Tag Archives: A Day in the Life

by

America’s Inability to Be Self-Critical
  is (Literally) Killing Us

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

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
-Colin Kaepernick, 26 August 2016

“A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”
-Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, 15 December 1791

As Michael Harriot effectively argued last Friday, a movement is abroad in the land to water down and whitewash the otherwise searingly potent national anthem protest initiated by Colin Kaepernick. This movement, borne of an attempt to make Kap and his allies palatable to a white audience, plus a good dose of knee-jerk anti-Trumpism responding to his notorious “SOBs” comment, is claiming that refusing to stand for the national anthem has nothing to do with the flag, the anthem, or the country for which they stand. It’s just coincidence, this reasoning claims, that the anthem was chosen as the vehicle for the message.

As Harriot concludes, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with standing for the anthem, but don’t participate in the erasure of his protest by taking away the crux of the message. If you take a knee, know it is about black people. Know it is about the flag. Know it is about America.”

Indeed, it would take unbelievable backflips of self-aggrandizing illogic for a protest against the flag and the national anthem to not be about America. After all, this is the country that is hosting the racism, that espoused and perpetuated slavery long after other colonial nations had forsaken it, that instituted a century and a half of pseudo-slavery after the Civil War, persisting today in institutions like mass-incarceration and staggering income inequality. This country harbors and forgives the police who routinely slaughter unarmed Black men and women in broad daylight. What country do you think Kap intends us to protest?

And yet the notion of criticizing even the slightest aspect of America has become so third-rail, so polarizing, so icky, that even alleged liberals recoil at the idea of embracing Kap’s worthy and obvious critique of the stars and stripes. Not about the anthem? Have you heard the third verse of Key’s ode to killing in the name of cloth?…

“No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
-Francis Scott Key, “The Star-Spangled Banner”, 1814

Never mind the celebration of murdering escaped slaves who were choosing to side with a nation that recognized their innate freedom. Let’s just focus on the cognitive dissonance between nestling the word “slave” in the same verse as “land of the free”. If you don’t think white supremacy is cooked right into the batter, all the way down, of those white stripes waving in the breeze, you are just willfully blinding yourself. And yet even much of the left-wing flees in terror from the chance to see a critique of America for what it is – a critique of America.

Those who can at least acknowledge the horrors of our so-called founding fathers, the spoiled ruffians who unpatriotically killed their own soldiers over feeling overtaxed, are quick to cite just how long it’s been since 1814. Two-hundred and three years! What a long, long, long time. Look how far we’ve come!

Which brings us to the other aspect of this post, the second quote up top, the tragedy of early Monday that dislodged the alleged scandal of Sunday in the American consciousness. Because the second amendment is even older, 225 years old, yet remains as hallowed today as anytime in that span – more hallowed, in fact, since Jefferson and friends wrote it with the intent of authorizing future like-minded ruffians to violently overthrow the government they were creating when it inevitably grew corrupt and in need of renewal. Not only would Jefferson and his cohort be appalled to see the United States still standing with a continuous peaceful transfer of power this long, they would be horrified to see the second amendment upheld like a Bible verse, and just as twisted in its interpretation. The notion, of course, as the text of the amendment makes plain, is that a militia was necessary to maintain security. Either this means that a standing army or whatever entity is responsible for defending the State should be allowed to have guns or, more likely, that each person should have whatever Arms are necessary to ensure their ability to form a militia that checks State power. In other words, the second amendment entitles us all to nuclear weapons.

As absurd as this latter interpretation sounds on face, it was written by people who had just used single-shot muskets to complete a successful revolution against their government (and were about to use similar weapons to enact the most successful genocide in human history to date). They could no more have imagined the development and proliferation of assault rifles than they could’ve designed an iPhone. Indeed, these individuals themselves anticipated their own short-sightedness in projecting adequate laws into the future, which is not only why they made the Constitution infinitely alterable, but why they wrote the second amendment in the first place! Clinging to only the second half of this ancient text as though it is inalienable divine inspiration makes about as much sense as forgetting the third verse of our national anthem in evaluating the song’s worthiness as a loyalty oath for all Americans.

Something sinister and destructive is at the root of both of these denials, as well as in the heart of the modern-record-mass-shooter* who just killed 59+ and injured 550+ in Las Vegas a couple nights ago and the voice of everyone criticizing Colin Kaepernick and the many NFL players and coaches who have followed his lead. It’s the belief that America is infallible. It’s the belief that only terrorists or those who secretly sympathize with them could ever criticize America as a country, as an entity, stars, stripes, “home of the brave” and all. That self-criticism, hell, self-analysis is not the road to refinement and perfection, but the road to ruin and defeat.

*for now – wait a couple incidents till this gets surpassed

As I have observed in this space many times, this level of self-righteous zeal is simply absent from any other nation on the planet. It is essentially patriotic in Germany to disavow the Nazi ideology and everything it stood for, to quietly acknowledge the sins of the father in an effort to not repeat them. While some of Japan’s prime ministers visit a shrine honoring their war dead, it is highly controversial and criticized when they do so, at home and abroad. Sweden does not hold up their Viking ancestors as models of good citizenry who were right for the time, any more than the British espouse colonialism as their ongoing divine mandate. But somehow America, uniquely in the family of nations, clings to its centuries-old crimes as justified and honorable, as worthy of reverence, as immune to critique. And it is this ability to conflate a flag, an anthem, a founding document, with pre-eminent, infallible rightness, that empowers the racist cops, the mass-shooters, the NRA, the KKK, and all the other present-day monsters of our nation. After all, they and the model they are following are American – so how could they think themselves wrong?

If you’re looking for further explanations of “how Donald Trump happened,” this is a good place to examine. Many have observed the double-standard of Trump being allowed to criticize the USA while Kap was lambasted for same, but this misses the point of “Make America Great Again”. MAGA was never about critiquing America. It was about silencing America’s critics, the critics who were behind progressive change movements like gay marriage and Black Lives Matter. The notion was that progressive change takes us away from what makes America great – the racism, the love-it-or-leave-it-ness, the high walls and big bombs and guns for all. It is no wonder that Clinton’s retort that “America has always been great” (genocide, slavery, Japanese internment, mass-incarceration, school shootings, and all) was insufficient to appeal to either Trump’s demographic or America’s correct critics. The third road, the one I’ve long advocated, that “America is not great, has never been great, and will have to try very hard to be good,” remains unvoiced by all but Kap and other fringe radicals.

Of course, gun control and inroads against the current interpretation of the second amendment is hardly a fringe movement, even less so in the wake of ever growing slaughters of human beings by the firearms alleged to protect us. We are engaged in an ongoing horror-game-show asking us what the tipping point might be, a deadly Deal or No Deal. How about twenty kindergartners? No, not enough? How about fifty teenagers? No, still no good? What about sixty country-music fans? Any takers?

The sticking point is, in part, a result of our fascinated devotion to the old original document as it has been carried down and reinterpreted in a world as foreign to 1791 America as Saturn is to us today. One piece of this devotion is the conflation of money and speech which enables the NRA and their well-heeled corporate mercenaries to buy safe passage of deadly weapons to every man, woman, and child who would turn them on themselves and others. But the other piece is the notion that the second amendment, as unique among the family of nations as our almost uncountable pile of dead gun victims, is sacrosanct, not to be examined or criticized, let alone changed. As was observed in McSweeneys yesterday, basically nothing else we do in society enjoys this level of unfetteredness, which is entirely the result of our dedication to the idea that the revolutionaries were infallible.

Of course this idea is incoherent even with the Constitution as it stands today. We got rid of the notion that Blacks aren’t people (on paper, at least), that women aren’t people (ditto), that wealthy white landowners were the only people who deserved a voice (super-ditto). We have allowed men to marry men in all fifty states for God’s sake, but still recoil at the idea that stockpiling twenty-three assault rifles in your hotel room with more ammunition than was fired in the Battle of Bunker Hill is not your God-given right. Whatever you think of those racist slave-owning hypocrites who started the American experiment, what do you think they would say about this? Which idea do you believe they would deem more radical? Even if we are so obsessed with their myopic desires, maybe we can embrace at least the level of change we’ve already seen in other arenas and apply it to something that is killing us at a rate that would make the most ardent terrorist blush.

As I’ve said before, mass shootings are largely about violence itself. America is the biggest worldwide advocate of the notion that might-makes-right, boasting the largest military in human history and whipping it around the world with impunity and indifference. Most shooters are not only men, but have some sort of military background – this guy being a former defense contractor. Once one fully imbibes the notion that one deserves to end others’ lives because of something that makes one exceptional, it’s just too easy to drape that American exceptionalism over one’s own individual self.

Of course, America is exceptional. Exceptionally stubborn, exceptionally un-self-aware, exceptionally unable to get outside of itself to give itself a good hard look. So we keep killing our kids, every day, be they Black men in the street or white folks at a concert, be they in church or an office party, be they at the movies or the nightclub, be they driving or standing peaceably as can be.

Don’t stand for it. Don’t stand for the song that endorses this ongoing death. Don’t stand for people refusing to criticize the country of your birth. This country is wrong. We are wrong. It’s killing us, the best of us, and it’s not going to stop until we can admit how wrong we are and promise to truly change.

by

White Supremacy and America’s Legacy

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

Hi, I’m Storey and I’m a white guy.

Hi, Storey.

Admitting you have a problem is the first step, right? Not being in denial that your behavior, your personhood, is contributing to the problems and detriment of those around you. Making a full accounting and taking responsibility for how your very existence detracts from that of those around you.

Of course, I’m not just a white guy. I’m an American white guy. And while other countries may have periodic flare-ups of white supremacy, America is all about it. I mean all about it. Yes, it’s an obvious problem, carrying a literal torch and making literal Nazi salutes, in the deplorable actions that happened in Charlottesville over the weekend. But it’s an equally insidious problem in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Yemen in Somalia, in every nation on the planet where non-white lives are worse off because white Americans are trying to take everything for themselves. This country is constantly fighting several wars for white supremacy every day, made all the more awful for leveraging primarily Black and Brown bodies in order to wage them. And I think acknowledging and understanding that reality will help us not only truly dissuade and deter the bigots flaunting their hate in Virginia, but also enable us all to see ourselves a bit more as we are seen worldwide and understand the true depth of the white supremacy problem we face in this country.

America’s legacy of white supremacy is unfettered, horrifying, and relentless. The nation was founded on the notion of Manifest Destiny, the idea that white Europeans deserved dominion over stolen land the size no country had ever seen, from sea to shining sea, by divine right. Whites were God’s chosen people, gifted a land that already belonged to someone else to divide, capture, and carve up as they saw fit. These whites already owned other humans as chattel slaves, committing genocide on one race while whipping another into submission. Has there ever been a country who from its founding breath was so ruthlessly dedicated to the notion of racial superiority? Has there ever been a nation who more effectively and unfetteredly embraced bigotry to the benefit of exactly one kind of person and the destruction of all others? Even if other nations come close (it’s hard to imagine), surely none of them pulled this stunt with such utter hypocrisy, openly touting words like freedom and equality as alleged cornerstones while abusing any possible interpretation of said words with every deed. The lack of self-awareness incumbent in the so-called American ideal is breathtaking.

Wars with Mexico and Spain were fought later, fed by racial hatred and fueled by white supremacy as the destiny of the most bigoted race spread its greedy tentacles across the continent and beyond. Local populations in Hawaii, Cuba, and the Philippines were subverted as though they didn’t exist. Territories were gobbled and exploited with the rapacious hunger of racism, needing to dominate, quell, and own. And I’m sure you all want to pat America on the back for fighting Nazis, but this had nothing to do with the motives for World War II. It was racism against the Japanese, fueled by the fear of Pearl Harbor, that cemented America’s commitment to this war. Racial epithets and vitriol fueled the entire war that we now whitewash as being mostly about stopping genocide. A war we entered for pure self-interest and kept alive through the ongoing degradation of other peoples, not their ideologies or practices.

Since WWII, of course, there has been no equivocation about why we fight. We fight with no regard for other races, on their soil, killing their leaders and civilians as we see fit, bombing villages to save them, hitting hospitals and weddings, utterly indifferent to the lives of anyone not white, on our side or theirs. After counting bodies backfired in Vietnam, we decided to make a policy of not even dignifying other nations’ lives with a number, attempting to will them out of existence after ending their actual lives. Whatever light hypocritical story we like to tell ourselves about how much we’re trying to help the oppressed people of X nation or Y country, it’s almost immediately exposed as a sham as we pillage the nation through exploitation and then abandon its people as soon as we can declare some sort of victory.

Think Iraq wasn’t a war of white supremacy? Imagine North Korea invading the US to overthrow Donald Trump, claiming he’d been behind someone else’s terrorist attack in Pyongyang. Then with Trump toppled and squirreled away, the North Koreans install a puppet government that’s comparably corrupt, forbid anyone who’d ever served in government from doing so again, then start losing territory to an alt-right insurgency that makes Trump look like Bernie Sanders. After years of endless bombing and death, they declare victory and leave, installing thousands of North Korean contractors to exploit every natural resource outside of alt-right control. Then the alt-right takes about a third of the country, starts instituting its policies wholesale, and starts conquering the rest of the territory. And the justification given by North Korea? North Korea is the savior. They know best what’s best for everyone. After all, they have the power to do what they want without being stopped.

Folks, it’s white supremacy. It’s white supremacy that allows you to think you know better for a country than they do and it’s your right to kill everyone who disagrees until they stop fighting back. It’s white supremacy that allows you to think you can set up the system by which the whole world will operate, all the standards and values, give yourself a 200-year head-start, and then call it “free” to have everyone “compete” on this severely tilted playing field. To say that if someone moves from one kind of poverty to another but climbs a rung in this broken game, that’s laudable progress that justifies the whole system while they continue so far ahead in wealth and success that they will never be caught. White supremacy is America’s primary export, its image for the world, its obsessive religious devotion, its mission statement. And, of course, it’s got to stop.

I condemn white supremacy, at home and abroad. It doesn’t do much for me to say it, but it’s an important step. And I acknowledge that I unwittingly and unwillingly contribute to the system in all kinds of ways. By being white, by using my privilege, by contributing to America, by not spending all of my time and energy resisting and trying to change it. I need to do more. We all do. But especially me. It’s important to say and embrace and try to act on.

But it is not enough to just look at the angry white men with torches in Charlottesville and call that out and stop there. (It’s important to start there, but not stop there.) It’s not enough to just look at the innocent Blacks being gunned down for breathing all over this nation by law enforcement, vigilantes, and other racists, call that out, and stop there. (It’s important to do this too, but not stop there.) It’s not enough to just look at the plight of Native Americans as they fight for what little rights they can on the remains of their concentration camps, call that out, and stop there. (It’s important, but not all.) It’s not enough to support immigrants, Latinos, Muslims, and every racial group who faces discrimination here. (Important, not enough.) What happens in our borders is important and is something we have a little more control over than outside of them. But what happens beyond our borders is far more destructive and deadly and is going on every single day. The longer our American war machine attempts to dominate the rest of the world through military force, the more power and backing white supremacy gets in not just the US, but the globe.

