections aplenty, the opportunity for Fish to meet a good chunk of my team in DC, put them up, regale them with stories of my youth over poker and jokes and green chile mac-n-cheese. We spent a blustery afternoon walking monuments and strapping into the time machine that DC will always be for me, the hearkening of the longest single year of my existence, the 1987-88 stretch that broadened my horizons and, in retrospect, seems scarier for my parents every time I reconsider it despite my own blithe youthful excitement and optimism in that time. We took countless pictures (you can take a look), scouring DC for the photo opportunities more than our own experience, as though the chronicling of the moments was a vastly more important process than the moment itself. And in light of memory, in the full view of time, in the era of digital photography and instant re-editing, re-taking, re-imagining, it is hard for me to argue with this model. What do we have, ultimately, beyond our memories, our documentation and remnants of the past? Should we not be just as careful about their remembrance as we are about the moments themselves? Is that not, in many ways, the very purpose of this blog? Look at how many scenarios I’ve referenced by their artifactual telling in this same format rather than recount in renewed detail from the contemporary vantage!

And yet, despite my enhanced emotional bonding with so many on the team, despite the increasing feeling that I have found the wheelhouse of what to do with my time in this fugue state of pushing my own emotional ruins around into something that looks more like stacked rubble than strewn rubble, I feel a certain isolation. I could call this isolation generational, but I don’t really even see a gap between myself and my charges, let alone do I put much stock in that kind of temporal passage. More than anything, the isolation is philosophical, and its depth appears to be increasing. And while there are possible mundane causes, such as being on the East Coast, dealing with college students newly emboldened with their sense of questioning prior assumptions, even the self-selection of debaters perhaps, the overall trend seems somewhat distressing to an idealistic believer like me. It feels, more and more, like people are devolving toward some sort of faith in an uncaring, deterministic universe where meaning and purpose are replaced with cold hard economics, physics, and so-called facts. And it’s not exactly helping me fall in love with my species.

I’m smarting a bit, I’ll grant, from some selection bias over a few experiences I’ve had of late. Extensive Facebook debates and dialogues with hardened, if thoroughly illogical, devotees of science as their only religion. Near screaming debates with debaters about the unprovability of anything, relative probabilities, and the pursuit of understanding. Resigned sighs with the increasingly faithless over what their lot in life may be, how much control they may have, how much choice they even give themselves over who they spend their time with, how, why. And far too much contact with people who find the siren call of wealth, materialism, and the simplest of base pleasures to be sufficient justification for all manner of overt moral compromise. If the pillaging of my marriage tested my faith in any one person, in even the notion of the individual as someone who can have value and can be trusted, then the last week has seemed to test my faith in the whole lot of them, in the very idea of community.

And I’m exaggerating a bit. There are exceptions, as there always are. And overall, I’ve actually felt heartened and strengthened by my community, which has probably made this tidal wave of determinist resignation feel even more unsettling for its contrast. But the near-universality of declarative statements like everything coming down to economics and basic motivations or everything being a chemical reaction and physically explicable make me wonder what I’m even railing for anymore. It becomes wearying to be told how crazy one is ad nauseum. At a certain point, the crazy man has to resign himself to his fate, no matter how sane he believes himself to objectively be. For the reality is that objectivity itself fails to have much resonance when everyone is living in a different functional paradigm. Which is not an excuse for adjusting to and embracing the subjective wrongs of society as they exist, but it might be a justification for spending less energy beating back ceaselessly against the tide.

I feel like I’m being a bit vague. Summarative. Skipping steps, either because I presume that you know the course of my argument between free will and determinism, souls and science, God and nihilism, or because I’m losing my faith in my ability to persuade anyone young enough to be able to read this that there’s any question about these matters to be discussed. I also must acknowledge the extent to which time remains a factor in my life, in which no matter how much I try to avoid them, little biological necessities like eating before a long and demanding day, must be paid their begrudging due.

I think the point, ultimately, comes down to the point. Where to find purpose and meaning in a world that’s shutting such notions down like so many decrepit nuclear reactors, a world collapsing these concepts into careless mathematical formulae faster than we can even fully observe. My ability to find such direction in a direct personal bond with someone has been tested beyond its limit, snapping back in a possibly irreparable way. And thus I’ve turned to various pursuits of persuasion and influence, of digging myself out with work and effort all designed at further honing my skills as someone who has something to say about this lonely rock and its frantic inhabitants.

Some of my charges, the most observant or kindest of them perhaps, try to remind me that I’m having an influence, the old trite “making a difference”. And perhaps it’s true. Okay, probably. But it still feels, holistically, like I’m spitting in the ocean, or perhaps more pertinently trying to find a particular gob of spit in the ocean. And the process is starting to seem about that appetizing. What’s the point in being the exception to everything if you don’t get any company along the way? Am I simply doing it wrong? At what point will fatigue in hoping to be ahead of one’s time devolve into a numb alignment with the contemporary failings? And yet how could one then live with undertaking a course of action one already determined to be so problematic?

And yet, when examined closely, all of these questions seem to disintegrate in the face of the largest one of all, the one about the hope of companionship, which underlines and circles all these larger issues of isolation and distance and unrelatability. And maybe that’s where all the exhaustion and resignation comes from, in the end. It’s one thing to worry esoterically about the search for meaning coming up dry and empty after a long lifetime’s slog. It’s quite another if one undertook that slogging journey without so much as a soul for accompaniment.

I really wish I could peek at the future, just a glimpse or a hint or a sign. But to do so would violate my belief about the nature of the universe itself. Would I trade the indeterminate nature of the universe for a deterministic one merely to offer the opportunity to look ahead? Or would I immediately regret the missed opportunity to fleetingly agonize with my gobstoppered emotions?

My answer, like the rest of it, is indeterminate.

by

Too Much Space

Categories: A Day in the Life, Quick Updates, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , ,

My soul hurts today.

I wonder whether YouTube or this blog will last longer. One would think that by the time this question needed answering, the answer wouldn’t much matter. But then again, there are times when Angelfire would have looked permanent, or MySpace permanently dominant. There’s really no telling what’s going to last in this world.

Tell me about it.

If you’re reading this sometime after YouTube has folded, somehow, just imagine a song of bittersweet hopelessness that nevertheless speaks to some kind of hope. I think if I could just cleanly give up, then things wouldn’t be so hard. But there’s such a strong will to live and hope and try that it keeps the nerves sufficiently sensitized so that things remain painful. I’ve never had the capacity for just shutting down emotionally, in part because I probably think it’s immoral, so I just stumble through this bleary fog of unhappy accidents and drifty stabby memories.

I’m ready to skip to the end of the book just so I know what it’s reasonable to put myself through.

by

A Thought

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Quick Updates, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

I don’t think there’s a more devastating or demoralizing conviction a person can have than that their best years are behind them.

People are extremely adaptable. They will go through almost any contortion to convince themselves to have more hope than they should, that every opportunity they face is a lottery ticket that will take them straight to the top.

This, of course, is why capitalism is so powerfully persuasive at convincing people to vote against their own interests.

But when I take a sober look at myself, my life, I know what the score is. And I just don’t know how people go on in that situation. When nothing in the future looks better than the best of the past, what purpose is there in pursuing that future?

by

Rubber Soul

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

Emily bought us this doormat when we moved to Princeton that was bright and colorful and springy. It was made out of little cut up bits of foam-rubber flip-flops that had been recycled somehow. They were tied together with little narrow metal lengths of wire, like flattened-out paperclips, and the mat’s whole surface was over 50% air as the bits of foam alternated with blank space in a sort of cross-hatch pattern. Either you’ve seen the kind of thing I’m talking about or you have some idea or it’s just impossible to describe in language alone.

The doormat is etched into my memory, mostly a tactile one, the way the little sideways-tied bits of sole would give and respond to my bare feet in the smothering summer as I talked on the phone to Stina about my reconnection and possible visit with my first fiancee, how she convinced me that I’d be playing with a fire that would surely find a way to threaten my marriage to my second. How heartily I laughed this off, how above reproach it all seemed, and yet just a few weeks later how horrific that series of conversations in the wake of what happened. Were my theories of black-magic manipulation for the first still in any way valid, I would have blamed her. Were my Dad’s theories of programming in the universe what I fully believed, I might have blamed him (ha) or, rather, Stina. But we all know who’s really to blame, don’t we?

“I no longer believe she was crazy. There’s just something about you that makes people betray you.”

The green-pink-orange-blue-black of the doormat has been haunting me lately, the splintery wood porch it adorned outside of Tiny House, bedecked by slightly overbuilt plastic white railings designed to keep even the clumsiest of residents from tipping over the three-step-high elevation and into the grass. Pandora always used to skip those three steps and even Emily managed to navigate them without too much duress, something she of course failed to do with the fateful main intersection beside campus, the place where Prospect Avenue (“The Street”) slams into Washington Road just as her nose slammed into the asphalt on a day I still think might have been the one that knocked her brain out of alignment and into apocalypse. I think I may hold on to brain-tumor theories as long as I held on to the black-magic theories of the first time around, but I might know better already. The truth is that I just like weak, scared people who make decisions too quickly. Easy come, easy go. Catch ’em on the bounce.

Don’t let all this mild criticism fool you. I still love these jerks. Oh not in any way I’d do anything about, at least not with the first, but the memory of love in my heart doesn’t fade any more than the recollection of any of the million things I’ve done wrong in my life. I can step right back into any time or date of your choosing with a minimum of effort and most of the brightest and most profound involved love with one or the other. I still look down on my right thumb and see the little stretch of straight white scar and remember fondly, creepily, fondly where it came from. I remember the explosion of the silly little plastic chain I couldn’t stop playing with, burst of letters all over the chess-cafeteria floor at St. Pius, how it felt like a sign in retrospect and how closely I clung to the equivalent silver box the second time ’round, only to have to hold it and its contents for the rest of my life like some giant bag. Maybe if I get it polished, she’ll come to her senses and come back to me, the idiot voice in my head has to offer. Maybe next time ’round, you should get something permanent, like an immovable stone wall.

Next time ’round. It keeps having to be said, whispered, asked about, like it’s some sort of destiny. Law of threes, right? Where are you, anyway? I don’t have these two jerks to talk to anymore, lovable though they are. One is sequestered in saving her own marriage, a favor the latter wouldn’t extend to me, steering a wide berth from the guy she almost bumped right into a couple months before fate took a nosedive. The latter, of course, is being kept at bay by myself in some sort of desperate bid to prove I have a dignity she refused to offer. It’s lonely without love. Lonely without people one has, did, will always love to talk to. It makes one feel unlovable.

It hit me hardest last night when I was driving home with a migraine, a real barn-burner, the kind that made me think a 1% chance of stroke might be worth it, the kind where spots fly and every noise and light is a hurricane of pain. It was so bad I tried to sleep in a 37-degree car rather than drive, but I knew soon it could kill me and sleep wouldn’t come anyway. And I thought about the person who used to prevent me from attempting that drive, I thought about the prior who used to try to absorb my pain (I mean literally) when I had one, the looks on the faces of love as they winced and agonized in pure compassion. This is the kind of thing I’m talking about with cave-dwelling, kids. I think by the end of that torturous hour home, it hurt more to know that no one cared if I drove that length than it did to see a passing streetlight shining in the same left eye that almost couldn’t see.

How the fuck do you fall out of love with someone?

It must just be me. I must be that easy to stop loving. Lord knows it isn’t a two-way street.

So where are you, three? And what do you have in store for me? Charm or fatalism? And how long is it going to take for us to figure it out?

Most people would probably say I’m too young to feel this old, to be this washed up and resigned about everything. But I’ve been through more than most people, in a sense, and I’m still reliving all of it. Every glance and touch and sigh and smile. I can almost picture taking three, whoever she may be, to the La Fonda and just praying to high heaven I haven’t seen this movie before. You can call it a pattern, you can call it routine, you can call it a sick joke, but life is cyclical as all the circles we see in our universe.

Debate went great this weekend. Poker continues to go well. I don’t have time for three, don’t have time for myself. Don’t want it. But it’s a strangely lonely feeling to not be able to share the news of success with someone. I mean, yes, there are someones, but it’s not Someone. It’s totally different. And here I am, older than when my father had me (and he was no spring chicken to parenting), watching most of my friends walk into aisles or sunsets and find out what I was talking about all these years. And you have to hope it all works out for all of them, but boy does that make you the idiot holding the bag if it does.

If you can’t spot the sucker at the table, you’re it.

Here my memory sits, feeling my toes playing with the little gaps in the soles over the weatherbeaten boards, first in contemplation of resolution of my past, then in devastation at the destruction of my future. Summer in full swelter, nights spent weeping to two and then anyone who would listen, broadcasting the epilogue of my heart into the postwar temporary housing and all the budding little families therein. I remember every crack and cranny of Tiny House and exactly where and when and how I broke down at the first phone call, at the e-mail, at every further denial upon her return.

I could really use a bounce.

by

Shadow Puppetry

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Long Tunnel, Tags: ,

Standing in the shower this morning, feeling the comforting jet of enveloping hot water as I was waiting for inspiration to strike on today’s Duck and Cover (didn’t happen till later), inspiration struck me on an entirely different matter. The shower is always and probably always will be a great place for thought – for most people, as my discussion of same has attested, but especially for me. I made a realization that I believe cuts to the quick of why my unhappiness seems so deeply entrenched, so likely to be permanent, and so inaccessible to the acknowledgement of so many friends.

It’s best described in an analogy far older than anyone I know – Plato’s allegory of the cave. The problem that I feel I’m facing is that I’ve been living a long time outside of the cave and was recently relegated back in, never to return to the outside world of sunlight and Platonic forms. And of course my community is a group of people who all have not only never been outside the cave, but mostly who’ve never even dared to imagine that there is an outside. Or people who find the outside to be scary or daunting in some way, actually undesirable. And so we have these frustrating conversations that basically go like this:

“Why aren’t you happy? Look at that shadow of a chair.”
“It’s nothing like a real chair.”
“What’s a real chair?”
“I couldn’t possibly describe it to you. Or why we are so far short of it in just looking at its shadow on the wall.”
“Well if you can’t describe it, how could I believe it’s any better? Be happy with your shadows!”

This isn’t entirely fair to everyone who’s been trying to help me out, but it’s getting at part of the main frustration and why there’s been so much head-butting and general dissatisfaction. I think the best moments or conversations or attempts are from people who argue that I never know when I’ll randomly be transported outside the cave. That I shouldn’t blame myself for my exile caveward and that there’s no telling when one will flit in and out of the cave, so just scrunch up your eyes and cross your toes and hope the cave disappears some time and you’re back in the world of the forms. Needless to say, I don’t find this a whole lot more comforting than those who question that there are forms at all, let alone that I’ve seen them. If there’s no telling when we’ll be in or outside the cave, it’s very hard to have any concrete hope, let alone reasonable faith that while we’re outside it we’re likely to stay outside it. My own metaphor for this is pianos falling from the sky, some of which are randomly benevolent instead of crushing, but all of which are as predictable as the meteorology of large musical instruments.

I’ve recently been thinking about going in for therapy, something long recommended to me by a lot of people, but also something about which I am, I think, reasonably skeptical. I fear being committed against my will for suicidal thoughts and tendencies, though I have to admit that I’m stable enough to make this less of a concern. I dread being diagnosed or attemptedly dosed. Most people these days, medical and psychological, feel that chemicals are the only solution to anything, obviously diametric from my own worldview. I worry about being told that morality or faith in God are pathologies, obstacles to be mowed down by the pursuit of happiness above all other concerns. But more than anything, I just feel that I’ve got intractable problems that I’ve thought long and hard about in a more self-aware way than most people dare. A lot of the marginal advice I’ve been getting about the benefits of therapy have touted the ability to speak freely without fear of judgment. I think this blog alone is testament to how little I need that in addition to my daily routine. People have also discussed the ability to dredge up the past and analyze its impact on my current perspective. I could write a dissertation on that, have my patterns and the causes of my hopes and fears so well understood and rehearsed that I could offer them as a three-act play impromptu. So what is the benefit? What is a therapist going to be able to tell me that I don’t already know?

And more importantly, how is a therapist going to wrestle from the cave with the idea of forms? At best, they can get me to accept that a monochrome world of fingery visages on the blank pockmarked rock is a fair substitute for all the colors and dimensions of the greater universe. It’s almost directly reflective of how I anticipate they might try to “cure” my manic depression – spouting the virtues of moderation for the mere sake of moderation without ever having experienced the soaring highs or crushing lows of a full range of actual human experience. When one has been truly happy in life, the daily routine acceptance and resignation that most Americans confuse for happiness becomes intolerably unappealing. When one has seen the full shape of what life has to offer, the pale glow of its shadow is just window dressing. Wall dressing. Silent hushed motion, signifying only the whispers of a memory of what truly mattered.

by

On Superstition

Categories: A Day in the Life, Pre-Trip Posts, Quick Updates, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

One of my debaters asked me last weekend whether I was superstitious. It was a good question. I reflexively answered that I wasn’t, but then he started talking about debate superstitions about writing on the board and how and who does it and I started quickly clarifying that when it came to that, I was extremely superstitious!

He asked me why I thought people were superstitious and it seemed pretty obvious to me that people are because they seek to exert control on their environment or circumstances in a way that they know they can’t otherwise in life. While we all like to think of ourselves as being in control of our own destinies, the reality is that none of us has particular control when we hold just one-seven-billionth of the power in our planet. I’ve discussed the cacophony of wills extensively before, but it’s crippling to really internalize how much that abrogates our free will into a collective free will as disjointed and chaotic as our world itself. No wonder people try to claw each other’s eyes out getting into the 1% where that one-seven-billionth can seem like one-one-millionth for a while.

If we believe that we secretly control events larger than ourselves – sports outcomes that we watch on TV or in person, the life or death of someone far away, the heart of another person, the thought processes of a debate round judge – by simple actions of routine or pattern, then we can believe there’s some connection between our own personal effort and the outcomes that affect us so deeply. And once there’s confirmation of some sort of link, however tenuous or absurd, between writing in a certain style on the chalkboard or saying a particular set of words or wearing a hat in a particular way and the desired outcome, then repeating that becomes almost holy.

We all hunger for free will, all crave the ability to dominate merely our own lives. And while we all probably have more actual will than we acknowledge when we’re not being overtly superstitious, the fact is that humanity’s not actually well organized yet to maximize reasonable choices for people. Most people do most of what they do with the verve and volunteerism of one with a gun aimed squarely at their temple.

Is it any wonder that I sit here waiting for my life to come back to me? Maybe today, maybe if I mismatch my socks and think only the best thoughts, maybe if I don’t sleep enough to let the nightmares in, maybe if I can ward off the migraines and do everything she would have wanted, look at the clock at the right times and focus my mind in just the right way, maybe I can find a little hope that this message will travel across the universe, the Atlantic, the bridge between half-souls, and remind her of what she threw away.

I am patient. I can do this.