I don’t think we have to throw out America wholesale as a concept, write up a new country with a new flag and new names for everything. I am sympathetic to that perspective, I probably lean toward it at times, but I don’t think it’s necessary. But it is necessary, if we’re going to keep our concept of America, to be fully honest about what America is and symbolizes and what its history means to the world. We are not great, we have never been great, and we have a whole lot of work to do to try to be good. America is not a beacon of freedom reaching out to the arms of the world’s oppressed. It is a beacon of blinding white light, trying to drown out anything with color, whitewashing it in a bath of exploitation, destruction, and greed. Anything that America has done to benefit non-white people is coincidence, happenstance, a happy accident, not representative of America’s true goals or values.

We can change that, yes. We are probably closer to the discussions necessary to start changing that than we’ve ever been in history. But it starts with acknowledgment. Admitting you have a problem is the first step. Admitting you are a problem is the real first step.

I am sorry I haven’t done more to fight this. I will try to do better.

by

What We Talk About When We Talk About Suicide: 13 Reasons Why and S-Town

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

Content Warning: This post will talk extensively about suicide. It is the author’s belief and, indeed, thesis, that talking about suicide, honestly and in detail, is the best form of suicide prevention. But if you feel differently, this post may not be for you for a variety of reasons.

Spoiler Alert: This post will talk extensively about season one of the Netflix television series 13 Reasons Why and the entirety of the This American Life/Serial podcast S-Town. It is highly recommended that you only engage with this content if you have seen and heard both of these pieces in their entirety. (Separately, it is highly recommended that you see and hear both of these pieces anyway.) Short of that, it is at least recommended that you do not proceed unless you’ve ruled out engaging with any content you haven’t engaged with, unless you don’t mind said content being spoiled.


The real John B. McLemore (left) and the fictional Hannah Baker (right).

“The way people talk about suicide in this country infuriates me. Because most of it is very much a way of not talking about it. People treat suicide like it’s ultra-contagious ebola, that it is unspeakable, unthinkable, and that even discussing it without a biohazard suit on will somehow create a wave of copycat suicides and an epidemic and therefore we should just zip our lips and praise the person who just ‘died’ (not, never ever, ‘killed themselves’, even though that’s what actually happened) and ignore the gargantuan elephant busting down the walls of the room that the person in question just chose to publicly end their own lives as a statement.”
Let’s Talk About Suicide, 13 August 2014, a post which can be read as a kind of premise to this one

As someone who wrote the above, admittedly angrily, less than three years ago, it’s been heartening to witness the sudden success and virality of both 13 Reasons Why and S-Town. They were each released in late March, just three days apart, in their respective entireties, per the new expectations of the media bingeing culture. While the former is based on a novel that’s been out for a decade now, there is poetry in this nearly simultaneous release, and the resultant arc of fame and discussion has sparked, perhaps, the beginning of a sea-change in how we address suicide in American society.

Of course, with fame and success and audience come the inevitable backlash, which has poured out in spades for both shows. In the case of the TV series, outcry has focused on raw portrayals of sexual assault and suicide in material that is clearly aimed at a younger audience. In the instance of the podcast, descriptions of suicide are deemed more tolerable, while critiques focus on invading the privacy of the suicide after his death, converting his call for an investigation into a biography of him, unearthing a number of intimate details about the man. The common thread in these critiques is the idea that we are shown too much. That there are limits and boundaries to what we should see, what we should hear, what art should attempt to portray about its subjects.

Which shows, of course, that the critics of each of these works could not possibly have done more to miss the point of their material. For what both works do, profoundly and with abandon, is demonstrate that the desire for privacy, the urge to stay quiet or, worse, miscommunicate about our feelings and intentions, is literally killing us. That suicide is not some spectral ebola: unseen, unheard, misunderstood, and treatable only with pills. Rather, suicide is the product of our society, it is rooted in a profound loneliness manufactured by our ignorance of other people’s realities and our unwillingness to share the truth of our own. Suicide is not, as the clueless adults prattle throughout 13 Reasons Why, solely the responsibility of the individual who made the decision to end their life. Instead, suicide prevention is our collective responsibility, not just with hotline referrals, but by actually opening up our lives and our hearts to those who are suffering.

And not, as so wittily and honestly depicted in 13 Reasons Why, only after a suicide. The job of preventing a potential suicide, of reaching out and listening, helping, and trying to cause less harm, starts today, whether you know someone affected or not. Because you can watch the fictional Hannah Baker, you can hear the real John B. McLemore, and you don’t have to wait for someone closer to home to kill themselves. This is the purpose of art – to serve as a proxy for horrible things so that maybe we don’t have to learn every lesson firsthand. Maybe we can learn from the experience of others, the portrayal of realistic characters, and prevent similar calamities in our own futures before it’s too late.

Suicide is a growing problem in this country. The suicide rate has increased more than 25% since I graduated high school, now killing more Americans than car accidents, which is saying something. It’s at a 30-year high in the most recently available data-year (2015), a figure that has probably increased in the subsequent year by preliminary reports. 44,193 people took their own lives in the US that year, making it the second leading cause of death for the 15-34 age group. And for all you “guns-don’t-kill” people out there, fully half of all suicides were committed via a firearm.

(Further, for all you people out there worried about terrorism, 94 Americans have been killed by terrorists since 2001, compared to the 515,654 who killed themselves from 2002-2015. That’s a ratio of 5,486:1. But it’s worse, because 49 of those 94 died in Orlando in 2016, a year for which we don’t yet have suicide data, so the ratio is actually 11,459:1. Think I’m cherry-picking by avoiding 9/11? Including 2001 brings the suicide total to 546,276 and the terrorism total to 3,028, a ratio of 180:1. Suicide is killing one-hundred and eighty times the number of Americans as terrorism since 2000, including 9/11. Can you imagine what doing 180 times as much to combat it would look like?)

Neither of the suicides in these March 2017 art works are via firearm. The fictional Hannah Baker kills herself in a very visceral wrist-slitting scene that actually made me weep while watching it. The real John B. McLemore drinks potassium cyanide while on the phone with a county clerk, as described briefly but painfully by S-Town host Brian Reed. As critical journalists have been quick to shout from the rooftops, traditional guidelines discourage detailed descriptions or depictions of suicide methodology in fear of “contagion” and “copycatting”. But this guideline misses the fine line between sensationalizing or glorifying an act and depicting its true horror. Nothing about either depiction could be confused for glorification. Rather, the message of each detailed and even gory depiction is clear: suicide is painful and difficult. This messaging achieves two fundamental things that the critics tend to miss: it illustrates both that suicide is not an easy way out, thus deterring suicide and it illustrates quite viscerally just how much pain the suicidal person is in when they undertake the act. Indeed, Hannah is surprised at how much the razors hurt when they enter her arms, having not been a cutter beforehand. And John is overwhelmed by how much the cyanide burns on its way down his throat. The fact that they follow-through demonstrates the level of suffering each of these lonely, tormented souls is enduring, emphasizing how critical it is for those who can to try to help.

But each artwork takes an additional step to further cement the messaging, veering yet further from any possible glorification and fully into the realm of deterrence. They then keep the camera or microphone on the scene to show the aftermath. Not just the long-term aftermath: for Christ’s sake, the entirety of 13 Reasons Why is about aftermath, as is about half of S-Town. But also the short-term, immediate aftermath… Hannah’s parents coming into the bathroom, unable to grapple with what’s happened, clutching their daughter and begging her to wake up. The county clerk saying, matter-of-factly, “Every night it’s a replay. I’m still just — there’s not a night that I don’t think about him, that I don’t wake up and dreaming about it, or thinking about him. Not a night.”

One of the fundamental truths of suicide is that those who undertake it feel like the walls are closing in, the options are foreclosing, and that everyone either hates them or will be better off without them. Contrary to the “revenge fantasy” notion that the media so often mistakenly finds in suicidal behavior (and is misrepresented as Hannah’s intent and story), most suicides actually believe they are removing a burden from the ones they love in the moment they commit the act. Not only is this reality well depicted in both shows, but the objective untruth of the suicides’ self-perception is also exposed, in extensive detail. 13 Reasons Why is relentless in showing how utterly bereft Hannah’s parents are, how impossibly lonely Clay is, how much she is missed by the community that made her feel unloved. Here the message may sound like an after-school teen drama: you are loved, even though it’s not cool for us to show it or even admit it. But at the same time, the exact same message shines through S-Town, as applied to a closeted eccentric in the rural South who is upwards of 50 years old. You complain that your town is anti-intellectual and desperate, but you are recognized by intellectuals the world over as a foremost artisan in an ancient skill. You feel you have no one in your life, but there are people who are willing to do extraordinary things, make themselves uncomfortable, in the hope that you will find joy or peace. It is hard for me to imagine a more hopeful message for the would-be suicide to hear, to witness, than that they are loved beyond their wildest reckoning and would do deep damage to the ones they love.

There are differences between the shows, of course, and these differences, beyond the basic questions of truth and fiction, men and women, age and youth, make the two a fitting pair in ushering in a new, more bold and open era of talking about suicide. Perhaps the most obvious is that John B. McLemore talks almost incessantly about suicide before he does it, casually throwing around plans and notions and the inevitability like he’s talking about next Tuesday’s ballgame. On the other hand, Hannah Baker dares not speak the name of suicide, of ending things at all, until the day she does it, even then retracting her statement and being coy with the school counselor mere minutes before she walks out of school and toward her bathtub. These mirrored depictions themselves are helpful reminders that what we have often been taught to watch out for by well-intentioned experts on the subject is wrong: there is rarely a clear moment of warning or an easily detectable warning sign to look out for. There is rarely a clear shift before something actually happens, which is why so many people are blindsinded, as the world most recently was by Chris Cornell a week ago, by suicides.

By telling us to worry about and care for those for whom suicide is either so stigmatized that they cannot bear to discuss the possibility, or for whom wrestling with suicide has become so commonplace that no one really hears the warnings or takes them seriously, these twin offerings remind us of the messy reality of suicide. It doesn’t come with a clear yellow flag, then a clear red, with just enough time to react. Only the most advanced and open of the suicidal are able to give that, have a network of people to whom they reach out when the triggers and risk factors mount. Far more often, the onus has to be on those around them to reach out. Not in a reactive way, not in a biohazard suit, not in a scary way to jump the gun and say “oh my gosh, are you going to kill yourself?!” But in the calm, steady, loving way of expressing appreciation, telling someone how much they mean to their world, how glad they are to have them in their world. Yes, suicide is complicated, but it is not random. Nor is it inescapable. Had either Hannah or John had people regularly, sincerely reminding them how much they meant to them in their world, easing up on the criticisms and caustic jokes, replacing some of them with risky, heartfelt appreciations, it’s hard to imagine either of them getting to the brink.

But high school and the rural South are not places where heartfelt appreciations are easily given. Guess what? Neither is anywhere else in this country, maybe outside of a few counseling centers and non-profits that take emotional affirmation and work seriously (Glide comes to mind). S-Town does a laudable job of universalizing a region of the country we so often judge and lampoon, especially on outlets like NPR, disproving the tropey assumptions that most people bring to the first episode and recognizing John as a “citizen of the world”, a place he worries about very much. And 13 Reasons Why, to its credit, makes high school a very adult place. The subject may be, partially, about not knowing how cruel high schoolers can be to each other, but it’s also about the fact that high schoolers take their world as seriously as adults do, with fully adult consequences. Over and over, adults’ inability to understand the stakes of ages 14-18 costs them the opportunity to connect with and even save their children.

Which is why I find the most frequent criticism of 13 Reasons so powerfully laughable: the idea that it’s inappropriate for young viewers. The response that any of the actual students at Liberty High would make is as follows: “So we’re young enough to live it, but not to watch a depiction of someone else living it?” Given that the most crippling and yes, suicide-inducing feeling, especially for teens, is isolation and loneliness, the idea that no one understands or cares, how can we bash a work of art that bridges that divide for bullied, assaulted, harassed, or suicidal teens?! That shows them that They are Not Alone and, maybe more importantly, that Their Problems are Real. Enforcing the reality of their problems does not make someone suicidal go over the edge; it’s the feeling that one is crazy for caring about these problems that entrenches an unconquerable loneliness and self-hatred that pushes people past the brink. Remember that the first step is admitting you have a problem? If everyone else thinks the problem is poppycock or silly, then you’re just pathetic for not being able to cope with it. If there’s acknowledgment, you can start to tackle it like a problem that’s as hard as it feels.

Which is why, as a subplot, the unvarnished and horrifying depictions of sexual assault are also part of the fundamental deterrence of bad behavior and affirmation of feelings found in the show. Like suicide itself, these kinds of scenes tend to be anesthetized on screens or, worse, sort of glorified and glamorized as in Game of Thrones. Talk about reaffirming your rape culture! By stark contrast, 13 Reasons takes every pain to show both the heartlessness of rapists and, more importantly, the immense deadening suffering experienced by their victims. By doing so, by creating a scene that itself may actually be traumatizing (another oft-lobbed critique), 13 Reasons sends a powerful antidote to any guys who may brush off their actions as un-serious, no big deal, or any of the other hundreds of excuses that rape culture makes for its atrocities. By sending this message not only to 14-18 year olds, but perhaps to the tweens as well, it serves as great counterspeech to the messaging of pornography, toxic masculinity, Game of Thrones, and society as a whole. No one can watch those scenes and not loathe the rapist, not have their heart break for their victims, not reel at the permanence of the damage that was wrought. There is nothing sensational or attractive about these illustrations, but they are real and honest and do good, hard work to deter rape without victim-blaming.

The sexual scenes in S-Town are perhaps more ambiguous in their nobility. Indeed, explorations of John’s romantic history and latent penchant for consensual mutilation have been cited as voyeuristic and, while humanizing, possibly a bridge too far for a posthumous podcast. I find this critique more understandable than those levied at 13 Reasons, but still insufficient. Through his endless talks, his extensive writing, and even the initial invitation to Brian Reed to come down to Woodstock, Alabama and start recording, it was clear that John’s search was to be understood. Or, short of that, to be heard. It is hard for me to imagine John being upset with his fate as a kind of tragic anti-hero, someone brilliant and misunderstood, loved by more than he thought, possibly felled by his own ancient practices with mercury and self-inflicted isolation. Do we need to know about his disappointing encounters with men or needles to get the full picture? I think we do. It is only by understanding the depth of his loneliness, how hard he tried, and also how unbearable his ongoing mental agony, that we can start to understand why he was in the position he is, why he did what he did.

And that’s what this is all about. Why. It’s right there in the title of one of them. The other, S-Town, is short, of course, for Shittown, the moniker the borderline anhedonic John gives his environment. Shittown is his reason why, after all. As Brian evaluates in the second episode, before we’ve learned of his suicide, “The shitty misfortunes John fixates on, they’re not a bunch of disparate things. They’re all the same thing. His Shittown is part of Bibb County, which is part of Alabama, which is part of the United States, which is part of Earth, which is experiencing climate change, which no one is doing anything about. It maddens John. The whole world is giving a collective shrug of its shoulders and saying fuck it.”

Brian goes on, even more meaningfully: “What I admire about John is that in his own misanthropic way, he’s crusading against one of the most powerful, insidious forces we face — resignation, the numb acceptance that we can’t change things. He’s trying to shake people out of their stupor, trying to convince them that it is possible to make their world a better place.”

That’s what both of these shows are doing, too. They’re campaigning against resignation, numbness, acceptance. Against the resignation that suicide will always just be there, a problem plaguing us. Against numbness to the feelings that lead some people down that path, against numbness to the idea of feelings at all: that they matter, that we are here to connect, that we should take risks with each other to create meaning instead of just following the same pattern of being cool kids who make cutting, sarcastic jokes. Against acceptance of what happens to us: cruelty, isolation, loneliness, rape, suicide. These things don’t get better by putting up posters, by labeling people, by pointing the long narrow finger to go talk to some other person who can handle you and your problems. They get better by us seeing care for others as our collective responsibility, reaching out, taking risks.

Most critical pieces on 13 Reasons Why, especially in statements posted by anti-suicide organizations, have cited a notable uptick in calls and even hospitalizations stemming from the release of the show. How or why this could possibly be a critique of the show rather than a compliment baffles me. With well over 40,000 suicides completed each year, plenty of people are failing to either seek or receive the help they need to stay alive. If more people are seeking that help in the wake of a show that speaks honestly about these issues, isn’t that an improvement? When more people sign up for health insurance, health-care advocates see that as a victory. Why not the same when more people call the suicide hotline? Isn’t that the whole point of posting suicide hotline numbers everywhere? To get people to actually call and talk?

Your mileage with suicidalism and with these pieces may vary. It’s worth noting that, despite the binge-ability of these works, I just finished each of them within the last 24 hours, having taken weeks to absorb both. Part of this is because I’ve been doing a lot of writing in the last two months, as well as some debate travel, so I haven’t been in a position to just sit down and listen for seven hours or watch for thirteen. It’s quite possible that the emotional overwhelm of that experience is less manageable than manually stretching it out. That Hannah’s descent into cascading calamity feels more like madness at that pace, that John’s depression is contagious at that speed.

But I still fundamentally deny the premise that suffering like that is so contagious, or that it redoubles the pain for those already hurting. We are all trapped in our own skins, all living with ourselves constantly and hoping to make fleeting contact with other souls on this isolated rock. Hearing about and, more importantly, really understanding the pain and reasoning of a relatable human being is so often soothing. Yes, if all the inputs are for hopeless despair, that can get overwhelming. But in showing that Hannah and John were loved more than they knew, were understandable, in treating their lives and deaths with respect and compassion, we get tragedy without hopelessness. We get a model for what not to do next time, in our own lives, how not to turn away and isolate ourselves and others.

Both shows are meditations on time. John with his old clocks brought back to life, his painstaking evaluation of the value of a life. Hannah with her examination of causation, of the precise point of no return, of minutes on a tape until it clicks. All we have is the time we are given. And in seeing honest examples of those who choose to cut that short, we might better appreciate the use of it when we awaken tomorrow.

If we shun these depictions, if we shame them as showing too much too riskily, we build taboos around suicide as strong as any stigma that we’ve carried from our cultural history. As shown in these shows, suicide is hard enough to talk about sincerely and seriously without slamming the few major media pieces that can actually manage to do so. If we want people to ask for help, we have to be ready to give it. And that requires being willing to see, hear, and think about suicide in all its messy horror. Hopefully 13 Reasons Why and S-Town are just early heralds in this new open, honest, and authentic approach to an issue we are all, in some way, affected by.


This is the part of the article where I’m supposed to provide the number for a suicide hotline. A suicide hotline may help you connect with someone to talk about why you’re feeling suicidal and how things can get better. Call 1-800-273-8255 if you’re in crisis or need to talk to someone. Yes, it can be awkward and weird. But as I’ve always said about suicide, if you’re willing to entertain ending everything, shouldn’t you try everything else first, just in case?

But I’m also going to invite you to reach out to me if you want. I’m assuming pretty much everyone here reading this blog knows or has known me in some way or at some point, so hopefully you feel comfortable reaching out. If you don’t know me, the proverbial door is still open. E-mail me at storey@bluepyramid.org. Make no mistake, the call to the hotline above will be faster and put you in touch with someone more officially trained in ways of dealing with suicidal ideation. But I am a 27-year survivor of suicidalism and may have some ideas or insights or tips that are not part of mainline conventional wisdom in suicide prevention. A list of some of these tips is available toward the end of this post.

So if you think I could be helpful, reach out. It’s only by people connecting with other people that we’re going to start to beat this thing.


Joyce Hayes died yesterday morning. Not by suicide, but at the end of a long illness. She was 72. By any rights, this post tonight should have been about her, but I am still processing her death and what it means to me and the countless lives she touched and saved. I have been thinking about this post for a long time, it’s been building, and I had to get it out of my system before addressing the power of Joyce’s love and its impact on the Glide community and beyond. Hopefully that will be up in a day or two.

by

Five-Hundred

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

The Mariners shake hands in celebration of winning their 17th game of the year, 11-6, in Philadelphia. They are now 17-17, at .500 for the first time this season.

My friend Matt Frese posted, despondently, last night on Facebook, after the Washington Capitals’ 2-0 Game 7 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL quarterfinals. He asked the following simple question, in the form of a statement:

Not sure why I sports.

This is a question I’ve meditated on periodically, most recently last August, when I concluded that sports (and Mariners baseball in particular) were bad for my mental health. In that post, I repeated something from April 2015, which is my ultimate answer to this issue:

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

But I also suggested this answer to Frese last night:

To flavor your life with arbitrary turns of euphoria and tragedy.

The exaggerative nature of those words is, of course, deliberate. Sports have a way of feeling completely disproportionately important, impacting moods and whole world-views at an almost unrivaled level. People cheer, they dance, they celebrate, they fly across the country for a single game. They also throw things at their TVs or computers, cry, yell, scream, and fall on the bare floor in anguish. And while much of the joy and sadness is shared with other like-minded fans, the emotional reality is individually felt and experienced. It’s about a single fan’s relationship with their team.

My team, of course, more than any other, is and remains the Seattle Mariners. And in the last two days, they both swept the Philadelphia Phillies in a short two-game series and got word that a fourth of their starting five pitchers was joining the other three on the Disabled List (DL). It was only their second sweep of the year, after a 4-game series against the Rangers that took them from an almost-DOA record of 2-8 to an almost-tolerable 6-8. But the loss of Hisashi Iwakuma to injury means that the only starting pitcher from our intended opening day rotation healthy enough to still play is Yovani Gallardo, our #5 starter. He threw yesterday. We are entering a 4-game set in Toronto which will feature none of our original starting pitchers, with the great Felix Hernandez, breakout James Paxton, and new Mariner (who has yet to throw for Seattle) Drew Smyly sidelined.

I watched all of yesterday’s game and the last couple innings of the game before. Alex and I saw a movie the night before last, so I asked her to check the M’s score when we were on our way from there to Lowe’s. She put the phone away quietly after checking and didn’t answer my question. I assumed they were down 11 runs or something for her to deny me the score with such summary judgment. “No,” she responded, “but they’re down 9-5.”

“Oh, just four runs? What inning?”

“The sixth.”

I waved it away. “That’s not even bad. Not great, but not bad.”

My cavalier response here was because the Mariners, unlike years of Mariners teams since the record-breaking 2001 season, are long on offense to go with their shortness on pitching. They have scored more runs than almost any other AL team, sport three of the top ten hitters in the league by batting average, including batting leader Jean Segura, and seem capable of putting up a big inning with ease. Unfortunately, the bullpen is terrible and most of the starters are hurt, so we’re fielding something like last year’s AA pitching staff, with predictable results. Sure enough, though, by the time we left Lowe’s, the M’s had tied the score at 9 apiece. We listened to the next inning on the way home, then switched to the computer and MLB.tv in time to see Motter’s game-winning double (scoring Segura) in the top of the 9th and watch Eddie Diaz shut it down in the bottom. Mariners 10, Phillies 9.

Yesterday, on the other hand, was a laugher. The M’s were up 11-3 after a five-run 7th and a three-run 8th. The game had been tied at 3 for several innings, so the breakout was wonderful because it enabled the game to be both close and a blowout, maximizing fan enjoyment. Of course, then the bullpen pitched in the 8th and 9th, so we only won 11-6 ultimately, giving even the Phils fans some meaningless homers to cheer for before we got out of things. Thankfully, it didn’t lead to somehow coughing up a 9-1 lead for a 10-9 loss like back in game 7, when I first gave up on the M’s this year (they’d had a 9-1 lead in a game early after a really tough start to the season; the loss clinched a sweep-loss to the Angels, who are not great this year, and put our record at 1-6).

One and six feels like a distant memory now, though, as does 2-8. For the first time all year, the M’s are .500, winning as much as they lose, having gone 15-9 since 2-8. 17-17 is not just a PIN that I’ve used in the past, it’s a record that promises that things could go up from here. Of course, the health of our pitching staff portends trouble on that horizon. But if you score a double-digit number of runs each game, you can afford to have no pitching. Like Blazers teams in the early 90s that used to beat people 140-135, you just run up the score enough to make up for your total lack of defense.

This is also like the Mariner teams in the mid-to-late 90s, when we used to make the playoffs in the bandbox known as the Kingdome. The team was laden with offensive All-Stars: Griffey, A-Rod, Edgar, Jay Buhner. The team had, really, exactly one pitcher, Randy Johnson, and a bunch of also-rans who gave up just few enough runs to hold the lead our team would build. But that was part of the magic of ’95: no lead was insurmountable because their staff was never safe from the runs our team could score. I’ve talked about how ’95 being the seminal year in my sports fandom has created unrealistic expectations for the future. Coming back from one of the largest deficits in history has made Mariners fans feel like all future deficits are bridgeable, even though most of the last few seasons have resulted in near-misses, extending baseball’s longest streak of standing outside the expanding playoff picture.

But 17-17 is a reset. It’s .500. It means we could start winning even more now, especially since we’ve erased a dismal start.

.500 means something else, too, of course. It means watching a game is a roulette wheel, a perfectly even bet. Red or black? Win or lose? They’re equally likely.

This is the contract we sign whenever we, as devoted fans, start watching a game. We are about to have our day made or ruined. And we choose to do this to ourselves, voluntarily. Do we think the benefits of the day being made outweigh the negative potential of it being ruined? Maybe. Not necessarily, though. I don’t think we think about it rationally at all. We watch because we are fans and we accept the 50/50 because we have no other choice. Sure, we can try to put on just the right hat or do just the right series of actions to maintain a winning streak. But it’s 50/50 at the end of the day. Or, yesterday, as a Mariners fan, at the end of yesterday.

They’re riding a 4-game winning streak. In their last homestand, they went 4-2 with both losses being in extra innings (11 and 13 innings, respectively). These are promising, positive signs. But it’s 50/50 every time, a crapshoot, a spin of the wheel. And I sign away my mood an my outlook, free of charge. Because maybe it will be that amazing comeback, or that close game-turned-laugher. Maybe we have the lineup to make the deep run this year. Or maybe I just wanna believe.

by

You Had Me at Hashbrowns

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

Jazz Fest Friday, 3 AM. Second weekend. One of the busiest times of the year, falling somewhere below Mardi Gras, Halloween, and arguably St. Patrick’s Day, but above most other festivals and happenings that dot the landscape of New Orleans’ social calendar. Jazz Fest is not, primarily, jazz music, instead attracting some of the largest rock acts in the world, including (this year alone) Dave Matthews, Tom Petty, Stevie Wonder, and Maroon 5. Thousands descend on New Orleans from all over, but this year they mostly seemed to come from the Bay Area. Having lived seven years in Oakland and Berkeley myself, I have a lot to chat about with folks from the Bay. It seems like they have most of the money to spend in contemporary America – on travel, housing, and everything else. Though our primary discussion topic tends to be how expensive it is to live in the Bay Area.

I’m on the West Bank, having deposited recent Jazz Festers from the Bay in their hotel on the south side of the river. It being a Jazz Fest Friday, my rides have been queuing up all night, one after the next, so I’m called to a random address near the Harvey Canal that bisects the West Bank. I pull up, under the high arc of the bridge that crosses the Canal, a pillared bridge that ascends altogether too high (95 feet) for the meager offering of water it transcends. Indeed, the entire US highway, locally known as the Westbank Expressway, stands elevated at a height well above what seems necessary to offer safe passage above the canal.

To my right is a razor-wired fence, behind which is an automotive shop, lit up from every angle but looking deserted. I am dubious that my riders are at Tek Automotive and after two minutes send them a text confirming this location. I can’t imagine where we are even near that could be the actual pickup spot, so I’m half expecting a night-owl grease-monkey to emerge from the shop when I get the reply text. They are, apparently, at Tunnel Club, a place I’ve never heard of. I plug it into my map app and learn it’s around the corner.

The Tunnel Club is a new place, so named for its proximity to the Harvey Tunnel, the original way to get around the canal before they built the oversized bridge. The bridge was completed in 1984; the tunnel in 1954. Before that, presumably, one had to caulk the wagon and float across the canal.
Two very large guys paired with two extremely small women are standing outside the club. The size differential here is both comprehensive and comical: the guys are both extremely tall and overweight; the women both short and underweight. They start to pile in, the guys giving the car the standard skeptical once-over I’m used to for the Versa Note before its TARDIS-like interior is revealed. I confirm their name as they enter and one of the guys introduces himself and then one of the women as his sister. I’m confused at first, because the couples seemed to be romantically engaged, but it becomes clear before long that the siblings are with each of their spouses. And shortly thereafter that one of these spouses is Not Okay.

It seems like standard-issue drunkenness at first. She is eerily quiet in stark contrast to the other three’s boisterous, almost celebratory fervor. They are on their way to eat at a late-night spot, the Wego Inn, in Westwego, salivating as they discuss the foods that await them. Not a peep from Quiet Girl. In a brief pause in the revelrous conversation, I hear the telltale ominous hiccups of the about-to-spew. I’m not the only one and her husband asks if she’s okay. She snaps in reply. He tries to soothe her with the upcoming food. “I’m not hungry,” she mopes back. “Why can’t we just go home?”

“We’re all hungry,” he insists. “Aren’t you hungry? You’ll be hungry when we get there!”

They discuss Jazz Fest, the bands they saw, the long night of drinking that’s followed. They explain that one couple is in town from Mississippi, that they come down every year, get the family together, see the music, hang out late. The guy in shotgun, husband of Quiet Girl, is the loudest, telling me corny jokes and asking me how long I’m driving tonight, if I like driving for Uber. I say I do, I say it’s an adventure, that you never know what you’re going to get.
“Assholes like us, you mean? I bet you pray you don’t get us!”

“No, no,” I reply quickly. “I find it entertaining. I drive the overnight in New Orleans, man. You have to be entertained by people.”

“By assholes like us.”

“You’re just having a good time.”

“Damn right we are!”

There is a sense in the car that we are blasting music even though the radio is silent. This happens sometimes: people try to recreate the atmosphere of the bar they just left in the car, especially if it’s crowded. They don’t want the party to end.

“Hey man, what do we do if we get stranded?” the guy in shotgun asks me.

“Stranded?”

“It’s Westwego at fucking three-thirty in the morning. We’re not gonna be able to get an Uber out here.”

“Oh.”

“I mean, we might if we’re lucky. But what would it take for you to wait for us. Wait maybe… twenty minutes?”
I don’t say anything for a few seconds.

“It’s gonna be more than twenty minutes,” his sister said. “By the time we order and wait and eat and everything. And with this one?” she must be indicating her semi-comatose compatriot. “There’s no way.”

“Hm. Is that true?” he addresses me. “Is there no way?”