The cruel reality is different, of course. Like any superstition of debate or sports or life, I’m winking at myself. I see the image of her, hopeless and claiming to be tempest-tossed, citing the need to commit an affair and cast aside compassion like they were mandates from Heaven of which she mildly disapproved but was robotically forced to comply. I can imagine her eye-rolling at reading this, the clucking sigh she used to make about how naive, idealistic, stupid I was. Like she had a monopoly on understanding the universe and how it was out to get her.

The universe isn’t out to get anyone. We use our limited will as an excuse for abusing each other. As soon as we wake up and realize that no matter how little will we have, maximizing its utility for good, compassion, and the further maximization of will is our best hope, then we might start making the best use of our individual slices of light. We can all hold a candle and watch it dance in the harshness of wind and rain, or we can join together to merge our lights into a fire that could burn all the architecture of the past that holds us back.

Hoping our light will magically be transported to create that conflagration is surely not enough. But I can’t do this alone.

by

Postcards from the Poker Table

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Long Tunnel, Tags: ,

They gather in a circle, an oval maybe, an oblong landscape of green felt with a surprising amount of give. They stare intently at their cards, their drinks, each other, the red-shirted personage before them who manages the distribution of cards and chips and changes identity twice an hour. The whole pattern would be entirely inscrutable to one unfamiliar with the general practices of gambling and maybe even specifically the rules of poker, the seamless and implicit passage of items and their corresponding emotions out of all proportion with normal human behavior.

There is the medical student from Temple who comes in to discuss high-level philosophy, suggesting to the assembled table at 3 in the morning that maybe they are all merely past memories of someone who doesn’t exist. He guesses almost the entire plot of my third novel at one point, quietly, accidentally, making almost everyone but me eye-roll as I sit more erect and alarmed in my chair and fold my cards. Twenty minutes later, he busts out of money and twitches a bit before asking someone at the table for a loan. Eventually he finds traction with the way-up nurse who’s passing time before she goes to work with in-home elderly in need of care, offers his watch as collateral, gets a third guy to vouch for the watch’s quality, and reboots with a crisp $100 bill for another run at busting out just a few hands later. He promises to be back in an hour with the money, letting the woman keep his watch as promised, but he never returns. Maybe he didn’t exist. The woman debates briefly what to do with the watch and where she might sell it before departing for her employment.

There is the drunk who everyone knows is going to bust out after just a few hands, maybe winning one or two beforehand. There are many of these. They are the poster-children for why this whole operation should probably be illegal, was illegal for a long time, may yet be illegal again. It is arguable that it is the alcohol doing far more of the damage than the gambling, but it is also hard to imagine where the money is coming from to fuel the kind of waste that can be observed on any given night. At least this is a game of skill, though it’s hard to imagine why we allow skill to equate to standing in our society. The problems that money creates.

There is, relatedly, the story one dealer tells us of her table earlier tonight, unprecedented in her experience she says, wherein the losing player asked for his money back after cryingingly imploring that he lost his child support money and was (understandably) sure his four-of-a-kind would win the hand. She describes in vivid detail the awkwardness of the experience, the apparent grief of the man who eventually wandered away bewildered, the discomfort of the winner who offered $10 of his winning hundreds so the man could at least get a taxi home, the overall unreasonability of putting up one’s child’s support money on a game, ultimately, of chance. It takes a cynic like me at the table to suggest that maybe it was all an act, a sacrifice of dignity and honesty for the sake of recouping some dollars. This is before the watch guy shows up, but my suggestion to the dealer that she ask after the man’s kid at a future table has her in paroxysms when I follow-up with preparing her to hear “What kid?” Life has taught me all too well where people tend to rank honesty, their emotions, and money.

There is the drunk couple who shows up, resplendent pretty people in resplendent pretty clothing, fresh from a wedding with some hours to kill before their flight will return them to the girl’s home in Indiana for sedentary Midwestern living. They’ve both played before, but the girl never prior in a cardroom, and she intones stage whispers in my ears as she begs for advice in stern tipsy confusion about the arcane procedures of the poker table. I make an effort to be patient and kind as all poker tables require, only periodically cracking that this may all be an act for her to extract maximal compensation from the encounter with the casino. At one point she looks me in the eyes and asks where I’m from, says she feels like she knows me, like one of her closest friends is just like me, and there’s a hint of something heavier behind all the hiccupy banter and discussion of the way things work with cards and chips and felt. It is when her boyfriend gets busted out and wanders off in confusion that she begins to complain about his carelessness and my distaste for this particular movie mixes with my natural inclination toward it, like I’m in some sort of Eternal Sunshine infinite loop to keep making the same mistake, a moth infinitely drawn to the bug-zapper. To the point where it’s almost a relief when the lanky bearded boyfriend ambles back to collect his girl and all her chips (she’s tripled up or so in an hour under my tutelage) and stumble toward taxi, hotel, plane, Indiana.

There is the man who talks loudly about divorce, growing apart, the final date of September 12th and his kids of 8, 6, 4. He is wearing a Dallas Cowboys hat, a Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt, a Dallas Cowboys watch, and holds his cards in place with a weighty Dallas Cowboys coin of some sort. At one point he stands up from his chair, having downed four beers after the five-hour curfew on such drinks was lifted at 7:00 AM, and lifts his shirt and sweatshirt to reveal a Dallas Cowboys tattoo on the back of his right shoulder. He and I have nothing in common, but we have everything shared in this average American life I have somehow been left to lead in my own wandering wake. I wonder what it’s like to be his six-year-old girl, what his wife must be like, how she tells the story of their separation, whether he started drinking at 7 AM only after the breakup. There are times I have to be reminded to play because I find this person, obnoxious, unpleasant, brash, and loud, to be so compelling.

There is the woman who speaks in Russian on the phone to her husband asleep downstairs, then in person to him as he awakens and drifts upstairs, reminding me how much of that language I’ve forgotten but also of how much of any language is the basic exchange of extremely simple phrases. How I almost get one of their jokes well enough that concealing my reactive mirth is challenging, especially knowing that those who speak in a foreign language publicly take being understood as akin to CIA-level eavesdropping. It is such an easy assumption to make in America that your mother tongue is oblique to anyone you haven’t already identified as sharing your heritage.

There is the man who talks about his wife and child like they are quartered soldiers in his home, not ones he quite resents but rather respects in spite of their slightly uncouth way of being with his property. He is delicate but off-put when she calls, he is one of the nicest people I have ever met at a poker table, he is someone I don’t really want to share my story with but feel I almost must for the sake of his greater appreciation of his own life circumstances. You can tell people to appreciate what you want all you want, but does it sink in in a way that’s meaningful? People are going to want what they’re going to want and the first rule of wanting something is that you yourself must decide that you want it. Other people’s efforts to sway and bend must be couched and timed almost perfectly to have any impact whatsoever, and even then it rattles down the echoey wind tunnel of resistance like a thorny pebble trying to nestle in your foot. Even when you know it’s right, it grates and demands extractive rejection. Even if you end up looking at the remaining indent and missing it almost immediately as it sails away into the just-hurled-at distance.

There is the dealer who asks about my sweatshirt, the sweatshirt I always get comments on, the one from Nepal, that prompts a whole discussion of that trip and my life and brings me almost to tears. Merely because I remember that day so vividly, feel its slice across time as we waited for the shops to open in Kathmandu, the impulse purchase that became my identity the rest of that trip and for some time to come, the unpredictable randomness of me selecting something orange, red, and brown when all the colors of the rainbow were available, including the normally preferred green, blue, and gray. The colors were brighter there, our last day in Kathmandu before heading out to the rest of Nepal and India, Emily encouraging me fervently to get something for myself despite my unmaterialistic inclinations, complimenting how warm and comfortable and happy I looked in the wide-sleeved selection, reminding me for years later, like my Yellowstone sweatshirt and the honeymoon thunderbird T-shirt from the Vancouver Aquarium, that she always knew when I should get something I wanted.

Everything I own is a souvenir of Liberia.

It was not my night at the poker table and it was entirely my night. It broke my October winning streak but it took twenty solid hours at the table to do so. It was a total waste of time and it was an encounter with humanity that evoked more depth than a hundred hours of conversations with apologetic friends and eager young debaters. It made me never want to go back there again and it made me want to go back the next night. It consumed my weekend in pretty much all the ways a weekend can be consumed: physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.

I stepped outside to find the same daylight I’d encountered when entering the place, a wan grayish bluster that sent, finally, cagey crinkled leaves rattling down the asphalt. It has been summer all October. We’re headed for a fall.

by

Acting with Impunity

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , ,

There has long been a debate in the community of moral philosophers and thinkers about the idea of being “good without God”. In the advent of a neo-atheistic culture in the United States and other post-modern, post-WWII Western societies, people have increasingly felt the need and interest to establish a moral framework that is devoid of the divine, arguing that humans can derive their own moral precepts intuitively or empirically and that there’s no need to rely on some higher power for inspiration. They cite the idea that it would be irrational to believe in a God who advised things we would not otherwise consider moral and that atheists empirically seem to be just as good as believers.

It’s this last part that I want to take issue with today, especially since it tends to be the one most closely guarded and obviously apparent to those defending the idea. This issue is further complicated by it often being played out in a heated conversation between a believer (me) and an atheist (not me) and their accusatory glare at whether I’m accusing them of innately being a worse person or less moral because they happen to not derive their moral standards from a divine or higher being. It is challenging, to say the least, under the white-hot spotlight of the cornered debater, to look them in the eye and explain to them why they actually may be less moral without drawing a diatribe of vitriol or disregard in response.