I don’t relish spending twenty minutes of my waning Jazz Fest Friday languishing on the deep end of the West Bank, as far as possible from the surging downtown. Much less the fifty minutes it will probably actually be. “Well, if ever you can’t find an Uber, you can try Lyft? Download Lyft and they’ll always give you a ride.”

“Is that through Uber?”

“No, it’s a different app. Works the same way. But Uber only gives drivers rides within ten, maybe fifteen minutes sometimes. So you can get stranded. Lyft will give you a driver from anywhere: twenty, thirty minutes away. So you can always get a Lyft.” Look at me, being part of the problem.

“We don’t like Lyft!” the sister chimes in. “We like Uber. We don’t like that other app.”

It occurs to me they might be Trump voters. Or they had a bad experience with a Lyft driver, or didn’t like waiting twenty-five minutes for a ride. Or, longshot perhaps, they just don’t like pink.

“Well that’s an option, just for this ride,” I suggest lamely.

“Hm.”

Boister continues to reign in the car until we start to pull up in sight of the Wego Inn. And then everyone gets quiet all at once. The guy in shotgun swears, “Goddamit. It’s closed. Now what?”

“Waffle House!” exclaims his sister. “I told you we’d end up there.”

“Since when does Wego Inn close this early on a Friday?”

“They probably close at three.”

“All right, turn that shit off,” he indicates the GPS which he’s been encouraging me to ignore anyway, despite duplicating its instructions. “Just keep straight here a few miles.”

“It is not a few miles,” his sister retorts. “It’s just up there.”

Sure enough, the welcoming yellow sign, among my favorite icons in American eating. They have no idea how I feel about Waffle House, of course, but I get a sense how this night is about to unfold. Call it a premonition, or maybe it’s just the siren call of hashbrowns on a grill, long since committed to Pavlovian association with pending satisfaction.

“Say,” the guy in shotgun breathes in sharply, building up to a sales pitch aimed my way. “I don’t suppose you’re hungry? Want a little breakfast? We could buy you breakfast and then you could drive us home, maybe?”

“Leave the guy alone,” his sister scolds. “He does not want to come into Waffle House with us – he can’t wait to be rid of us!”

A pause.

“See, he’s not even listening.”

“I’m thinking,” I correct, a grin spilling onto my face in the darkness, now exposed to the harsh white light of a highway streetlamp.

“He’s thinking about it! Hoo boy! We will buy you breakfast and tip you good!”

I put my turn signal on to enter the parking lot. I’ve just been building a little drama for the inevitable. “I’ll do it!”

“Really?!”

“I’m in. Let’s go get some breakfast!”

They actually high-five me in the parking lot once we’ve arrived, three of them in turn, made all the more awkward for the fact that I don’t know these people, that we haven’t seen each other really, that they are all comically taller or shorter than I am, that it is very late and they are drunk. One more than the rest. The one who does not high-five me. She scowls as she trails the rest of us into the overlit restaurant, glaring at the waitress who welcomes her to Waffle House over the mild din of the dishes she’s washing. I sense trouble brewing, but I am too excited about hashbrowns to pay it much mind. The guys quickly decide on the counter and the guy who’d been in back, not the brother, gratuitously indicates my stool on the end of the group. “Order anything you want,” he says to me. “And thanks so much for doing this.”

“Thank you,” I smile. “I love Waffle House.”

Menus are distributed and they love the fact that I don’t need one, that I know what I want before even settling in. I’m the only one who orders water instead of a soda or iced tea, the only one who doesn’t gaze in a vague stupor at both sides of the menu. The drunker woman is the vocal one now, complaining about being here and how long this will take, complaining about the lack of options at the House. Her companions are just hungry.

As soon as orders are in, the guy next to me, big enough to block out any ability for me to see the other folks we’re dining with, makes small talk with me about where in the city I live, how long I’ve been in town, where I grew up. He’s enthusiastic and genuinely friendly. He’s also the local, part of the hosting couple in the party of four, but he re-explains all their relationships and adds that he’s best friends with the other guy, though it’s not clear if that pre-dates marrying this friend’s sister or not. I’ve really only caught his name clearly of the four, but I’m bad with names in the best of times (the product of having a very unusual and memorable name myself) and while driving for Uber, there’s a part of my brain that just is overfull from other stimulus and can’t internalize names for long. Granted, I’m not driving in this moment, and the surreality of that is kind of hitting me in waves. I take breaks at Waffle House maybe once a week, but it’s always a solo experience, with a book or my phone, my standard late-night loner approach. It’s very different not be observing the overloud drunk crew that comes in (the guy next to me actually carried his beer from the car into the place and was, surprisingly, not asked to throw it out) but to actually be, in some way, of them.

A small cockroach darts from the little cubby of condiments and napkin dispenser that’s holding up the menus, tilts its antennae searchingly in the middle of the counter, and then breaks toward the edge of the counter in the direction of the drunker woman. She sees it, finally, screams, swats at it errantly with a menu, and it drops from the counter either to the floor or on her. She howls like a wounded wolf incoherently, flees for the door, and stands at the edge of the door. “Did you see that? Did you see that? I’ve got to get out of here!”

We all saw it.

“Don’t leave, honey,” her husband says, perfunctorily. “It’s just a little bug.”

She flees wordlessly.

The other woman looks pointedly at the young waitress, who is standing there frozen and unsure what to do next. “Food’s free, right?”

“Um,” the waitress says.

The guys come to the waitress’ aid. “It’s just a bug,” her brother says. “I mean, you’re in the South.”

“I was born and raised here, thank you very much,” his sister retorts. “And I can’t stand ’em.”

“But you ain’t running out the door, are you? Jesus, do you see what I have to put up with?”

“I know. I know. But she’s just had too much.”

“It’s like this every time with her. You’ve seen it. I have to deal with this all the time.”

I think about my own fiancée, how she responds to roaches in our own apartment, wonder how I can tell her this story later without her swearing off Waffle House forever, which she has already nearly done. I wonder if mentioning something about her aversion to bugs and how she would have done the same in this situation will help or hurt. I decide on help shortly after the guy who is not the fleeing woman’s husband volunteers to go out and try to calm her down. I relate my fiancée’s perspective to the woman who remains.

“I was born and raised in the South,” she repeats. “But I hate ’em. Just those. I can deal with snakes, sharks, you name it, whatever. But I’m with her. I hate ’em.”

“But you’re still sitting here and you’re gonna eat your food, ain’t you?” her brother inquires.

“Well yeah.”

They begin a sidebar about how to deal with the absent woman’s drinking in that kind of half-hushed tone of people trying to have a private conversation in a context that utterly disallows it. I feign distraction while trying to listen. There is something about the woman’s parents agreeing with the guy that she’s a mess when she drinks, an ongoing monologue about how important it is to be able to have a good time without getting like that, the layers of denial that happen every time she sobers up. I am trying to be as neutral an observer as possible, but I’m unsure I’ve seen anything too unwarranted in her behavior other than being somber when others were jubilant and desiring to go home instead of eat. The bug did come at her, after all.

I let my mind wander, feeling a little sheepish about the eavesdropping, however inevitable it is. The other two have been gone an awkwardly long time. The food arrives. I start to eat. It occurs to me that if this were a movie, the other two would be out having sex behind the Waffle House dumpster, continuing a torrid periodic affair that they clandestinely conduct under the noses of the siblings they married. It occurs to me that this is not out of the question and I desperately hope it’s not true, for many reasons. By the time the remaining woman actually goes outside, I have considered this scenario to the point that I find myself actually bracing for her return.

But everything’s fine. They come back in, resume their seats, the woman who fled pushing her food away and literally turning her nose up. The guy next to me digs in heartily and there’s a tenuous silent peace, punctuated by another howl from the drunker woman.

“A hair! Do you see that?! There’s a hair on my plate. Oh, fuck this.”

She runs away, double the pace at which she fled the bug. The guy who’d left to talk to her before shrugs, mouth full of eggs. “I give up, man. I tried. It took me twenty minutes to talk her back into coming back in.”

“What should we do with her food?”

“Box it up. Someone’ll eat it later.”

“She sure as hell won’t,” her husband mutters.

“How’s your food?” the guy next to me asks me. “Glad you did this?”

“Oh yeah,” I say. “It hit the spot.”

It’s twelve more minutes before we’ve all finished and the guy pays the check in cash. I hope they’ve tipped well, but there’s really no way I can possibly check without it being too awkward. The woman is seated on the concrete half-curb outside, where I have to imagine it is quite likely there have been bugs recently. I unlock the car and one of the guys tries to say something vaguely rousing and encouraging. Stony silence is his answer. I have been wondering whether to turn the app on and ask them to officially request the ride, but that seems both ungrateful and inappropriate to the mood, so I just hope we’re close to their place and don’t bother. If they tip, great. If not, they did buy me breakfast and I had to get back toward the city anyway.

It proves to be a short ride, about two miles, out to a development that was as earlier described by the woman who lives there. She’d mentioned how isolated they were, how they have one of the only six homes in this not-that-new development. I have to wonder if it was built in 2008 or if it’s just still too far out into the suburbs to be successful or if there’s something else wrong with the area. Her brother tersely navigates and then I leave them at the only house in sight, which they still gratuitously describe as we approach as “there, by all those parked cars.”

They are grateful as they get out, all but the woman who ran twice, who bolts for the door like there’s a bug behind her. The guy who’d sat next to me peels a twenty from a wad of cash in his pocket and hands it to me.

“Thanks so much. And sorry about everything.”

“Thank you. Thanks for breakfast too. And no problem. Hope everything’s okay.”

“She’ll be fine in the morning,” he responds, hand on the top of the door about to close. “She always is.”


This is an excerpted chapter of the in-progress book tentatively titled Driving for U: Behind the Wheel of a New Orleans Uber by Storey Clayton. If you are in the publishing industry and would like to contact Storey about this book, please e-mail him at storey@bluepyramid.org.

by

Record 4 Million French Voters Resist Binary Runoff

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

The actual results of voting in France yesterday, with the actual percentages of voters.

The headlines about France today correctly report that previously unelected businessman Emmanuel Macron crushed legacy politician Marine Le Pen in yesterday’s runoff for the French Presidency. This was expected and unsurprising, though the media wanted to treat it like a surprise after seeming surprises in the Brexit vote and the US Presidential elections in 2016. By mistakenly conflating the US, UK, and France as all the same country and part of the same set of movements, the media tried to build the case for suspense in this election and claim that Marine Le Pen would ride the wave of right-wing populist resistance into contention. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

What also didn’t happen, however, is that Macron won with 66.1% of the vote to Le Pen’s 33.9%, the figures that have been reported in every major outlet. He actually received 58.5% to Le Pen’s 30.0%. Still a crushing victory. But it also accounts for the 11.5% of people who marched to the polls merely to cast a protest vote, submitting either a blank or spoiled ballot.

The significance of these voters is hard to overstate. There was nothing else on the ballot at this referendum. There were no mayors or parliamentary representatives, no local ordinances or dog-catchers. Just the Presidency. And more than 4 million French voters went to the polls only to say non loudly and clearly to both Macron and Le Pen.

A fair amount has been reported about the turnout for the election, the lowest by percentage since 1969. And that data point is also, of course, a form of protest with its own significance. But the problem with abstaining from a vote is that your votes don’t get counted anywhere. You don’t demonstrate the power of your protest by making someone count it up. But 4 million French voters forced someone to count. And it’s important in our assessment of this election and what it means for the future of Europe, democracy, and European democracy, that we don’t pretend those people don’t exist and didn’t vote. They did and we ignore them at our peril.

What’s so significant about those folks, of course, is that they didn’t have a third option of a person to vote for. We are recited the absurd narrative here in the United States that it is only the existence of people like Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, of Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, John Anderson, and so on, that enables people to not fall in line behind one of the two major party candidates. That all of those votes and voters are the rightful property of one of the two major parties (increasingly we are told they are all, to a soul, the rightful property of the Democrats) and would instantly vote D or R were it not for the wayward allure of third parties mucking everything up. And yet, in a situation where there are literally only two people for whom one can legally vote, the third option won 11.5% of the tally. Which dwarfs the 5.7% combined offered to third parties in 2016 America.

Given that over 60% of those who voted for Macron said they were doing so primarily to vote “not Le Pen”, the headline of a resounding mandate for the unpolitical business figure starts to crumble. Certainly a huge number of US voters in 2016 trudged to the polls to cast a “not Clinton” or “not Trump” ballot, culminating in a slight edge for “not Clinton” in the electoral college. We’ve seen exactly how little of a mandate Trump has, both politically and popularly, since his election. And we should expect the same trail of resistance to Macron, even more so for the fact that he entirely lacks a parliamentary party. He will have to try to backfill it in order to govern.

Make no mistake, right-wing nationalism has been turned away in France with yesterday’s vote. But increasingly, the politics of binary choices between right-wing nationalism and uber-capitalist globalism is also getting soundly rejected. And to pretend that binary democracy-as-usual is coasting along just fine when turnout plummets and 11.5% of voters take the time out of their day to register their rejection seems to miss the boat of our current trends.

We are told all the time that enough voters to swing the election stayed home in any given election. But we are also told by the same people that there are only two real choices in any vote. How do people not understand that the latter perception causes the former? Even in a situation where there are actually only two choices, the people are saying no. Only if someone listens to this will more people feel compelled to engage in their democracy, to find that it is responsive enough to be worthy of their engagement. Until then, the gap of disconnection between the wealthy politicians and the disaffected they leave behind will only widen.

by

The Health of a Nation

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Marching to New Orleans, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, What Dreams May Come, Tags: , , , ,

Last night, I had a dream that I was in an airplane and it was landing and I kept looking up front at the cockpit and wanting to see outside but it was blocked, just this blue door and white walls and I had this vague sense of foreboding because I wanted to see and it was weird, wrong, really wrong that you couldn’t see out the front, couldn’t even see where you were going, but I knew we were descending and then somehow I could see below us, even though the floor was solid and there was luggage below, but I could see we were over New York City and look, there’s Columbia, and gosh these buildings seem awfully close but the pilot’s got it, we’re fine, although what airport is on Manhattan and south of Columbia, but maybe it’s just the long way to JFK somehow, the scenic route, but we’re still descending and then the left wing tilts and scrapes a building and the plane lurches down and everything goes black.

I used to die in my dreams. People told me it wasn’t possible, that you wake up before you hit the ground. But I didn’t. I hit and just stayed there, internalizing the fact that I was dead. In this dream, last night, it went black, I didn’t actually wait for the sickening clatter of the plane to the ground. But it was black and cold and silent for a while. And I was totally enthralled, had no sense of it being a dream. This is it, I thought. Moment of truth. Do I die and nothing? Or is there something? What’s next? Oh please, let there be something as I’ve always thought.

And then I blinked, fluttered, my eyes opened, and I was where I fell asleep last night, there with Alex in the guest bedroom as we’ve been camping out during a recent bizarre half-circuit power-outage. Everything was monochrome, black and white, an old-time movie of my life? Alex remained asleep as I gently left the bed, padded to the main bedroom, found my parents asleep there. Color slowly started to filter in to the picture, flecks of vibrant rain hitting the monochrome canvas of my eyes. It remained grainy, like a newsreel, my vision following the evolution of film over the course of minutes. No one woke up, no one stirred. Is this death? Wandering the hallways of your memory while the people you loved who remain alive sleep? Do you sit in the rooms of your past, slowly waiting for them to awaken by passing through themselves?