The better question to ask is not whether people are more or less moral, in part because this question is incoherent without context. It’s also ridiculous to try to conclude globally, since there are of course hypocrites on both sides and plenty of people who fail to act in accordance with their own stated beliefs, goals, and ideals. The question that I find interesting and salient to this issue is which approach to life tends to bring out the more moral behavior and why. And I’ve been coming to some interesting conclusions about how this question relates to the idea of privacy vs. publicity and what that has to do with what people think they can get away with and how that informs moral choices.

To start off with, I find it to be trivially true that someone can be good without God. We can imagine a believer and an atheist each making the exact same choices in all places at all times and the difference between one person believing and one person not is in no way a meaningful tipping point between whether one or the other is good or not. To me, the God question is more an issue of fact globally. We can imagine a perfectly moral actor who happens to believe that New Jersey is south of Florida. The fact that they are incorrect about this fact in no way affects or impairs their moral judgment – at worst, it may lead to a poorly informed choice that could still probably be forgiven in light of the fact that they were misinformed. One can argue, as I sometimes do, that the illogical clinging to atheism in the face of the legion evidence against it becomes tantamount to willful denial, but this still seems like something short of actual moral breach. The goodness of an action ought be determined by its innate morality, not by its happenstance in relation to a correct set of factual beliefs about the universe.

What becomes problematic, though, is when we descend out of the thought experiment structure. Yes, if we imagine two people making the same actions and reactions and choices, then the lone fact of belief or not isn’t a tipping point. But no two people act the same way, and the way they believe and even the facts they understand impact the choices they make almost entirely. At that point, how does belief meaningfully change the way someone interacts with their environment as opposed to non-belief?

Clearly, there are lots of ways. There’s prioritization of values over mere survival in life. Faith in an afterlife gives someone more perspective about the temporal and physical reality of life on Earth. There’s a certain humility in not believing one belongs to the highest order intelligence that exists in the universe. There’s acquiescence to not controlling one’s fate or destiny. But none of these have such a clear impact on behavior as the idea that one can keep secrets and only need be accountable to oneself. The notion that what’s private is permanently private (unless admitted or exposed) is perhaps the most damning (pun intended) part of non-belief.

Those who believe in God believe they are living a life in public. Maybe not a public of seven-billion people, maybe not a public they will be exposed to for all-time, but that there’s an audience of some kind for every single action and choice they make, no matter how small or internal or invisible. At all times and in all actions, they must hold themselves accountable to the standard of not just what they claim or hope to believe, but what they actually believe, for someone is watching them and observing. They are likely to be less concerned with the optics of their actions to mortal observers because they know there are immortal observers as well and that eventually their actions will be assessed by that entity in a much more meaningful way than any temporal judge. They fundamentally can’t believe in privacy in its truest sense, for nothing they do is truly private.

Meanwhile, the non-believer believes that walls and secrets truly cloak their true selves. They may aspire to higher-order moral action, may attempt to be their own top-drawer accountant, but at the end of the day, whatever they can get away with doing is fine for themselves, because they have no one to own up to at the end of it all. The only person holding the person accountable is that person themselves, once they’ve navigated whatever court of public opinion is necessary to traverse. These people thus tend to put a great deal more stock in the perspective of others, for convincing those people or not is all that matters to their ultimate worth. Public actions cast a much longer shadow on their lives than those they believe to be private. And those actions that are private that might inspire shame or discomfort or regret become much more susceptible to the murky cloud of denial, revision, and editing. The person who does something wrong and convinces themselves it was right has actually erased the wrong that was done if there’s no accountability at the end of life. The person who does something wrong and has to account for it is less likely to worry what they themselves think of it, for they know there’s an objective arbiter at the end of the show.

Which line of belief tends toward inspiring the more moral actions? Empirically, we see that people tend to be better people in front of others. They are more likely to pick up trash, offer generosity, be kind, help someone, disregard selfishness if someone is looking. When that extra impetus of judgment is removed, people tend to devolve toward their baser selves, prioritizing self over others and ignoring moral obligations. This impact is clearly flattened for those who believe they are always being watched, especially by the most important judge of character. And where do things that even devout atheists believe to be dubious take place? In secret, in the shadows, behind closed doors. Stealing, cheating (on tests, spouses, or contests), individual violence – these things are all shielded from public scrutiny and almost none would take place without the veil of privacy. Those who believe or imagine that someone is always over their shoulder observing and taking notes are far less able to take such actions.

Obviously it would be ideal if everyone were motivated and inspired to act perfectly even without the notion that someone is watching them. Moral action should be taken for its own sake and ideally not merely for the sake of avoiding punishment. (Although I must note that my own theology believes there is accountability and expectation without direct punishment or reward.) However, it seems highly unrealistic that this developmental stage of humans in this backwards and tempting world is capable of expecting most of its denizens to act rightly without someone watching. More importantly, it’s not even clear to me why we would want privacy or to feel like someone isn’t watching our moves. If we are to be good and inspiring people, shouldn’t we be trying to live more publicly, more openly, more clearly in order to interact, communicate, synergize, and motivate?

Privacy is not your friend. Publicity is not your enemy. Even if you don’t believe, imagining yourself taking actions before your best friend or your worst enemy is most helpful to checking your own temptation to act poorly. Even if you believe firmly that there is no evidence for the existence of God, that such a belief is irrational, it seems fairly clear that convincing yourself to act as though there were a God will make you more likely to be a good person and act morally. Forget Pascal’s wager – that’s just trying to game the system for a reward. This is Pascal’s wager for everyone else – they will derive more benefit from you if you don’t believe there are shadows where you can skulkingly give in to your baser instincts. And if we all agreed to this, then we might actually start getting somewhere on this thus far increasingly hopeless rock sphere.

by

The Profundity of Being Alone

Categories: A Day in the Life, Keepin' it Cryptic, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

Something is right with me today. It’s a weird feeling and its pervasive presence is underscoring how far from feeling this way I’ve been in a long time and prompting further contemplation of the differences. There are a lot of minor possible and even plausible explanations, but it is only in the incredible convergence that they even begin to seem to explain the way I’m feeling.

I blew out my voice at Harvard (not entirely, but close enough), probably more from telling stories while projecting from the front of a minivan than in actually doing my job coaching. I made a serious case advice blunder at Harvard that cost a team that had been cruising through the tournament a trip further in the outrounds and our team a shot at ascending in the rankings. But today I woke up more at peace with the latter and especially more okay with the former. I’m realizing that I’ve been sick in some general sense (allergies, feeling run down, actually sore-throated, etc.) for probably more than two full weeks and today was the first day it didn’t seem debilitating. My voice is still a bit froggy and I still have some congestion, but today made me feel like I’m actually going to beat my association of maladies and I realized how much of my general downtroddenness the last couple weeks has stemmed from just not being physically 100%.

It also is a day where, for the first time in ages, I’m feeling like I’m not behind on anything. This may be an illusory feeling, but I think it’s combining with a particular piece of mail I dropped in the box on Friday that I didn’t even realize was freighting me down the way that it apparently was. Mental energy is a hard thing to gauge, especially when one’s distracted and running behind, and yet the last 24 hours have provided this overarching lift from finally dispatching something I have put off in order to not let it weigh me down. Feels like, once again, I misread that situation completely and its true impact on my daily functioning soul. So suddenly there’s a chirping bird where there was not long ago an ominous crow.

The weather is gorgeous. That doesn’t hurt anything. It’s an October 10th that eats like an August 17th and while that itself can raise disconcerting feelings and perceptions, it doesn’t surprise me that a stock exchange located in New York City decided to jump 3% today for no rational reason. I think it’s almost impossible not to feel optimistic in weather like this, an optimism that just doesn’t burn in the face of reason or logic or the reality of a winter oncoming. Eat, drink, and lay in the grass for tomorrow we freeze. Perhaps, perhaps. Or maybe there is a hope in the innate simplicity of embracing what surrounds us and not resisting.

Even Jersey has felt friendly and warm and open today. I played cards yesterday and felt like I was making friends with everyone, going out way up after a roller-coaster ride that should have fazed me way more than it did. Of course I was doing so in the wake of something more emotionally involving, but ultimately that’s even infused me with a sense of peace. And I retrieved all my stuff from Enterprise today – I somehow left everything in our rented van when we dropped it off after Harvard, including my credit card in the cupholder and my backpack, which is basically my lifeline to existence. The retrieval was one of the friendlier corporate or Jersey interactions I’ve ever had, especially for it being something so boneheaded on my part and so annoying for them to deal with.

There is something, essentially, about being alone and more quiet and rested and healthy and introspective in the wake of several consecutive tumultuous days, that has prompted an internal Zen flame of simple humanity. I could describe it better if I understood it better, but I’m tempted to let it be and try to savor this hurricane-eye kind of calm. I think it has something to do with keeping my own company after so long surrounded, but I even enjoyed grocery shopping a little today. The best I can explain it is that it feels like there’s some sort of lack of pressure, an absence of a pressing weight that’s been there for weeks. Whether that’s more sinus pressure or paperwork pressure or success pressure or simply an amorphous spiritual angst is anyone’s guess. And how long it will remain away is even less tangible.

But as Adam Duritz would say, that’s all right for me today.

by

Stability, Instability, Glass, and the Ether

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

I spent the weekend in Lerner Hall at Columbia University. Lerner Hall is this gargantuan glass building that you wouldn’t forget if you’d ever been there – there are basically no strict right angles in the place, and the initial impression one gets of it is akin to being at sea or perhaps down the rabbit hole. Long ramps ring the entire main five-story lobby, occasionally cut-away by Escherian staircases while diagonal rooms of glass and stainless steel offer a disorienting place to work, study, and play. Imagine Hogwarts’ path to the Gryffindor common room with all the moving pictures replaced with glass and all the the wood replaced with shiny metal.

Lerner Hall is one of the all-time Significant places in my life. It was the site of the 9/11 vigil at Columbia Novice on September 14, 2001, the one that more or less created the last ten years of my life. On September 15th, after the all-night talk in Tom’s Restaurant, it’s where Emily and I wandered and chatted and eventually admitted that we were each afraid the other would get sick of us after 10, 12, 16 straight hours of talking, where it first occurred to me that I would tell our unborn daughter that falling in love is just having a conversation that you never want to end. I would be sugarcoating things if I said that I never once looked over the high fifth-floor balcony and contemplated what Em and I finally said to each other on September 24, 2001 and thought about poetry and the full view of history. But I’m still here. And the nice thing about poetic opportunities like that when they are bypassed is that it puts a certain caliber of pressure and significance on the act that is hard to run across in future. But it also makes one think altogether too much about possible worlds.

I was in Lerner to help run a debate tournament, of course, my relationship with the Columbia team roughly diametric to that with the team that helped make Columbia 2003 the all-time Dirt Standard of poorly-run contests. It’s nice to be on the beautiful urban fortress campus and feel an affinity for its denizens that contrasts so highly with the prior impressions I had in an epoch that feels mostly like it happened to someone else, at least when I’m not passing certain crosswise benches in Lerner Hall. The weekend was ultimately long and disjointed, despite being highly productive I was in a turbo-overworked mood that mixed poorly with the filter of memories made so indelible by the glass casing of a building that hasn’t changed in a decade. I felt disconnected from my own team and came to the point of contemplating how much I’m going to help run other tournaments, how much more I ought focus at these competitions on merely maximizing our own morale. Still, I had fun at times and things went well, so like everything these days, there were highs and lows.

There has been a huge kerfuffle of late of the changes made to Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg’s constant drive to open the doors of what is possible in connection on the Internet. And it’s taken me a week of meditation on it to realize that what’s wrong with the web is exactly parallel to what’s wrong with Lerner Hall for me.

The Internet is an ever-changing, ever-evolving universe. There are no constants, no rules, no expectations of consistency. There is a thin under-layer of HTML and protocol that serves as the barest of physical laws to govern an otherwise completely dynamic environment. And since it’s constantly in flux, since it alters itself every nanosecond of every 24 hours of every eternal day, there’s the constant drive to keep changing or get left behind. It is this that drove the rise of Facebook, but also the plunge of Facebook into its current sudden state of overshared disarray. It is this that drove the rise of Google, but also Google’s own descent into irrelevant distrust of the words that a person has actually typed and the barrage of over-sponsored information atop the page. And I’ve realized that the Internet’s lack of buildings is exactly what will make it a landscape where what is right and what works is never constant.

I have long lamented that the Golden Age of Blogging was fleeting and is now merely a wispy memory that current generations barely believed. When I was in college, it seemed inevitable that everyone would blog, improving their creative expression and ability to connect and engage with their peers in a format that one could digest, internalize, and interact with at ongoing leisure. It was a world that, needless to say, I embraced wholeheartedly, a world I still try to pretend exists through avenues like what you’re reading at this moment despite my awareness that blogging is now almost entirely a political vehicle or an extension of capitalism. The personal blog is not dead, but it is badly wounded, careening around the wake of its injury like a moaning quadruped mammal. Most people find blog content too long to read, too un-instantaneous to care about. It has been replaced by Facebook.

But Facebook itself already seems obviously on the decline in the wake of its bifurcation of tickers and adaptation to the “innovative” pressure placed on it by Google+. Rather than trusting in the security of a system that had worked to build the largest single network of human beings in the history of the species, Zucky and friends decided to chase the dragon of a competitor’s suggested alterations and are on the verge of destroying their own genius in the name of constant change. Not to mention they are doing so in pursuit of a competitor that already ruined their own best offering with tools like auto-complete, constant spelling correction that makes searching for a name like “Storey” almost impossible, and individualization of the algorithm that sacrificed knowledge and connection for the sake of something like solipsism and the insulation of everyone’s personal bubble.

How can this happen? Precisely because there is no glass online. There are no beams of stainless steel, no walls of brick or blocks of stone or columns of poured concrete. There is only the ether, the crackle of invisible waves that circulate globally to express an unceasingly instatic reality.

When one builds a building, one plans it. One designs it. One knows that even in the worst of scenarios, this building must stand for years. Most buildings are designed to last decades and centuries, some for a theoretical perpetuity. There is a mentality innate to that undertaking and a reality to engage for those maintaining those structures thereafter. You can’t simply change the underlying support structure of a house, a dorm building, a hall on an ancient campus. You have to deal with the physical realities, the unmovable objects, the blocking and layout and blueprints of bygone architects.

This has a lot of drawbacks. 85% of people are mailing it in at all times and some of them are inevitably engineers. But when it works, when it cobbles together to create something viable, the results are bordering on the eternal. We all can picture the Eiffel Tower (ironically designed to be impermanent, of course), the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, the Empire State Building. These places, buildings and bridges, the output of human capacity for design and creativity, stand the test of time because they have to. But there is nothing on the Internet that carries this weight, this constancy, this static nature. And while critics of my conceptualization here might raise screenshots of the 1994 web and ask if we’d always want to be stuck there, this is like pointing to the first huts and cave dwellings and asking us to stay there forever too. Just because some early buildings are ugly or fail does not mean that all buildings innately ought be impermanent and subject to alteration. We would never accept someone adding a few floors to the Empire State Building, redressing the Statue of Liberty, knocking the glass out of the Notre Dame. And similarly, we should demand a certain consistency from what works best on the Internet if we are not doomed to writhe in the nostalgic quicksand of only fleeting success.

There is, it occurs to me, a model for this inconstant wrestling, this deliberately impermanent environment. You guessed it folks, it’s capitalism. There are almost no companies that survive even a hundred years, and those that make it that long have reinvented or reimagined themselves so thoroughly that they carry only the barest nominal trappings of their prior incarnations. You can call this innovation and evolution if you want, but it’s more that the nature of the corporate thresher is fickle, demanding, cutthroat, and prone to exterminating things. The core reason for this is the completely irrational demand for constant growth, the bizarre expectation that stability and constancy are the enemy in the face of carcinogenic consumption. Capitalism goes one step beyond sharks’ need to always move and demands that this movement carries eternal expansion as well. In a fixed universe, or at least a fixed planet, this means that beings are constantly unsound and unstable and doomed to fail at an effort whose very premise is flawed from the outset. The nature of the corporate landscape is far more Internet than college campus, institutions mere fleeting tools for the purpose of constant random change.

Which brings us back to Lerner Hall and the contemplation of the failure of all that was supposed to be constant in my own life. Is it coincidence that the rise of the capitalist worldview has corresponded so closely to the rise in divorce rates? Is it random that the Internet’s advent has, in bringing us closer together, also raised the demand for an unending change in partners, living arrangements, extolling the self over permanent connections? I submit to you that these are almost directly correlated. That in espousing a perspective where nothing can reliably be unchanging, our very view of the bonds and pacts people make with each other has also slipped into fungibility. I have said at times that change is the only constant, that there is incredible flux in our universe beyond our very comprehension and thus that traditional ideas of stability are illusory. But at the same time, the middle-ground permanence of a building, of fixed angles and supports and walls, this seems like it might not be too much to hope for. But if our model is to be corporations who constantly eat each other to survive, a landscape of a brutal ocean or savannah of unending danger and consumption, what hope do any of us have of carving out a life for ourselves that can be trusted and thus provide a platform for fulfillment?

Come back to me. Come back to Lerner Hall. The bench is still here.

by

Drop in a Lake

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Long Tunnel, Tags: ,

A day when the phone doesn’t ring. Not that this is a measure of anything, much, save for the busyness of the friends and family who make up a lifetime of communication and contact. One can argue how many of those people would call if they knew, call if they wanted, but one must respond to the vine-grasping inertia of proximity and visual resonance. How we are ultimately these silly biological tethers to limb and eye-socket and bloodflow, or at least locked therein while trying to elevate the scope of our mental reach and capacity. And that as long as we are trapped in separate skins, it is oh so hard to ever feel truly sufficiently surrounded.

Every second alone is a waste, in some ways, and yet the way of the introvert is to prefer this low-risk expenditure of time to even that which makes us feel most elevated, most transcendent. The high-flying antics of sharing and absorbing, of the mutual vulnerability of nine nightbound souls, inhibitions unlocked by mutual expectation and the dark of the sky and the possibility of youth that so many of their elder peers will lose over time, they themselves becoming those elders in the name of wisdom or safety. What a cosmic magic to be able to position oneself eternally in relation to this transitional time, ancient insect in the eternal amber of crystallization, getting perhaps just a bit older and lonelier as the ongoing rent for all this connection. Every human being so raw, so yearning, so similar in the basic bonds that make us all what we are. Tomorrow we will go box ourselves up again, gird our armor anew, but the impact of lines jointly crossed will never entirely fade.

And yet why the preference, in a world of true apparent universality, why the preference of some to others? No wonder some could cite Huxley as utopia, cite individual taste as sheer irrationality. How marvelous to not demand or expect or hope for more from one than another, to merely breathe and be and take solace in any incidental mind/flesh/voice combination and the wonder of that amalgam’s interest in one’s own. And yet, such is not the way of this incarnation. We are trained and developed, crafted and honed, maybe even irreparably and impenetrably predisposed, to like some more than others. To foster and cultivate vast imbalances in how we perceive others, to weep over the absence of one while tiring to the point of vague nausea over another. How shallow some of these distinctions, how cruel, and somehow still inescapable. An irrationality as deep and undeniable as sexuality itself, as time in its plodding passage, as the unpredictable mortality of our fickle casings.