I don’t know how long I stood there, in the rooms of the apartment, breathing heavily, nervous, but also relieved to learn there was more, that the horrifying plane crash was not the final scene, before I opened the front door, was bathed in bright blinding light, and finally actually awoke. It took me thirty seconds or so to realize that the plane crash was not real, that I remained truly alive.

I haven’t been close to dying in a while. Sure, I feel like I’m going to die every time I get a migraine, at least a little (is this one so bad that it’s actually a brain tumor?), and there was that one incident a few years back. Probably the closest I’ve really been lately, though there are always driving near-misses when drunk New Orleanians run stop signs at breakneck speeds in front of me, was back in October ’09, my only really serious car accident. It turned out fine, but was a few feet from being devastating. I had health insurance back then.

I have health insurance now, ostensibly. But not really. As of January 2017, I have coverage that costs me $55 a month (with extensive subsidies – the sticker price is over $300/month) and entitles me to pay essentially sticker price for health care transactions up to $4800 before it starts helping out. I did not have health insurance of any kind from June-December 2016. I thought I would have to pay a penalty to the government for this, but I learned in January that since health care coverage would have cost more than 8% of my official annual income of $27,717.96, I was exempted from the penalty. I had spent the year in some sort of uncanny valley where I was neither entitled to subsidies on coverage nor required to abide by the individual mandate because it was so expensive. This was also true from September-December 2014, when I first moved to New Orleans and was playing poker before I got a job. I didn’t have health insurance then, nor did I have to pay a penalty. At least the government’s effort to solve hunger by forcing people to buy food did not bankrupt those people for not being able to afford food. Strangely, though, it didn’t do anything about the, y’know, hunger issue.

I went to the doctor for the first time in almost two years on Tuesday. My ear hadn’t popped for a week after I got off the plane back from APDA Nationals. I’d boarded a plane sick in Newark, had some pressure landing in Chicago, and then had my ear almost explode (it felt like – I’m sure it wasn’t actually close) while landing in New Orleans. I hadn’t been able to hear more than a muffle out of it for a week. Two days after landing, I used Alex’s Teladoc service, which I’m entitled to use through her healthcare, to call a doctor, describe my symptoms, and get some prescriptions to try to open the ear and fight off the infection. I’d nearly exhausted the antibiotics and prednisone with no relief by the time I reluctantly made an appointment to see a real physical doctor.

My “primary care provider,” such as it is (I’ve only seen one doctor multiple times in my conscious life – the phrase “my doctor” has never quite registered with me) is part of a health clinic literally around the corner from my apartment. They were in the running for the Impact 100 grant from the Greater New Orleans Foundation the year that I helped CIS win. The place is pretty, recently refurbished, with the standard over-bright waiting room and a giant LCD TV for the impatient patrons. They charged me $80 for the visit, but seemed visibly upset to do so, asking me to come back with proof of income so they could charge me less. I agreed to return for a partial refund. When I did, though, they saw my tax statement and grimaced. “We should have charged you $120,” the helpful woman at the desk said. “We’ll let it slide this time, but if you come back, your visits will be $120.”

That ear pressure wash I received at the doctor’s was definitely nice and certainly helped, though not enough to restore hearing. (It’s coming back, slowly, almost at 80% now.) But I could buy the machine for less than $120.

I did try to go to the doctor a few months ago. To urgent care, actually. Alex and I had lice. We didn’t quite realize that yet – Alex had a student with lice in her classroom, but it had been dealt with. I’m not quite sure what we thought urgent care could do about lice, but we were excited that I had health insurance again so I could do things like go to urgent care when my head was itching and we thought we’d seen suspicious bugs on my head. They quoted a price of $152 to get in the door. We politely declined and went on our way. Fortunately, within the day, we were able to spend a little less than that on two visits from a private home-visit service. A wonderful woman came out and very patiently combed literally thousands of lice out of Alex’s and my hair. It was a humbling and educational experience I thought I’d never have, at least once I made it through grade school without the specter of lice ever manifesting. It was also a reminder of what one can get accustomed to – the woman said we’d had lice for weeks, growing into a full-fledged infestation. Alex had admittedly gone to the doctor for general itchiness in that span; the doctor had missed the lice.

I recognize that the ACA has tangibly helped a lot of people. I recognize that I am not the target audience or consumer for the ACA, really, that it’s striving to help those with seriously low income or no income by getting them access to some kind of healthcare. But I also wonder about the overall degradation of what we think of as healthcare. The ACA theoretically puts in some sort of standards for what is considered health insurance to prevent scammers from dominating the market. But can we really consider a plan where it’s out of pocket until $4800 is spent “insurance”? Or, worse, “coverage”? Yes, it would be handy, though still devastatingly expensive, if I had a catastrophic accident or diagnosis. But short of that, I don’t really feel like I have healthcare coverage. I feel like I am paying $650 a year for the right to pay the uninsured rate if I actually want to see a doctor. And I’m super lucky that I live with someone with access to Teladoc. Alex and I have joked-not-joked several times about getting officially married early just so I can enjoy her healthcare benefits.

I used to look quizzically at people when they said the primary reason they had a job was for health insurance. This, of course, was in the days when pre-existing conditions were reason to terminate coverage for people (only after they’d paid months of premiums first, usually, but just as they made their first claim). Employers offering insurance could force their insurers to cover people no matter what, so people with health problems needed to work to be well. But in those days, as I recall, health insurance actually meant health insurance. Co-pays were nominal, deductibles covered pretty much everything. Maybe I was in a bubble living in California, but I didn’t think, in talking with people across the country, that my experience was that exceptional. Now, even Alex’s supposedly great health care coverage through work asks her to pay a lot out of pocket for going to the doctor, with mystery “lab fees” showing up for more than $100 without notice. When I tried to fight one of these with the insurer, the insurer literally said “you are responsible for any fees incurred by services – you can ask the doctor if there will be fees, but they probably won’t know.”

I recognize and acknowledge my privilege in this discussion. I have generally been extremely healthy. I am currently choosing to not hold a traditional day job so I can pursue a specific adventure and my writing. I live in a two-income household. I have a decent amount of savings and no debt.

However, my privilege here actually makes things worse. It’s a larger condemnation of the situation. If I am paying that much, that stymied by the system, with all my advantages, I can’t even imagine how someone with less access or less opportunity is faring. Let alone if I were someone who had some regular need to visit a medical professional. Good God.

Of course, the front line for today’s debate about healthcare in America is not about how insufficient Obamacare is, how much it’s quietly enabled a rollback of what we consider healthcare in this country, of the costs we expect the individual to bear for their own health. It is on the other side, how we can defend the paltry patchy efforts of Obamacare against a backslide into the world of terminated coverage and no guarantees. I think Obamacare is terrible, mostly for the opportunity cost of its moment in history not leading to single-payer or at least a public option, but also for the orientation around insurers as the primary player to protect and serve, part of decades of legislation being designed to serve the corporation above any actual person or other institution. But of course the idea that we would gut the few tolerable provisions of Obamacare is awful, too, even more awful, unless under some sort of accelerationism we believe that two years of that will finally usher in a world where the government treats “not dying” like it is part of the right to life.

As this first-in-years visit to the doctor reminded me, my window on youthful unfettered health is starting to close. It was my first lifetime visit where my blood pressure was above perfect, the result, probably, of gaining 60 pounds (a 51% increase!) over the last five years. Things can be done about this – I am too sedentary and still eat too much crap – but there is an unalterable gravity to the course of a human life. I will be in a position in the coming years where I should try to see doctors more, even if my questions about how to take preventative actions continue to go (as they did this visit as well) unanswered.

But the preventative question for the nation remains. The justification for keeping the ACA thourohgly ensconced in an entirely private market is that healthcare is one sixth of the economy. You can’t just go forcing such a large portion of our profit-center to compete with a service designed to actually – gasp! – meet the needs of citizens! Our shareholders would lose! And then what would the downstream impact be? After all, country clubs and luxury goods are a big part of the economy too.

The question remains: what is the role of the citizen in the country? Far from being an entity with rights, the modern perspective laden in both the ACA and the AHCA (more the latter, of course, but still), is that citizens are a resource for the economy. People exist to be mined, exploited, marketed to, money extracted for the purpose of firing up the engine of the mighty financial system. Denying the market access to that resource is unthinkable, an affront to all society, starving the lifeblood from that which we hold most dear.

Until we shift that mindset, until we get away from viewing 350 million folks as untapped oil or earthbound copper, I don’t know how we’re ever going to get around to fixing healthcare or anything else in our society. Or maybe the metaphor is more how we treat chickens. We only care about taking care of the ones still “working” for us in some capacity – who will yield productivity. The rest can die in the field for all we care. And keeping them productive is all about the quick fix – dose ’em with pills, fatten ’em up, get what you can from ’em, then move on. No one cares about the soul of a chicken, their outlook on life, how to prevent them from developing problems later in life. It’s producitivy maximization and then they’re a burden.

Sure, sure, get outraged at a potential rollback of the ACA. Call your Senator, cajole and threaten. But like lightbulb switches for climate change, recognize also that this supposed fix is both insufficient and broken. It’s a bandaid on the Titanic. It’s better to preserve it for the short term, yes, but only if we then immediately get to work on realizing the larger problems facing us, in reframing how we view our world. That we do not exist to serve the economy. And if the economy doesn’t exist to serve us, maybe it’s time to repeal and replace the economy with something that works.

by

APDA Nationals 2017: A Debate Odyssey

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

The RUDU affiliates present at the National Banquet. Left to right: Deepta Janardhan, Geneva Kropper, Jeremy Kritz, Sean Leonard, Storey Clayton, Kurt Falk, Chris Bergman, Mitchell Mullen, Hailey Conrad, Dan Bates, Max Albert, Alex Jubb, Russell Potter, Pasha Temkin, and Quinn Maingi. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

It is three-thirty in the afternoon on a Thursday, the day before the first American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) Championships to ever be held at Rutgers University will commence. I am in a grungy but comfortable New Brunswick apartment just over the wrong side of the proverbial tracks, a block north of the children’s hospital where I once, years earlier, spent consecutive nights keeping watch in a patient’s room with a Jonathan Franzen novel and the mantra to appreciate each minute of life in sequence as my only bulwarks against total despair. The apartment, sporting five bedrooms and two full bathrooms, is shared by five young men of various affiliation with the Rutgers University Debate Union (RUDU), the team I coached for five years, all of whom arrived at the university and the team after I left it. I have spent the week mired in a familiar combination of sleeplessness and debate geekery, punctuated by a refreshing and unsettling unfamiliarity borne of relatively new characters populating the otherwise reminiscent scene.

Suddenly, a scream emerges from the corner bedroom. Max Albert, a tousled, thinly bearded intellectual, flees. “Pasha, there’s a bug in my room! Help!”

The hailed Pasha Temkin, whose frightening thinness is augmented by a narrow chin, a penchant for wearing a long beige trenchcoat, and a floppy mop of high brown hair that a former teammate has dubbed the “white boy swoop,” responds with glee. “Let me kill it, Max! I love killing bugs.”

The two retreat into the bedroom, close the door to contain the insect, and spend the next four minutes uproariously failing to exterminate it. Whoops of laughter and little yelps of fear spill out from under the door in sequence, followed eventually by a large black fly and the two young men who, led by Pasha, chase it to the kitchen window. Eventually, they manage to shove the window open, briefly let in a second fly, and then successfully brush both away and out of the apartment. Heaving with exertion and continued laughter, the two join me in the living room and plop on the couch diagonally opposite. “I hate bugs,” Max says, smiling broadly before returning to his usual contemplative visage.

It is a rare moment of unexpected levity in a week that’s been deadly serious. Max and Pasha just finished their season as the best partnership on APDA, clinching the coveted Team of the Year (TOTY) award in dramatic fashion at the Swarthmore tournament, besting the second-place team, from my alma mater (Brandeis) in the final round and the third-place team, from perennial powerhouse Yale, in the semifinals. Not only is this the first year in two full decades that neither of the top two TOTY have hailed from the Ivy League, but it’s the highest finish for either Rutgers or Brandeis ever. More impressively, Max and Pasha are APDA sophomores, each completing just their second year of competition on the league. No sophomore/sophomore team has ever won TOTY before. Admittedly, Pasha is a Rutgers junior who “redshirted” his first year by attending few enough tournaments to not count as his novice year. But they are still the youngest team ever to take the honor, in both APDA experience and years on Earth.

Max (left) and Pasha (right) on their way to a round during Nationals. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

Our story doesn’t begin here. Perhaps our story begins in St. Petersburg, Russia during the summer of 1995, where Pasha’s mother resides, pregnant with Pasha while I am an American exchange student spending two weeks in the recently liberated city. Did I wander past Mrs. Temkin on my way to my host family’s apartment one night, nodding briefly under the never-dark sky of a northern July? It is hard for me to imagine that moment now, internalizing that I was fifteen at the time and Pasha not yet born, hard to realize as I still feel so at home in an APDA entirely occupied by people so much younger than I am. Maybe our story begins two years earlier, when I was invited as an eighth grader by Sonia Roth to join the Lincoln-Douglass debate team she was coaching, after we shared each of our first classes at the Albuquerque Academy, third period history after the long opening assembly. Maybe it begins in 1998 at a meeting of CLEANS, the non-drinking students’ organization at Brandeis, where Adam Zirkin convinces me to come to a debate meeting despite my swearing I was done with debate heading into college. It is hard to remember my resistance to debating on APDA in 1998 when I have spent so much of the subsequent nineteen years so heavily invested in the league.

But our story, this week, really begins at James Madison University in Blacksburg, Virginia. That’s where I bid farewell to the Tulane team, to James Capuzzi and Michelle Daker, with whom I’d spent most of the last five days. It was Monday morning, April seventeenth, and Rutgers had just been announced as the seventh best team at the Madison Cup. The top six would advance to the long table finals, receive $1,000 each for their personal use and at least that much for their teams. Max had finished third the prior year, with Sean Leonard, and was counting on another top performance. Pasha banged his hand on the white-tableclothed surface before him. Michelle flashed me a look, knowing I was about to embark northward with the two of them.

James Capuzzi (left) and Michelle Daker (right) at the Madison Cup. Photo by Storey Clayton.

“Looks like you’re going to have a real fun car ride,” she quipped.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Seventh is probably the worst.” We went on to speculate as to whether that or eleventh was worse, noting that eleventh place is the cut-off for getting any money for one’s debate program at the Madison Cup. Max and Pasha had at least just earned $500 for RUDU, while it was still possible that James and Michelle had placed eleventh. (We later learned they didn’t.)

The Madison Cup is a tournament in its own format, slower and more rhetorical than most formats of parliamentary debate these days and unique for its six-team, twelve-debater free-for-all. Rounds take about an hour and are judged by overtly untrained “lay” judges who are supposed to evaluate who contributed the most to the round’s discussion but often defer to who sounded prettiest. Sean had twice before made finals and was supposed to return this year with Kurt Falk, but was called away to work, where he is supervised by Matt McMillan, an APDA contemporary of mine who went to Columbia and did political work in New Mexico after graduation. Kurt has been on the road with Tulane all week, flying out to see Alex and I before joining us for the sixteen-hour drive in an overstuffed van to William and Mary from New Orleans for APDA’s closing tournament of the season. At the tournament, James and Michelle hit Max and his hybrid partner from Hopkins in round one. Max won, but was chastised by the judge for being too mean. “I didn’t think he was all that,” noted Michelle after the round. “It was a regular round, but he acted like he was destroying us.”