We are, all of us, lakes, presenting an image consistent, horizontal, reflective, and opaque. The simplest manifestation of surface tension, a color or outline of our surroundings, silent and still. And yet what life teems below! What cataclysm the response to any stimulus, movement, disruption of the surface! What depth, what invisible capacity and precipitous absorption may be undertaken! Woe to any who presume the careful balance of the waterline cannot be disturbed, is sufficient to hold even the lightest of breaches, the smallest of pebbles.

Come. Wade. Splash. Skip not the stones upon the level, but rather slam them down. I am tired of reflecting, weary of mere surroundings on display. The water’s fine and there is much to be explored.

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Obligatory 9/11 Reflection

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

Yesterday I went to Philadelphia to play cards and see Ariel and be social on a day when I expected to be overwhelmed and over-tired after reconnecting with the debate circuit (see here for how that went) for another season. It was a pretty decent day overall, even if I mostly learned from the poker experience that I still haven’t gotten the formula for when to leave the table down yet. Turns out that playing with overtly bad players (spot the sucker at the table, etc.) is actually usually more costly than it is profitable. Still left up, but could have left up a lot more.

In any event, I was really sick of 9/11 yesterday. All I wanted was some NPR or talk radio that wasn’t about ten years ago, and that just wasn’t happening. I get it, I guess, but I was simply completely overwrought with the references and remembrances, especially given their personal context which I’ll outline a bit herein. Basically, 9/11 has become rebranded with a trauma for me that it never had to begin with, which is kind of weird and melodramatic, but nonetheless true for my emotions. I’m not exactly sure why I feel compelled to chronicle all this when I was so OD’ed on it yesterday, but my perspective is a fickle beast these days, to say the least.

As far as my actual perspective on the 9/11 event itself and most of its remembrance, I think Ariel summed up my feelings beautifully in her post yesterday. I include the link not only to highlight her spare but poignant description of said feelings, but also to highlight that she’s back to blogging, something that few people are doing with any regularity these days (self somewhat included), so you should check it out. And it was this same shared perception, the idea that 9/11 itself was, while tragic, vastly overblown in significance by a country and city steeped in complacency, that was so much of the baseline of Emily’s and my connection that led so quickly to our near-decade union in life.

Emily and I shared spots on APDA’s governing body, the APDA Board, with roughly similar levels of ambivalence at the outset of the 2001-2002 debate season. And three days prior to the opening tournament, the Columbia Novice contest in New York City, the events whose description need no reviewing unfolded on a Tuesday morning. The APDA Board, like so many other leadership councils, scrambled that night to determine the fate of the weekend and APDA’s President (from the host school of Columbia Novice) insisted that not only would the show go on, but so would the celebratory party on Friday night. The Board somehow concluded that it would be appropriate to cancel elimination rounds, but not the late-night festivities.

It is easy to forget in the light of a decade without terrorism in the United States how much paranoia was abroad in the land in the days and weeks following September 11th, 2001. I had friends, several of them, who unequivocally told me I was committing likely suicide by driving to New York City on September 14th and a possible atrocity by bringing college freshmen with me. I felt serious responsibilities to APDA and especially those new recruits on the team who wanted to attend that I had to lead them in whatever decision they preferred and enable a real choice on the matter. And I felt driven, as did Emily, to make sure there was a viable alternative to going to a bar on Friday night for those attending the tournament. And thus she and I planned the vigil that would ultimately yield our all-night diner talk that would single-handedly put us on a course for marriage.

It was a permanent fixture in our relationship and marriage that 9/11 directly caused our union, a serendipitous quirk that gave the historical event a greater legacy for our lives than either of us had personally found it to have for the world. And in my first e-mail to friends in the wake of her attempted over-the-phone-from-Liberia divorce salvo, I cited how this silver lining had gone gray overnight, how what once felt like a sign that all could bounce back in the universe now felt like a monument to the meaningless trudge of life’s ongoing hardship. A more draconian interpretation might instill a lesson that tragedy is tragedy and one ought never take solace in it, no matter how redemptive it seems. But most of my mind went back not to the event itself, but my tenterhooks feelings on that unfolding evening itself.

I had developed a crush on Emily for years prior to 9/11, but sometime just before 2001 had resolved to actively try to eradicate it from my mind. Her judgment and perception of people seemed fatally flawed in the context of certain overtly disastrous public incidents with her then-boyfriend and I concluded that no matter how intelligent, attractive, and vibrant she seemed, she simply lacked the judgment required for a trustworthy foundation. It was this internal argument that I mulled for hours in Tom’s Restaurant as night became day and I was forced to conclude in her flirtation and the ambiguous silence on the topic that she must finally have shed the relationship and demonstrated that I had judged her judgment a bit too hastily.

This was incorrect, though. She was still with that boyfriend at the time. And it was a much eerier and less comfortable joke sidelining our marriage that my not knowing that on that night was as responsible as 9/11 itself for our forging a life together. It was only the increasing though ultimately disproven conviction that she’d made a good decision that convinced me to quiet my own pre-committed voices against pursuing her any further.

By the time I found out her true status at the time (not that she lied about it or that we did anything that violated the relationship), I was already mentally invested in us having a future. And the rest, as they say, is history. Creepily foreshadowing history, as it turned out.

Emily asked me late in our Stateside disassembly of our mutuality whether my story on our time together would be all about the betrayal. I blinked at her and asked how it could be anything else. And she returned to platitudes about the time that we spent together for its own sake, the love that we shared, and especially her cloying refrain that I would be the better for our parting. And despite its seriously grandiose overtones, I can’t help but find a parallel to the question in the event of 9/11 itself. After all, the power and prestige of Osama bin Laden was purchased by the United States of America. His military interest, knowhow, and capability was all facilitated by the country he ultimately attacked. It is hard to imagine US officials close to bin Laden feeling like the partnership paid off overall, like it was somehow worth it in view of its fiery catastrophic conclusion.

Of course, there is an underlying asterisk to that whole angle on the story, namely that the US itself, or more broadly certain interest groups and factions within same, did probably end up better off for the experience of 9/11, despite its horrible upfront costs. It is this reality that prompts such widespread belief in the Inside Job theories that I myself share a sufficient sympathy with to make almost everyone I talk to about this wildly incredulous and uncomfortable. Almost as incredulous and uncomfortable as I feel every year that the dire predictions of in-country terrorism subsequent to 9/11 go unsubstantiated. The evidence of negligence in the face of threats is irrefutable, and the evidence of Pearl Harbor-style ignorance in the face of an impending reality is nearly so. The next step to active crafting is more ambiguous and will always remain so until someone can at least build a lifesize replica of the twin towers and send a remote-controlled jetliner into it to see if the theories invented to cover apparent empirics have any validity. You have to remember that the reason so many police and firefighters (and, frankly, regular people) died that day is because literally no physicist or architect believed it was possible for the buildings to fall. Had structural collapse even been the remotest inkling of a possibility in the minds of anyone witnessing the events as they unfolded, the death count for the day would stand around 400. And that has to give you pause, regardless of how crazy you think questioning the official story is.

Suspending that thorny, divisive, and potentially alienating question, though, part of the 9/11 story (as with any tragedy) is trying to find redemptive outcomes and hopeful plotlines that mitigate the sheer horror of the unprecedented and unpredicted death of innocent humans. Indeed, my marriage itself was key among these. Which brings us to an unsettling conundrum that has underlied a great deal of my life in the last year. Anything good that happens in my life – from the success of the Rutgers debaters to any future relationship I might have to simply having a day where I don’t cry and contemplate giving up – can be used as a justification for Emily’s destruction of my previous life. If I wind up happy in a year or five or twenty, Emily gets to come back and say “I told you so,” to justify her callous and cavalier betrayal as a necessary step in both of our lives. I would no more hope to thus be unhappy than I would myself fly a plane into a building with people in it, but the insidious extent of her poisoning of my life puts a tarnish on any future joy or success I have. Anything I hope to find or build or do is asterisked as an argument that I had to lose what I most cared about, that I had to be betrayed.

I was going to say that the difference between that seemingly irrefutable reality and people making the same claim about 9/11 is the obvious irrecoverable destruction of 3,000 lives and a certain sense of American security (and ultimately, rights). In other words, no one would ever claim that this could be somehow “worth it,” no matter what benefits were reaped, while I’ve had to endure countless close friends already lobbing the “you’re better off without her” tripe because that’s permissible in the wake of divorce in our society, but not death. But I don’t think divorce/death is actually the key distinction here. I think it’s that even Osama bin Laden didn’t have the temerity to claim that his attacks (if they were his attacks, which he [uncharacteristically of all terrorists] denied for years) would ultimately be for the good of America and its people. Yet that’s exactly the kind of claim Emily’s tried relentlessly to make.

I know how this looks. The point of this post isn’t to say I was married to the moral or functional equivalent of Osama bin Laden, or even a more audacious version thereof. Indeed, the character flaws that led to her unraveling actions had nothing in common with terrorism so much as the weakness and distractability and poor self-awareness already identified before we even kissed. In other words, I knew exactly what I was signing up for, or should’ve. The fault, as I’ve shouted over countless eye-rolling friends, is mine. Not that this itself justifies her not checking her own immature proclivities, but neither does it render them entirely responsible for surprising me. So forgive me this melodramatic comparison. It is, as discussed with Ariel yesterday, merely my inclination to intertwine themes that have an echoey resonance, to contextualize the significance of an event that, in spite of itself, carries enormous world-changing weight even in my life.