On the other side, hours later on Monday, in the car, Max explains to me. “You know, I hit your Tulane kids first round. And the judge said there was no need to be so mean. And I didn’t even realize I was being so mean. I just have no idea in a round if I’m winning or not. So I pull out all the stops, just in case.”

I’ve seen this movie before, and I tell Max so, driving north on I-95, hours into our return from Mad Cap, two novices from the University of Pennsylvania who opened Mad Cup against Tulane in tow. “Oh,” I note. “You’re just like Rob Colonel, the Yale dino. I used to judge him all the time and tell him to ease up on people or go for bigger, more gutsy advocacies in certain rounds. And he would look me in the eye, deadly serious, and say ‘I can’t do that, Storey. If I lose, you’ll drop me.’”

Rob Colonel was also TOTY, but not till his senior year. He lost his last chance at the National Championship in semifinals in 2013, setting up this round that I chronicled at length four years ago. The next National final, of course, featured RUDU debaters Sean and Quinn Maingi on my last official weekend coaching the team before I left to move to New Orleans. I came back the next year to watch them make semifinals at Nationals. Last year was the first APDA Nationals I missed since 2009. I’ve only missed five (2004, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2016) since I first competed as a freshman in 1999.

Rutgers’ National Championship is different in a number of ways from the four in which I competed and the nine prior in which I judged. Most prominently, the league explicitly allowed the host school to seriously compete in this one. Fellow APDA historian Joel Jacobs (Wesleyan ’89), with whom I used to judge at the Stanford tournament during my years in California after APDA, informed me that Harvard won their own Nationals in 1992. I am back largely to help Rutgers try to repeat the feat.

Rutgers isn’t my home turf anymore, this weekend, now that I’m back. Or it is and it isn’t. Pasha and Max have been coached for the bulk of the year by one Shomik Ghosh, TOTY partner of a guy who infamously threw a very public tantrum at the 2014 National Championships after his team had lost to Sean and Quinn in the semifinals.^ Shomik, having never actually attended Harvard, was far less attached to the Harvard reputation’s supremacy and apparently offered to coach Pasha and Max long-distance, all the way from Michigan Law School, after he judged them at the Harvard 2016 tournament and they ultimately won, quite a coup for a school that was usually blackballed and tanked at the largest tournament of the year. Seeing the dingy and rusting John Harvard Cup in Pasha and Max’s living room when I first ascended their stairs was among the more surreal sights of the weekend, really internalizing that not only was the Rutgers-Harvard feud over, but that they had conquered said feud before Shomik offered to coach them. I think only briefly of another team that could have won that Cup from Rutgers, before the feud, Chris Bergman and Ashley Novak, who broke as the undefeated 4-seed in 2011 before I made the second worst coaching decision of my life and advised them to run a not great case to save better cases for later out-rounds. They didn’t make those later out-rounds and lost the chance to assert themselves early in the TOTY race they were intending to contend for.

Shomik is the real coach, but he’s only coaching this top team, a tradition from a lot of elite coaches to focus on just one partnership instead of the whole squad. The team as a whole is allegedly coached by the so-called “Director of Debate” at Rutgers, a gentleman hired by the School of Communication and Information after I departed who was getting a PhD but had no concept of APDA style and whose impact, generously, has been net neutral on the team. His inability to really help the APDA squad is not really his fault – the mismatch of his skills and APDA’s needs is just one of countless examples of Rutgers’ lifelong inability to avoid getting in its own way. There aren’t really PhDs who would want to professionally coach an APDA team and SC&I posted for a position that required a PhD to back the teaching load. If it weren’t him, it would have been someone else who would ostensibly run the team and meetings but be really unable to help them improve.

Shomik has certainly helped, though. He’s guided Pasha and Max into a position of focusing on social justice cases, some of Shomik’s authorship, which must have made their run to the top of the TOTY board as two white (Jewish) men more palatable to the league, I imagine. I first heard much of their casefile from Russell Potter when he came to help run the Tulane tournament in February and I was impressed. I’m excited to work with this file and this team, believing they are standing up for good ideas and important concepts that APDA has long neglected. As always, it’s important to not just win, but win the right way for the right reasons.

A couple hours after the bug, Shomik calls on speaker-phone to check-in with Pasha and Max. We’re all huddled up in the living room and he’s just gotten out of some sort of exam or class and is nearly delirious for a variety of reasons. We talk over the casefile, the deliberate choice to limit it to social justice as a subject, my contribution of an old case, run only once in history, that fits with the theme. Shomik is skeptical of the case at first, peppers it with possible opps and accusations, feeding into Max’s innate fears about the case’s possible weakness. Max goes to work on a thumbnail already dangerously close to the quick as I try to fend off the opps and for a moment it’s just Shomik and I debating for the kids, old hands sparring over the outcome of a team we’re deeply invested in. Finally, Shomik pauses to reflect, then asks one critical question about how to closeout the case in PMR, the last speech of the round. And then I answer, giving a two-minute version of the so-called collapse, answer all possible opp rebuttals in a way that turns them aside. On the other end, I can almost hear Shomik’s excitement before he expresses it, he says the word “exactly” four times in his response, exhorting Max to do exactly that if they run this case, and the four of us are all on board, all on the same page, excitedly anticipating the next day and the next and the next and when we can run this case.

Pasha and Max are a study in opposites. I realize this early in the car ride up 95, leaving the Madison Cup, though there were hints of it when I first met them both. Maybe our story begins back there, at Fordham University, the fall of 2015, when I met Max and got to know Pasha (we’d met the year before, after TCNJ Nationals 2015, at Winberrie’s in Princeton of all places, for the RUDU team dinner), when they first won a varsity outround, then another, and had their breakout performance in their first full semester of debate, making the semifinals of a 20-point tournament, what would ultimately be their second marker of a 7th TOTY performance unheard-of for novice debaters. Pasha is one of the most verbose people I’ve ever met, saying something for a person who has now spent nine years as a debate competitor and seven more as a coach, who has spent a majority of his adult life living with a debater. He processes life through speaking, often mile-a-minute, constantly verbalizing the past, present, and future in a staccato narration of what is, was, and will be. Max is nearly silent throughout, saying almost nothing as he listens to Pasha’s stream of language, weighing in often only after a heavy sigh and being pressed once or twice by Pasha. In larger groups, it is fascinating to see how this conveys vastly more weight to Max’s few words. Due to their rarity, their sparse and long-considered nature, Max’s few words come across to a group like a declaration, an edict, the utterances of Vivek Suri perhaps, or Professor Snape, or the guru on the mountaintop. By contrast, Pasha’s constant talking becomes the soundtrack, background music, and often the most important bits of it have to be repeated for their blending into the rhythm of everyday life.

It is hard not to imagine that Max has cultivated this contrast, that he enjoys his role as the thoughtful sage in the wake of Pasha’s perpetual narration. When I ask him what he hopes to achieve in life, Max describes himself as a poet. He says, understatedly, that “money is not particularly a goal” in his future. And yet this air of dreamy mystery seems wholly sincere – over the course of the week, I realize that Max lacks the fundamental confidence necessary to manifest an image of himself for the public perception. His interface with the world is the genuine product of his experiences and perspective.

No wonder, then, as Pasha says in the car, “Everyone on APDA is in love with Max, girls and guys.” He pauses. “And Max is totally uninterested.”

“I just haven’t found anyone on APDA who would garner my interest, y’know?” There is an awkward pause, perhaps as Max recalls that both my ex-wife and current fiancee were APDA debaters. “That’s just my experience.”

Their contrast and subsequent mutual admiration is what clearly works about this partnership. Pasha is forlorn and wistful when he talks about Max’s belovedness, his eloquence, his ability to command a room with a few well-timed words. At one point when describing a compliment from a mutual friend, one that sort of offends Max in the way that people who work hard are offended by their “natural talent” being complimented, Pasha blurts “Are you kidding me? I would kill to have someone say that about me!”

But it’s a two-way street. Max is clearly impressed by Pasha’s confidence, by his ability to hold forth and talk about any subject, anywhere, instantly, without carefully considering his thoughts. After all, Pasha’s fingernails are in fine shape, he approaches the world with gusto and enthusiasm, he has not once considered quitting debate. This bravado could be mistaken for a front, but it seems to truly reflect Pasha’s relative indifference to what the world thinks of him. Which contrasts highly with a discussion we have toward the end of the car ride about what Max enjoys about debate. I am essentially interviewing him after he reluctantly agrees to talk about his struggles with debate, Pasha bouncing in the front seat and trying to avoid jumping in.

“What do you enjoy about debate?”
“The validation. Winning. Being thought of as good.”
“And what do you feel most of the time you’re debating?”
“Paranoia.”
“Paranoia?”
“Fear.”
“Of what?”
“Losing.”

I have tried to convince them that earning TOTY should give them a lifetime get-out-of-jail-free card for worrying about people thinking they may not be great at debate, for worrying about losing a particular round. I have failed. But I have also neglected to tell them that once, when I was an APDA debater, I sincerely told my friend Ben Brandzel that I should be good enough to win Nationals even after a final round where the entire audience and judging panel yelled “Shut up, shut up, shut up” throughout my speech.

There is a very good argument to be made that the obsession some people develop with success at APDA debate is unhealthy, that it leads to mistakes later in life. The Rutgers tournament theme this year, as Pasha reminds me on the car ride, was the struggle of a debater with the concept of quitting debate and its connection to feeling suicidal. I could not possibly make this up. The tagline was “The Myth of Sisyphus” with the subhead that read:
“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is quitting debate.” -Albert Camus

Select quotations from the tournament invitation for this event:

“Each weekend, we do the same thing, over and over again. Each weekend, there is but one winner, but we pretend that all have benefited. We lose our sleep, our time, our health, but convince ourselves that the next weekend, we will succeed.”

To capture the absurd, we revel in it. Victory is meaningless and arbitrary, but we celebrate it.”

“Unless you win, you lose. Even if you win, the feeling of satisfaction is momentary, illusory. Next week, there will be another tournament to win. If you don’t, you lost. You’re welcome.”

The official tournament logo of the RUDU 2017 regular season tournament.

Max has said he’s functionally quitting debate after this tournament. By explanation, through a story that is later retold by several of Max’s roommates and teammates on multiple occasions, I am asked about an episode of Bojack Horseman, a show with which I am vaguely familiar for having never watched it. TOTY here is analogized to an Oscar for the character. The conclusion is that winning the award provides one good night, but the struggle begins anew the next day. I find I cannot relate. The whole point of an Oscar, or TOTY, or any other award seen as the peak of a proverbial mountaintop, is that no one can take it away. Thereafter, if anyone asks you about that thing you did (acting, debating, etc.), you have an unassailable description of reaching the top. I have spent 16 years feeling this way about winning the North American Debate Championship, even though many of my peers would not consider this the pinnacle that TOTY is.

We are at practice, Tuesday night. Max has said that he wouldn’t go to practice, but then he went. He said he wouldn’t stay, but then he stays to work on a new case while he watches a practice round. He gets so involved in the practice round that he doesn’t do much work on the case. He offers feedback to the team, Mitchell Mullen and Jeremy Kritz, the half-seed team, as they finish their debate with visiting debaters from CUNY. I first met Jeremy at Rutgers Day when he was a junior in high school and he wandered in to the RUDU room where we were holding public debates and challenging visitors to debate us. He debated Sean 1-on-1. We were all impressed and encouraged him to come to RUDU in two years. He did.

Max draws the line at RUDU Till Dawn, a new tradition started last year by the obsessive Mr. Leonard. We’d always had a Nats Boot Camp at Rutgers in the week before Nationals, famous for a lot of unconventional techniques of focus and re-adjusting thought including staring at candles, burning papers, and visiting graveyards. That, and a whole bunch of preparation. But never past one or two in the morning. Nevertheless, in the spirit of Sean, the CUNY boys, Mitchell, Pasha, and I debated till sunrise in their apartment. Max opened the door at 4:45 during our fourth consecutive round, squinted and glared at us, went to the bathroom, and returned to his room.

Boot Camp this year, aside from the Till Dawn shenanigans, has been limited by the fact that Rutgers is hosting Nationals and very little has been arranged or finalized till the last week. Indeed, when the invitation was first posted, later than normal, the Tournament Director was ominously listed as “TBD”, which I later learn is cover for the fact that Pasha is essentially TDing as well as competing, a feat never attempted. Naeem Hossein, an affable computer science guy who loves debate but lacks the time for it, is eventually named TD, but can only be there on Friday. It’s really Pasha’s show. Much of my week on the apartment couch is spent listening to Pasha call potential banquet venues in an effort to book something after the initial arrangement with Rutgers and the Heldrich fell through. Just before practice on Tuesday, Pasha, Max, and I had visited an Indian restaurant in Edison that had a cancellation of an event. They’re willing to work with the Rutgers-approved caterer that’s been booked for months. We take it. I end up paying the deposit, through Venmo after the league pays Pasha. It is nice to know that my years of fronting money for RUDU are not wholly over.

Practice on Thursday. Miriam Pierson and Will Meyer come over from Swat and Gov a case on Pasha and Max. It’s designed to play to the latter’s weaknesses so everyone gets a solid practice on what they can expect at Nationals. I’ve judged Will a lot over the years, but it’s my first time seeing Miriam. She’s impressive, giving a great MG that neutralizes most of Pasha’s LOC. Quinn has been coaching this team for two years, while traveling to an absurd quantity of tournaments to help tab. I have a moment to realize how large the footprint of Rutgers coaches is on the league now: Quinn coaching Swat, Sean coaching TCNJ, Russell coaching Princeton, and Bergman coaching Fordham. Ashley used to coach Brandeis as well, but not this year.

The next round, I judge novices Hailey Conrad and Dan Bates against the CUNY kids, who have returned after staying up till dawn two nights ago. I find them to be both great and thoroughly neglected. Hailey in particular runs an excellent case and gives a great PMR and I am surprised that I haven’t heard more about this very talented novice earlier in the year. Not for the last time that weekend, I wonder what can be done for a team that ostensibly has two coaches, but really has none for people below the top-line pair, a partnership itself comprised of sophomore debaters. I resolve to try to be more available to this team in future. If Shomik can coach from Michigan, I can certainly help out from Louisiana.

Tournament Friday. I have breakfast with Pasha, Max, David Vinarov (one of the roommates and teammates, a dedicated member of RUDU who inexplicably isn’t attending Nationals), Sean, and Geneva Kropper. David surreptitiously pays for everyone’s meal on his own birthday. The conversation is light and happy, there’s a lot of hours to go before any real competition starts. I’m excited, that tournament first-day enthusiasm starting to swell. Pasha is mostly concerned with logistics, what he might have forgotten. Max is clutching the book he’s exploring, volume one of Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, reminding me more and more of Dave Reiss by the day. I lament Dave’s absence from Rutgers’ first Nationals. He should be here.

Geneva and I return to the apartment to pick up luggage while the others scatter to do tournament tasks or, in Sean’s case, work on his day job. We discuss how poorly college prepares people for life, among other things. Then we walk to campus, past the hospital, past the Easton Avenue Apartments, where Sean used to live, and Farhan Ali before him, reminding me of late departures and the sleepy sheepish smile of one of our oldest debaters. Then down College Avenue, past the new bookstore and its RUTGERS clock, past the oldest buildings on campus, to one of the newest. Finally the enormous new Academic Building looms in front of me, a building I briefly saw on a visit over Winter Break, but have never entered. We tentatively step in to the West Wing, hoping this is correct. It is.