But this counterpoint helps serve another function, namely to illustrate and reemphasize the depth of pain that actually brought me to, for the first time in three decades, cut off communication with another human being. It is only by being this visceral and thorough that I can truly show how hurtful the claim that her betrayal was for my sake is. How hurtful and endlessly compounding, a domino chain of exponential increase, cascading with doubt and haunting as I am left in the wake of wondering if all my suffering is for my own good. It is also to articulate across the void, I suppose, to a person who may or may not be reading this, that that one thought, baseline of her own self-righteous defense of her actions, was the tipping point in my being able to keep her in my life or not.

It may be fundamental to Emily’s future happiness and even functionality that she believe this malicious notion. But it is anathema to my own. And as long as we both maintain this, unsoftening, we will stand as hard and opposed as the World Trade Center towers themselves. Twinned, unyielding, so similar and yet never touching. And ultimately doomed to fall.

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The Randomness of Money

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, TH'HEAT 2011, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , ,

A couple weeks back, before the storm blew in and failed to knock out the power and the storm of novices came in to reignite the debate season, I came home and found a note under my door saying that the rent was going up about 3%. Given that I’d already splurged for more rent than I really wanted to pay when I moved here, spending more for a place on my own than I ever had as a couple, I was none too pleased about it. Yes, heat is included, which is a clutch expense in this climate, and yes, I have a functionally extra bedroom that serves as my office in a relatively palatial space in a great neighborhood. But sometimes, rent is too damn high.

But just like the day that I got waitlisted at Swarthmore (what had, in spite of myself, become my first-choice college for undergrad applications back in ’98) and the Brandeis scholarship package was the other envelope available to open in the same delivery, so too was there another envelope waiting for me this day. And instead of coming from Trudi Manfredo and friends, it was from my new academic department at Rutgers, informing me of a little stipend I’d be getting on top of my regular salary for serving as adjunct professor of the one-credit debate class. And suffice it to say that the stipend easily more than covered the uptick in rent. And so I had this weird moment of wanting to be grumpy about the increase, but being wholly unable to because I had basically found unknown money under the proverbial couch cushions of the mail.

To be fair, though, I shouldn’t have been surprised. This has basically been my entire life experience with the green paper figments we call currency in this country. Despite an upbringing where my parents and especially grandparents taught me to take money very seriously and be quite sparing in its expenditure, the actual flow of finances in my life has been something like the pacing of a poorly-shot action film. And it’s all served to remind me of what I’ve now long known – that money is totally and utterly random and that any correlation between its availability and anything resembling work or effort or especially dessert is entirely coincidental.

It is this increasing conviction, borne of scrimping money early in our life in California only to have a hit-and-run driver force $1,500 of repairs on a car we ended up ditching shortly thereafter or me follow advice to an Emergency Room bill of similar heft that was entirely unnecessary for our uninsured selves, that has probably solidified my conceptual comfort with gambling. Many people are surprised to learn that I not only gamble, but enjoy it, perhaps assuming it fails to dovetail with a life devoted to avoiding all drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and meat (probably quadruply redundant, that list, or at least triply so) as well as one spent railing against capitalism. And there are times that my anti-capitalist convictions make me squeamish about the financial fracas that is wagering, though I also have this Pi-like (the movie) fascination with numeric patterns and beating the system, something only reinforced by having a series of close friends who also invest a lot of mental energy in same. Nevertheless, I’m squarely in the camp that gambling helps unearth a fundamental truth about money and capitalism writ large, or a series of them – namely that your income always comes at the expense of someone else’s cost, and that money is oh so random.

Which is not to say, mind you, that gambling ought be random. I am a lifetime vocal opponent of the lottery for precisely that reason – there’s nothing remotely involving skill one could attribute to this institution, unless you want to sort of count this innovative couple who bought enough tickets to beat the house. Besides the fact that the lottery positions itself to violate the other fundamental rule of gambling, namely that one should only risk what one can afford to lose. A rule that I probably violated when managing some retirement funds before the dissolution of my marriage, in a sense, though once one has access to a certain amount of cash, it gets harder to see the real value of any given dollar or even thousand. And this gets even more difficult when the person betraying one steals far more than that in the effort to extort a friendship one will soon lose interest in maintaining. Good God, this stuff is so random.

But back to gambling, quickly. The point is that gambling is an arena whose entrance should be blocked by a certain playfulness with the money, and whose contents should require skill instead of luck. Which has of course driven a lifelong fascination with poker, which can combine with an addictive personality (there’s a reason I don’t get involved with mind-altering substances, or about twenty-six of them – reasons, not substances) to really ramp up the stakes. I’ve probably been a break-even player for most of my life, in aggregate, treading water at the limit game at Oaks Card Club in Emeryville, California for a few years, occasionally dropping money in Vegas or somewhere else and paying for it with pretty decent money taken off my friends $10-$100 at a time in weekly home games or in the Castle Commons back in college.

I can’t really explain why gambling is fun, but I think it’s only fun if it’s affordable and requires some sort of skill. I had twice as much fun bowling when we bet on it as when we didn’t, and the same was probably just about true for chess. Maybe it’s the risk-reward structure or the adrenaline of competition or the personality of a generation raised to be incentivized to the hilt with a thousand tiny carrots ranging from literal grade-school warm-fuzzies to free candy bars for high grades to book-club books for lots of reading. I don’t think it’s an oversimplification to say that the children of the 1980’s were a straight-up bribed generation, without even getting into the countless kids of broken homes whose parents would outright bid for their affection with toys, trips, and allowances. No wonder we’re drowning in debt and associate every activity with some sort of dollar cost or potential reward. And even I, ever the skeptic of the whole exchange of goods and services thing, get pulled under if there’s enough strategy or drama.

Something changed on this roadtrip, though, the mosaic of the nature of poker altered and shifted like a desert djinn and started to reveal itself in a new more visible light. I actually lost overall in three trips to casinos in three different states, but felt I was absorbing almost alien-inspired knowledge about the way the game should be played. Something that’s always intrigued me about poker also accelerated, namely the social aspect of the game. Even in the frigid east coast, with its brusque disregard for human communication, poker tables knit strangers together in a friendly camaraderie rarely rivaled outside of ideal workplaces and debate or sports teams. It was largely loneliness that drove me to Oaks on many of those Oakland and Berkeley nights, the challenge of living on four hours a night of sleep with a wife who preferred ten. And though I walked out of the St. Louis cardroom agreeing not to make poker a continuing thing in my Jersey life, at least until the summer, I still had this nagging feeling that I’d made a breakthrough even in light losses.

Fast-forward to a couple weeks back, when I was feeling energized and excited after a great week looking forward to the debate season, all friends in any sort of range busy, but wanting to go talk, be, and see. I posted on Facebook that I was considering going to AC for the weekend, but probably knew better. To my near-shock, at least five friends almost immediately posted with exhortations for me to go gamble. Maybe they knew me better than I know myself, saw the glint of caring and distraction entailed in cards that makes the mopey self-recrimination cycle of much of the last year more difficult. At least if one doesn’t lose too much, that is. And one of them informed me there’s a card room a half hour east of Philly, twice as close as AC, which made the difference between needing a hotel and not. I was sold.

Seven trips later, I’m making $27 an hour playing poker. That only counts table time, so tacking on the drive time puts it closer to $20, and then there’s a little gas as well. But twenty bucks an hour is surprisingly job-like compensation for something that’s incredibly fun and social. I also feel like I’m getting better, and even though there was one losing session overall against the six winners, I’m up over $1100 in two weeks of play.

Granted, seven trips in two weeks is utterly unsustainable during the debate season proper and winter will also likely dampen my enthusiasm for that much Route One driving. Though I do thank the roadtrip for reminding me that I actually enjoy driving a fair bit and otherwise tend to lack time to belt out singing to favored songs or absorb some NPR. Or even, as I’ve discovered I actually like lately, put on a dance radio station and bob along in the sheer momentum of an underlit night. It even occurred to me, in light of a surprisingly lackluster feeling about not only the online dating site I joined a month or so back but the idea of online dating writ large, that maybe poker can be my girlfriend for a while. I can well see the withering look I’d give myself had I heard myself say such a thing, but I’m starting to think my heart may just be closed for business for a good long while. And it might even prompt me to take another look at monasteries if I weren’t suddenly fascinated with the idea of making something like an income playing cards for chips.

The nicest thing about this whole process and experience is that the flash-temptation I have to quit my job and play poker full-time is resoundingly defeated by how much I love my job. For perhaps the first time in my life, I know I wouldn’t give notice if I won the lottery (which I would never play, but you get the metaphor) tomorrow. Even hitting the big-time with a bestseller and having the opportunity to write full-time would probably not prompt an overnight shift to a new career. I don’t know quite what to do with this information other than to be grateful for that aspect of my existence. I really love the debate team, the people thereon, and the endless opportunities emerging from the school’s support of both. And maybe it’s that confidence in how I’m making a day job that makes the night job both relaxing and viable.

Or maybe I’m just lucky.

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Why I’m Cancelling Netflix

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

It has nothing to do with the price, although the increase doesn’t hurt for putting things in perspective.

I’ve talked about this phenomenon to a few people, but it seems like the kind of thing that’s worth documenting at this juncture as I cancel Netflix today, because I think it has some implications for broader incentives and how money messes with people’s better motivations. I’m also considering creating a “War on Capitalism” category for posts here because the broader “Politics…” one is starting to feel like it’s getting thrown at too many disparate ideas. We’ll see.