The building doesn’t look like Rutgers. It is gigantic and colorful and gorgeous – modern without being horrifically ugly. Big glass windows adorn the side of an enormous wide staircase, wide open spaces outside of small glassy classrooms and the giant plush lecture hall that is the object of our journey. This will be GA (general assembly) for the weekend, a red stadium-seated two-story learning palace, gleaming with the freshness of a newly built classroom and the promise of days of competition to come.

Nationals 2017 GA – Academic Building 2160. Photo by Storey Clayton.

And then, we wait.

As I’ve observed in prior posts and countless dialogues with fellow debate geeks, title tournaments (Nationals and NorthAms specifically) all have the same shape. Day one, Friday, two preliminary rounds, is slow like a building thunderstorm, calm at first and full of trepidation. Then day two, Saturday, four prelims, is the longest day ever, a marathon, an endurance challenge, with eons between rounds and the feeling that wins are more dodged bullets than triumphs. Then the banquet is a sweat for all but two* teams – those who competed in the 5-0 round and know they will break whether they won or lost. The banquet announcement, preceded by interminable senior speeches, is itself a lifetime of anxiety. And then if you’re in Saturday, is a blur. The bracket resolves so quickly and careers are over and it’s just 8, 4, 2, here’s the final round, boom.

*Lately, three or even four teams have entered sixth round undefeated with slightly larger Nationals fields, so this courtesy and relief has been extended. Last year, Pasha and Max, as novices, had the good fortune to be in a 5-0 round and not have to sweat the banquet. This has come up repeatedly over the course of the week, their desire to get back to the 5-0 round. I have only debated two 5-0 rounds in my life, my junior and senior years at NorthAms. Those banquets were the best and my cortisol levels compared infinitely favorably to the same years’ Nationals banquets, where I broke from winning 4-1 rounds. For what it’s worth, I lost both 5-0 rounds at NorthAms, making all four of my title breaks on a 5-1 record. (Ben Brandzel and I were 17th at NorthAms my sophomore year – mercifully, they only broke to quarters, sparing us from being the first team out.)

Friday, true to form, is slow and uneventful. Pasha and Max Gov twice, the current favored position in the Gov/Opp dichotomy, favored over the last few years for the first time in APDA’s 37-year history. They win both rounds, but Max frets over burning early Govs and having to Opp later against better teams. I assure him that this at least gives them a marginally higher chance of getting 4 Govs over the 6 rounds. The other two Rutgers teams drop their first rounds, Hailey and Dan running the case they’d run the night before in practice and we’d beefed up, but only because the Opp team made some very clever sidesteps of their advocacy and basically conceded most of it. Both teams bounce back in round 2, though, to compile 1-1 records, along with the “Thomas Edison State University” team of Kurt and Pete Falk, making one last run at glory in their final moment of eligibility. The big eventful story that most people are telling that night is that Colonel judged Max and Pasha in round two and didn’t know they were TOTY, but hilariously said they “had potential” after discovering they were sophomores. Russell dutifully ran up to Colonel after hearing this and informed him they were TOTY, to which he immediately, in pitch-perfect deadpan replied, “I couldn’t tell.” As harsh as that sounded, we later learned he gave them a 52.5/3, so they were actually just fine.

Arbi and the Falks. Photo by Shanti Hossein.

The most eventful part of Friday for me is seeing a parade of Rutgers dinos, many of whom are here only for tonight, coming back to judge and see how far their school has come in both building heft and in hosting Nationals. Rachel Moon, Nick Hansen, Maxwell Williams, and Arbi Llaveshi check in to judge rounds and catch up and it’s great to see how many people are involved in teaching and education in some capacity. Nick tells me a wonderful story about attending some gala fundraiser for Rutgers as one of the freely invited students upon the opening of the building in which we stand and that Barchi made a joke about “Notice how it’s still just called ‘Academic Building’, hint hint.” I guess Your Name Here Building was a little too obvious, even for the pandering of Rutgers. I am taken back to the moment when I asked if we could name the Debate House (11 Bartlett Street, long since given to Dance Marathon and other frat-based organizations, despite what the RU website still says) Reager Hall, after Richard Reager, the greatest all-time coach of Rutgers debate (involved with the team from 1924-1956). I was told, in no uncertain terms, that they’d be happy to do this for a 5- or 6-figure donation to the school. It remained, officially, 11 Bartlett (Debate House or Haus, unofficially, though sometimes, very unofficially, the House of Nanners).

The old Debate House at 11 Bartlett Street as it currently stands. Photo by Storey Clayton.

Friday gets out late, mostly the fault of interminable APDA Meetings, easily the least desirable and interesting part of the league, wherein debaters argue about debate rules for debate tournaments, and also when and where they should next hold these arguments. I abstractly want to go hang out with people in the hotel, but after saying I’ll stop by, I fall asleep. I blame this less on age and more on starting to get sick, as Pasha did, over the course of our week of preparation.

Saturday, though, I’m up early. I’ve talked a little about pre-debate mornings here and there and the enthusiasm they generate for me. For whatever reason, Saturday morning, usually the result of very little sleep and a too-early alarm, generate special manic energy for me as I look forward to a day of debating (or judging or coaching or just being around debate) that counteracts the minimal sleep and turns it, inexplicably, into fuel. I can only offer as evidence anyone who’s been around me consistently on debate Saturday mornings.

Before everyone assembles, before the day kicks off, I meet Myles Albert, Max’s father, the only person who ends up making me feel truly guilty that I’m not still at Rutgers (though this was not his intent). He reminds me, more than anyone else, of Wayne Zirkin, father of Adam, my junior year partner and the reason I came to APDA after all. He has the same grandiosely intellectual bearing, the same zest for communication, the same sense of being just slightly more ethereal than you in a way that makes you wonder if he is a portal more than a person. Wayne once called me out of the blue to invite me to spend the summer selling his jewelry on a cruise ship in Alaska. I was halfway through with my novel at the time, the first serious writing project I’d tried to launch, and not ready to call the whole thing off in 48 hours for an unexpected jaunt. But I appreciated the offer and acknowledged that he was on the very short list of people who try to arrange something like that on that kind of notice. I still think my parents think I should’ve gone. Max’s parents, however, like Pasha’s, who are also attending some rounds this weekend, are just learning a lesson about Rutgers that I learned hard a couple times. They don’t understand why the administration is not more overtly impressed, why Max and Pasha are not regarded with at least the recognition and esteem offered to the nearly omnidefeated football and basketball teams, the teams for whom winning one game in the year-end Big 10 Conference tournament is seen as a mammoth feat. Myles waxes grandly about scholarships and parades and even the institutional support of a coach who will go to bat for such things. I lament my absence. We used to try, I tell him, gently, but this administration, the people who oversee these clubs, will go to extraordinary lengths to waste the opportunities that debate success at Rutgers provides. In some ways, changing APDA is easier than changing Rutgers. I turn away to make sure everyone’s ready for round three.

And then the slow plod into madness. I catch up with all the old Yale dinos I used to judge who’ve returned to judge years after graduating: Colonel, Trinh, Cugini, Bakal, Li. I judge some extraordinarily close and interesting rounds, trying hard not to let my own stress about Rutgers’ performances sneak into the room while I’m adjudicating. Two Rutgers teams drop round 3, but Max and Pasha learn they’re 3-0 after an interminable period of indecision from their third round judge, who is also in tab. The other two teams are now on the brink of being out, needing to speak magnificently even to sneak in the backdoor of the break. Max and Pasha draw Opp in round 4, prep hard for the case they end up hitting about not invading Vietnam, emerge victorious with high speaks. Mitchell and Jeremy cruise to victory in their third straight Opp, squaring up at 2-2. Hailey and Dan drop, though, ending their Nationals run with two rounds to go. They resolve to have fun and learn what they can from the next two rounds and there is an almost palpable relief that the remaining rounds will be less cutthroat.

And then Brian Canares shows up to hang out, watch a round, participate in the action. Brian is among the oldest Rutgers dinos we’re actively in touch with, the Treasurer who literally made the team able to compete my first year coaching, before I was paid, before the team had any reasonable budget, when we went to each tournament begging for reg breaks and only arriving because I could donate my car to the cause. Brian squared the books and kept going to appeals meetings for more money, leveraging our fledgling success into enough cobbled money to enable us not to turn novices away from tournaments, the foundation necessary on which to grow a competitive team. It was incomparably special for me that Brian could not only make it to the tournament, but spend time catching up and then actually watch Max and Pasha debate. Doubly so for them going into that round with the their third Gov, the new case I’d given them, against a very good Yale team for the bye to the break round. Brian is one of a few seniors during my first year of coaching who I deeply wish I’d gotten to spend more years with. All have gone on to do awesome things, medical school, law school, time in Egypt, and in Brian’s case, a career in teaching, which we discussed extensively. It meant so much that he could see the journey of the team from his day to this, to TOTY and hosting Nationals in a shiny new building, that they could see the roots and origin and debate in front of someone who was there when the idea of Rutgers breaking again, much less winning a single tournament, seemed a laughable impossibility. There were few greater moments for me in that weekend.

Not only did Max and Pasha carry that round, clinching their second straight title 5-0, their second straight banquet without sweat, but Trinh talked to me about Hailey and Dan, whom he’d just judged in the pull-up round between the top 2-2 and the bottom 1-3. He talked about how awesome Hailey is, asked if she was a novice, and sheepishly admitted he’d justified for a novice for the second round this Nationals. Hailey had not only earned a 26.75 from a judge that many teams had scratched for his reputedly stingy speaks, she’d knocked out one of the pre-tournament favorites to break, 4th SOTY, from the bottom of the bracket below. I ran off to tell her and the rest of the team the good news, shortly before receiving confirmation that Max and Pasha were still undefeated. Meanwhile, Mitchell and Jeremy had won on Gov and secured a 3-2 bubble spot, depending on speaks. All was looking up as, for the first time since second round, RUDU had gone 3-0. Meanwhile, unfortunately, the Falks had been knocked out, still smarting over a fourth round decision they disagreed with, and dropping fifth round to go to 2-3.

And then, the bubble. It wasn’t actually a bubble for Max and Pasha, of course, but it was a bubble for an inordinate number of teams. The second TOTY team from Brandeis, who were pulled up to hit a 5-0 team from Princeton. Mitchell and Jeremy, we hoped. Thirteen teams who were 4-1, knowing they were a win away from clinching a spot in the coveted octofinals. And twenty-five more who were 3-2, needing both a win and good speaks and sufficiently good previous speaks to secure their spot. Two of whom I was judging, Harvard CH and Fordham A.

My round was fascinating, a narrow case offered by Harvard, well Opped by LOC and resoundingly defended by what seemed like a very good MG. But then atop the MO speech, Fordham showed me that all of the Gov assumptions rested on a defense of the status quo, that this was actually Opp’s ground, and that the incentives would be different than status quo incentives in the Gov world. It instantly turned what had seemed a ferocious, possibly round-winning MG speech into a paper tiger, and did so with something I’d seen very little of all weekend amongst the stressful razor-thin rounds of Nationals: humor. The Opp block was easily the most entertaining and effective of my weekend and the PMR’s only attempt at mitigation was rightfully called new by the Opp team. I allocated a 53/3 to Fordham and vaguely wondered whether they would be the annual free seed to make the break. Moreover, I relished knowing their fate when I would have the opportunity to withhold same information from Bergman all night, instructed as per Nationals tradition to disclose nothing of the results of round 6, maximizing suspense for the 38 teams on some form of the bubble.

It did not take long for me to be confronted by Bergman. He was standing with his team, Ellen Hinkley and Marcelle Meyer, both of whom were pointedly not asking me about the decision, as I returned to GA after handing in the ballot. He tried to be vaguely coy in the way he was asking me, but I got very near his face and smiled broadly. “You know, Bergman, I was elated to see that I was judging Fordham in the bubble. Because I knew it would mean I knew something you wanted to know all night and there would be nothing you could do about it. It’s like double Christmas!”

Much of the rest of the evening was spent with him trying to work out what that meant, Princess Bride-style, for his team’s chances.

The banquet venue turned out all right. The big change from normal Nationals, besides actually having enough seats for everyone, was the lack of alcohol. And while some of the dinos and other folks whinged about this at first, it made for the most respectful round of senior speeches I’ve possibly ever seen. Senior speeches, one of my favorite traditions of Nationals, indeed of all of APDA, are the farewell monologues from graduating seniors where they are given a free mic to discuss whatever they want, good or bad, to offer thank-yous, call-outs, shout-outs, condemnations, or observations. They are often talked over by drunkards in the back, usually themselves long since graduated dinos who are among the oldest in the room in age only. This year, however, people listened. And it was an important year to listen.

Mars He, APDA’s President-elect, a decidedly affable Harvard debater in the tradition of Allen Ewalt (indeed, the entire Harvard team has seemingly switched over to a large squad teeming with a multicultural, gender-balanced group of very friendly debaters^) MC’ed the speeches. And after a frantic search from the intended opener, Nathan Raab, the opener was instead Megan Wilson from Yale.

Her speech was somber, measured, and excoriating as she described the uphill battle she faced and her long-time debate partner faced as highly successful women on the league, much of the setbacks coming from initiatives and groups that were designed to help women and people of color succeed on APDA. She was specific in calling out the caution and gendered language used to attempt to limit her success or make it fit patterns expected to be more palatable for the still too sexist league. Megan going first set the perfect tone for the night – it enabled many people on the fence between a few thank-yous and a genuinely necessary call-out to tip the scales and go for the call-out, the message APDA needed to hear. APDA spends a tremendous amount of its time being self-laudatory for an event that, while decidedly intellectual, can often live on the border of sophistry and grand-standing. Senior speeches are one of our built-in counterweights, where we have to listen to the voices we’ve excluded or minimized and, hopefully, resolve to do better.

As the speeches went on, the contrast between those by white men, usually a bevy of calm thank-yous and plaudits for friends, and those by everyone else, punctuated by hardship and unfairness, could not be missed. Among these latter were both speeches by the members of Fordham A, Ellen and Marcelle each taking time to criticize APDA’s seemingly innate sexism but also observe how easy it had been to build a gender-balanced (or, indeed, “matriarchal”) team at Fordham by simply creating a culture of talking to everyone, regardless of their background or perceived skill at debate. There was a call-out about a team showing up with tons of novices, only two of them female, and then ignoring both female novices while they got left behind in housing. It was certainly depressing to see that APDA still struggles with these issues, even in an era where the APDA President (outgoing) is a Black woman, Jerusalem Demsas. That said, she’s only the second woman to be President of APDA in its 37-year history; the first was Ashley Woods in 2011-2012. Yeah, if you’re scoring at home, that’s 30 straight years of only male Presidents. Though, hey, still better than the US as a whole.