Anyway, I like movies. Quite a bit, I feel, perhaps more than most people. Although I traditionally don’t like watching movies at home. I’ve spent a lot of time discerning why I love movies in theaters and am kind of annoyed, generally, by the process of watching movies at home. Most of it, I’ve found, is about immersion. I’m able to really lose myself in a film and the world it’s creating when it’s on the big screen in a huge dark room and I don’t control the timing of the event. It is just that: an event. I cannot pause the movie, I cannot rewind it, I cannot determine the parameters of the environment. I am part of something larger and bearing witness and thus I have no choice but to let go and be captive to the universe around me. Whereas that element of control that a remote offers, combined with the reduced sound and size and co-viewers, saps the surreality from the perspective and reminds me, repeatedly, that this is just a movie I’m choosing to watch and I can break the spell of illusion any time I want.

And that immersion gap is the hinge point for a lot of my enjoyment of experiencing a film. If I’m constantly hyper-aware of the fact that I’m in a fictional space with fictional characters, I’m far less likely to learn anything from what they’re trying to illustrate. The reason I like fiction is that there’s more truth in it than the often blatantly biased “non-fiction” presentation of an argument or perspective. If I’m continually being reminded that it’s just a bunch of actors, then that goes out the window. Which it can, because I’m in a room with windows, as opposed to the theater.

But I’ve been able to put up with shifting gears to a lot of home-watching, first because Em and I were trying to save money after moving to Jersey (and she had spent years lobbying me to watch more at home because she liked couching it, which makes her citation of that as a flaw in our relationship thereafter so unfair and ridiculous) and then later after she’d robbed me. It’s not as much fun, but I did it enough that I got used to it and didn’t mind so much. And then, in the last six months or so, I started noticing a creeping phenomenon from Netflix subscription that was having a detrimental impact on my life.

Netflix is a subscription service, and an unlimited one at that, with the only restriction on one’s capacity for utilizing it being how many movies one wants to pay for at a time and how quickly one can turn those movies over. There is also streaming, sure, but I forgot to buy a laptop with an HDMI port and thus my connecting it to the TV screen is extremely complicated and requires unhooking my desktop speakers and a bunch of other garbage, making it unpalatable. And I really don’t like watching movies on the laptop itself, since that’s a whole extra stairstep down in the immersion factors discussed above. Once in a while I’d watch something in bed with a headache, but the reduced immersion made it almost a non-starter.

So for the most part it’s about turning DVD’s over. And one has this pressure in the back of one’s mind that makes it clear that the value of the subscription is maximized by turning over the most number of DVD’s possible. Ideally, from an economic perspective, one would watch ever DVD the day it arrived and ship it back that night. This would make the price per movie the lowest possible and thus maximize the value of the service.

As a result, even though I am often able to resist economic motives and urges, I would feel this light but needling pressure to watch movies whenever they were available so I could ship them back and get more movies. The irony being, of course, that the reward for satiating this feeling of pressure was the opportunity to feel it again, sooner and more frequently. Which I feel is actually true of a lot of capitalist motivations, when it comes down to it.

This becomes especially problematic when what I most want to do at home most of the time is either read or work on a creative project. Given that I’ve mostly been reading library books lately, or books purchase for me or a while ago, there’s no economic pressure there. And creative projects, except for the occasional “next big thing” to win the Internet, are also the opposite of a financial incentive. Both of those pursuits tend to be ends in themselves, where the process of doing them is their own reward. Whereas watching movies, something that should probably also be an end in itself, had been corrupted by Netflix implying how I could best value its service.

The problem, of course, is that I actually prefer doing things that are an end in themselves, but frequently would choose to watch a movie because of this slight monetary motive. There were several nights in sequence when I was really into my book and would prefer to read it, but somewhat begrudgingly forced myself to watch a movie first so I could turn it over. This, my friends, is insane behavior. It’s totally irrational and it’s exhibit 342001389B in why capitalism is crap.

So I’m unhooking myself from the machine. In retrospect, maybe it’s entirely about the price. Obviously if Netflix were a free service, I’d feel none of the economic compulsion and thus be content to keep it for the occasional filmy distraction. But it’s just that, a distraction, stealing time from the pursuits I actually prefer. And I hear they have DVD’s at libraries from time to time, so I’m not completely stranded on that front if I want to have a movie night. Libraries, one of the few bastions of salvation from this collective insanity we’ve all decided to embrace in society so it can motivate us to ruin our lives.

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Bridge to the Fall

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Metablogging, Quick Updates, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , ,

Quick update here to observe the passing of the theme here at StoreyTelling as this incarnation of the blog steams toward its fourth anniversary to be achieved in October. I’m going to more or less let this theme speak for itself, though the color scheme is full of the kind of bold dark warm colors that I really most enjoy. It’s almost nifty enough that I might ride out the October change this year, especially since there was no pumpkin-carving party last year from which to draw thematic imagery.

Facebook’s been obsessed with telling me that it’s two years to the day since Emily and I arrived in Jersey after our summer roadtrip in 2009. My update recounting the stats there (39 days, 6,200 miles, 16 states) has eerily reminded me how similar said sojourn was to the roadtrip I just wrapped (34 days, 5,800 miles, 25 states). And putting everything in context that no matter how much progress I’m making a building a new life, there are shadows and echoes in my even being here that will be challenging to transcend in daily existence.

My apartment is almost where I want it to be, though, and I’m hoping to have some pictures up on Facebook (and maybe here as well) soon that document the place as one remade in my own efforts as much as possible. The new couch and armchair have already been put to good reading use and while I’m probably going to cancel Netflix, I don’t know if I’m quite going to take the step of taking the TV down altogether. A few things yet to determine, as there always will be – a place one lives in tends to be a living place. And before I know it, I’ll have the whole debate building to decorate as well, or at least my office therein. We’re still on pace for a 1 September opening, but I’m expecting it’ll actually be closer to the 8th or the 15th given how these things tend to run. Still exciting stuff all around.

About to be hurtling headlong into one of the busiest phases of my life. Teaching a class will be an exciting new challenge and the current projections for the size and scope of the debate team are going to test the limits of my capacity and the entire team’s. If last year was our breakout, this year will be the growth spurt, and hopefully we’ll blossom into one of those precociously mature adolescents who everyone’s dazzled by instead of the gangly awkward kid who has more limbs than they know what to do with. Stay tuned.

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The Highway is for Gamblers

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, From the Road, TH'HEAT 2011, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

Leaving Albuquerque today, a few days later than anticipated originally. About a week away from Jersey, probably less. Going to pick up some baseball on the long lonely road home while probably seeing no one I know till Philadelphia. That should be interesting. I cannot claim that at this moment I feel great about that fact, but I’m hoping to pick up some momentum out there on the American highways I am so familiar with.

Saw Bob Dylan a few days back with my Dad. There’s a 4th Facebook album for those of you following along but not on FB. About the sixth time I’ve seen Dylan if I had to guess – I’m sure I could piece it together with information on this site in various places. The show seemed to me like it was all about divorce, but then, it would. A lot of his songs tore me to shreds in their melancholy beauty, but “Visions of Johanna” was the highlight of the night, followed closely by “Simple Twist of Fate”. The heartbreak in this universe is astounding and thank God we have the poets to try to capture little droplets of it, like stoppered tears in a bottle, to distill our pain and help us understand it and maybe compel us not to pass it on.

Maybe.

Leaving New Mexico, like departing from almost anywhere in the West for points east, always provides this little pang in the back of my mind. This little question of “why?” arises. Why are you doing this? You have seen people who feel more real, more down-to-earth, a community that stands not in opposition to openness in the same way as where you are going. Why leave? Why return? I know why, I have better answers this time around than any of the last times for awhile, but still the question nags like snagged bits of thread on a nail that tugs one just for a moment before releasing the frayed end as one walks away, just a little less whole than before. Every departure is a loss, every decision is opportunity cost, every move is at the expense of some unexplored reality. These are the trade-offs innate to life and to mourn too seriously over any that are not clearly devastating mistakes is costly and counter-productive. But there is a passing glance to be given on the way out of town.

And of course there is the difficulty of leaving alone. Of going anywhere alone, a feeling that doesn’t take, an experience that doesn’t wash no matter how many ventures are made under said conditions. The reason that the night of Dylan was the last night I could’ve chosen to see the Isotopes play at home, not because they were leaving, but because the New Orleans Zephyrs were coming to town thereafter and I cannot watch them play. For reasons that only Emily knows. Reasons I may share someday, but cannot bring myself to, for the dream doesn’t die. I find myself likely to grow old like Snape, embittered, blackened, but carrying this soft fragile unfulfilled love to the end of my darkest days. The pain does not subside, it does not dissipate, it subsists and burrows, grows and changes like a tumor, like a tapeworm, like a ravenous parasite of the soul. The texture or feel may be different, like shades of a bruise, but there is not healing in this metamorphosis. And in the changing, the pain defies adjustment or adaptation, refuses to be tamed by the human spirit, insists on hurting in new and unforeseen ways.

I leave laden and humiliated, the way I make my way in the world. Burdened with the frivolity of items that may help me make a new way and a new life in an old familiar and difficult place. The future has never looked so blank as it does today, at least not since I wrote “Hypothermia” on the frigid Castle fire escape in the early winter of 1999. I remember a decade of telling that young freezing boy it would all be okay. I was lying.

Bob Dylan
The Pavilion
Albuquerque, New Mexico
21 July 2011

Rainy Day Women #12 and #35
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
Things Have Changed
If You Ever Go to Houston
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
Tangled Up in Blue
Cold Irons Bound
Visions of Johanna
Summer Days
Sugar Baby
Highway 61 Revisited
Simple Twist of Fate
Thunder on the Mountain
Ballad of a Thin Man

Like a Rolling Stone
All Along the Watchtower

Forever Young

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