But it was also heartening to see that so many people made this issue a centerpiece of their speeches, felt compelled to share their experiences, felt that tonight, the most important of all nights on APDA, they would be heard. I was sitting with Alex Jubb and Deepta Janardhan and talked with them after the night about whether this trend reflected a worse overall culture than their time or my time or just meant that the culture was thawing enough so that people felt they could talk about it and push things to improve. The consensus seemed to be the latter. It’s one of those weird evolutionary quirks of APDA that things have not been linear in gender and racial balance. For example, three of the four National Championship teams in my era included a Black man. And one included a woman, who, going into this year, was the last woman to win APDA’s Championship, in 1999. And of course, in 2001-2002, we had the first female SOTY (Speaker of the Year, the top individual honor for the season), capping a top ten SOTY that had exact gender parity (5 women, 5 men) for the first and only time in APDA history. Just six years later, in 2007-2008, the top woman in SOTY finished the year ranked 19th. How did this happen?

And this is not to say, as Kate Myers pointedly reminded me later, that our era was a bed of roses or treated women well. But the results certainly speak to a gulf in opportunity to succeed and how debaters are perceived that cannot be ignored. Gender parity or a female national champion are not proof that everything is solved, but an 18-year drought in the National Championship is more than sufficient proof that there are really significant problems.

The senior speech that stole the show was from Jemie Fofanah of Temple University, a woman I remember judging at TCNJ Nationals two years ago, who I had been quite impressed by. She delivered a slam poem calling out APDA’s sexism and especially racism, observing how many people will run cases about people from her background but refuse to acknowledge her as a person, refuse to live their life in a way that accords with how they talk about her people. And worse, they are basically exploiting black and brown bodies to win a round while never really considering how patronizing they sound or how inconsistently they apply these values. It was a thunderous condemnation, punctuated by pointed requests for Mars not to cut her off (the early senior speeches had not been time-limited, but the banquet hall owners were getting restless late in the night and they’d tried to implement a 3-minute limit to that later speeches, which fortunately was basically not enforced). It was the only speech to receive a standing ovation from more than just the speaker’s team and close friends.

Jemie Fofanah of Temple delivers her senior speech. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

It is worth noting, here, that the last two senior speeches of the night, delivered by the ranking seniors on the outgoing APDA Board, the six-person elected panel of students that governs the league, were given by women of color. Yidi Wu, the outgoing VP of Finance and Jerusalem, the outgoing President, struck a more hopeful, mixed tone than many of their prior speakers. They acknowledged the league’s failings, but also its progress, saying emphatically that they didn’t want novice women to be sitting at this banquet and get the impression that they should quit, that they would graduate in three years embittered, that they couldn’t contribute to even more progress in that tenure. And while such exhortations often ring hollow, they ring truer from this testimony than they might from other sources. And in the context of APDA’s cultural shifts from ten years ago, they ring possible. This is not the corporate world telling ambitious young women there may be exactly one more slot open for them at the top by the time they get close. It is not, of course, better than it should be, and that is unfortunate. And now, it is time for the break, almost suddenly in light of the surprising brevity of these last two speakers.

Yidi Wu, of Brown, delivers her senior speech. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

Mars wraps up and the very tired tab staff, Diana, Quinn, Adele Zhang, Anirudh Dasarathy, and Dan Takash, assemble on the stage. They have been here for over an hour with the break ready, the list divided up into teams closest to them to announce. Unlike in past years, even the Nationals break seems subject to a one-clap advisory, something I find jarring and out of place in the midst of the most important and difficult break announcement of the year. Of course some teams still whoop and cheer for their own, none louder than Fordham upon announcement that they are indeed a free seed in this year’s break, that their sixth round performance was enough for them to make the elite cadre of 4-2’s in the octofinals. Rutgers (Max and Pasha) are in, but we knew that, as the sixteenth team is announced, they are the only Rutgers team to make it. We still don’t know the outcome of their sixth round, nor will we till the following morning. As the dust settles on the list in my hand of breaking teams just announced, I realize two more things of signficance:

(1) That’s still a lot of Yale (5 of 16 teams).
(2) Quinn didn’t announce his own team!

Diana Li announces breaking teams while Anirudh Dasarathy and a devious Quinn Maingi look on. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

Quinn did announce Rutgers, yes, from where he graduated in 2015. But he didn’t announce Swat MP, the team he coaches, making their first Nationals break during his two years of coaching there. I certainly enjoyed a good fake-out in my days of tabbing and announcing breaks, and would in fact routinely push the most surprising Rutgers team into the last break announcement slot of the “no particular order” to maximize their suspense. But it’s another step entirely to watch your coach announce his alma mater and then stand back without announcing you when you’re on the bubble! But they are in and jubilant and only a touch mad at Quinn.

And Fordham, indeed, is only a touch mad at me. After fist-bumping Max and Pasha, I head over to tell Fordham about sixth round (they know, of course, but a little bit more) and I see a cavalcade of tears and hugging and a too-smiley attempt at a glare from Bergman as he gets swept into the maelstrom. One of the debaters tells me that she was pretty sure they’d won sixth round, but kept having doubts, but still thought they were speaking too low to make the break. “Isn’t this better?” I ask rhetorically. “Isn’t this better than just knowing the whole time?”

Marcelle Meyer (left) and Ellen Hinkley (right) embrace after being announced as breaking to octofinals at Nationals 2017. Photo by Kara Hurley?

Laughing through weeping is my only real reply, along with a half-hearted tongue-in-cheek condemnation from Bergman.

As the crowd thins down and people pile into Ubers, rental cars, and school vans, I confirm with Max and Pasha that they don’t want to work tonight. Max expresses a brief concern with the casefile in light of Jemie’s moving speech, but Pasha brushes this away. Pasha is now deeply sick – he is about two days ahead of me on a cold and our rhythm of nightly tea has not been enough to stave off the worst of it for a man running both a National tournament and debating to the top of said tournament on a weekend where New Brunswick was hit with a surprising cold snap after near-summer weather. They both need rest and I am starting to feel my own illness and like I’m not of much use. So much of Nationals is usually about preparing cases for Gov, but the current perception of Gov’s superiority means that prep seems limited overall. Cases are all likely to win, the idea goes, and opping is a crapshoot, so you just wait nervously and hope for the best. Until tomorrow, then.

Tomorrow comes, early, but there is a significant delay from tab in assembling panels to adjudicate and we end up waiting over an hour in a tense anticipation. I have told both Fordham and Rutgers folks that I have a premonition they will hit in the octofinal round. This sense mostly comes from poetry and the idea of vaguely where each team is likely to be in the bracket, but this also counts on the notion that Rutgers might have beaten Princeton in round six. When pairings go up, we learn that they did not, that Rutgers has fallen all the way to the seventh seed, for a date with ten-seed Brown, Yidi and Caleb Foote. This pairing is complicated by the fact that Pasha debated with Caleb last weekend in a “hybrid,” winning the final regular season tournament of the year, but also exposing a lot of potential cases to this team. Max, nervous, not expecting such a strong team, suggests a case I haven’t even heard about, but it’s never lost and he jokes that “there’s like one opp”. Both Pasha and I are concerned enough about his concern that we fall in line with the case choice pretty quickly, I make a cursory review of the points and confirm that they both feel good about it. We tell Brown we’re Goving, I tell Max to breathe, we disperse to our rounds. I am judging, on a panel with Colonel for perhaps the first time in our lives, between the 8 and the 9 seed, this year the bottom two 5-1 teams. I head off to my round.

Judging Nationals out-rounds when one has a vested interest in other rounds is a unique perspective. I talked with Vivek extensively about this once, how the feeling of lack of control in coaching is greatly exaggerated because one can’t even watch, can’t be in the room, and the demands of judging (no less such important rounds) takes all of one’s energy and focus to get right. This was especially true in this round, what proved to take the longest to adjudicate, a narrow 2-1 win for William & Mary (Jerusalem and Jessica Berry, a novice) over one of George Washington’s two break teams. The round was fast, messy, and unclear, leading to a tortuous adjudication process in the new world of consensus panels, which I feel are the worst part of British Parliamentary debate now imported into APDA. Traditionally, out-rounds involve a straight and independent vote of the odd number of judges assigned to an elimination round. Each person decides their ballot as though they were the only judge in the room, writes Gov or Opp on a little scrap of paper, and then hands it to the chair, who tells everyone the winner and their margin. Then the judges discuss the round with each other for fun as they head back to tab to report the decision.

With consensus panels, on the other hand, debaters are charged with not only winning the round in which they debated, but also winning a second round in which they cannot participate, that between the judges. While consensus panels are sometimes handled reasonably and fairly, questions of the relative reputation and ability to debate about the round between judges often sneak into these “consensus-building” sessions and certainty about the round from some judges can be mistaken for a conviction that should sway a whole panel of uncertain judges on the other side. Even in the best case scenario, when a straw poll comes back unanimous, it often takes ages for a consensus panel to agree to finally call it a consensus (this would happen in the semifinal round I would judge later in the day).

Colonel, Lauren Blonde, and I had a fun, lengthy, and agonizing discussion, feeling really guilty for holding up the tournament and making everyone wait. But ultimately we voted 2-1 for William & Mary, on the same lines of our initial straw poll, making the only difference from regular voting the extra 45 minutes it took. Hilariously, the round was so close that our reporting of the outcome was contradictory and almost led to a colossal error in the announcement that would have created a lot of headaches and heartaches for tab and teams, respectively. In the end, everything was restored to equilibrium before such damage was done.

But not for Rutgers. Their tournament was over, they were out to Brown on consensus, the first loss for that case. It had gotten too wrapped up in the con law aspects and Brown had done just enough. Cugini, on the panel, told me it had been really close for all three judges, but they all saw it the same way. Pasha was devastated. Max was gone. I was bereft, but it’s National Sunday and there was only so much time we had till it was time to go judge again. This time, it was the same William & Mary team against another GW, consisting of Andrew Bowles and Nate Sumimoto, a match-up of the top two SOTY speakers (separated by a 99-98 margin at year’s end), both paired in “pro-am” partnerships with novices.

The round was a showcase, a fantastic display of rhetoric, but ultimately an incredible strategic play by W&M in Gov. The case was built as a series of red herrings with the third point as an “even if” backup to stand and win even if all the herrings had been caught and skewered. Opp spent their entire time on the herrings, dropped the key point in LOC, MG failed to call much attention to it, and PMR kicked the door down on a round that Opp had seemed to be crushing since four minutes into the Opposition’s opening. It was a masterpiece of strategic debating in a National Quarterfinal, all the more breathtaking for the fact that I’d literally believed Gov would be incapable of winning at the outset of PMR.

Jerusalem Demsas delivers the winning PMR in National Quarterfinals. Photo by Pasha Temkin.

Semifinals lacked the same rhetorical verve, featuring a dull and thick case intended to slog the Opp (W&M yet again) out of the round, which it did successfully, arguing, of all things, that pork barrel spending should return to Congress. I was uncompelled by the notion that the relative death of pork barreling has accelerated the era of gridlocked mutual hate in American representative government, but Gov did more than enough to prove it for the purposes of the round, against little resistance from a team that had undertaken an impressive run but come up just shy of the final. And then we were there, the final round of the National Championship, just like that.

I was off the judging panel, apparently the result of a scratch from a Yale team that had been running deeply interesting and philosophical cases all weekend but apparently feared my judging because I share the “old dino” reputation of being “low speaks” (I gave five 26.5’s this weekend). This Yale partnership, Miles Saffran and Jim Huang, had been in the position I’d said all tournament was the catbird seat, the top-speaking 5-1, in this instance, the three-seed. This team, whoever they are, usually loses a middle round in a close but high-speaking position, then goes on to cruise through rounds five and six by wide margins. The team has a structural advantage by being loose, a key component of success at a title tournament. Max and Pasha were many things this weekend, most of them great, but they were never loose. Max, who has returned to the tournament, seeming relatively okay with everything, may not have a loose bone in his body. Pasha seems capable of being loose, sometimes, but not when he’s running a tournament. And maybe not when there’s talking involved – his intensity may be too much. Miles and Jim, meanwhile, as they finally return to the beautiful GA, now adorned with glittery trophies for the season and the tournament, seem to embody that loose feel native to 2- and 3-seeds, to the top 5-1. Their opponents, hailing from the other semifinal, are Swarthmore MP, Miriam and Will, who’ve made it out of the 12-seed like any good NCAA upset squad. Adele asks me to time and I settle in to watch the fireworks.

The round proves to be excellent, ticking most of the boxes of what a final round should be, though periodically there are moments from Gov reminiscent of the 2010 final from Harvard, Cormac Early and the late Kyle Bean running “magic empathy”. Gov’s case, ostensibly, is that empiricism is irrational. As they run the case and flesh out the points, however, their stance starts to appear something more like “empiricism alone without help is insufficient,” which is somewhere between a slippery advocacy and a collapsing tautology. Miriam, however, in LO, is more than up to the challenge of both making the necessary observations to ward off any possible collapse and continually returning to humor about empiricism as its own proof. The round, ultimately, is extremely well engaged from all four speakers, exploring the nature of reality, knowledge, and epistemology from an entertaining and accessible vantage. But after rebuttals, it’s pretty clear that one side has convincingly carried the day.

Will Meyer (left) and Miriam Pierson (right) receive coaching from Quinn Maingi (center) before a National out-round. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

Right before floor speeches, now delivered after the round and away from the panel to prevent them from swaying the outcome of the all-important round, I head over to Quinn and Deepta, grabbing for Quinn’s surprised hand. “Congratulations on coaching a National Champion,” I say.

They spend the next forty minutes asking me if I’m that sure Swat won and will prevail. I say I would have to be pretty confident to come over and congratulate him, but at the same time, I think it should be that clear. Obviously, with consensus panels, anything can happen, and one obstinate judge could sway the whole group, especially if they claim philosophical authority on such a high-minded round. But I’m confident and say he should be too.

Adjudication takes more than an hour.

But there’s plenty to do in that hour, the cascade of season-long awards, the eventual National awards from this tournament, with the final round reserved for the very last. Among these is Quinn winning the Distinguished Service Award (DSA), thanking him for a year of running countless tournaments in the south while always offering assistance to everyone. He is surprised, or seems it, but Deepta and I both knew it was coming. He gets back to his seat and says “that’s nice, but it’s not what I care about,” referencing the looming unannounced final round. It occurs to me that if Swarthmore wins, Miriam will have broken the 18-year streak of all-male National Championship teams, dating back to my freshman year, comprising just shy of half the time the league has been in existence. Women won in 1997, 1996, and 1985, but never from 2000-2016.

Quinn shows off the DSA. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

As I remark to Deepta, considering this, “if it can’t be our boys, I hope it’s no one’s boys.”

Our boys. With the TOTY trophies. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

And then, finally, at long last, the announcement. Swat on consensus. They are National Champions. Finally, a woman holds the title again. And a guy I coached to National Finals has coached a team to the National Championship. My coach, Greg Wilson, who debated for UConn, never made the out-rounds at Nationals, losing a bubble round in his last opportunity. But he coached me to National Semifinals, along with another team (Zirkin and Jordan Factor) to National Finals. Then I made Semifinals and coached Quinn (and Sean) to Finals. And then Quinn made Finals and coaches Swat to the title. All one can ask for is for the accomplishments of those who come after us to exceed our own. For this to be achieved in both debating and coaching was a satisfying solace to Rutgers not winning their first National title. For Swarthmore, it was their fourth, putting them actually pretty high on the all-time list (only Harvard [10], Princeton [6], and Yale [5] have more). The Naval Academy (1983) remains the only public school ever to win. The Ivy League has won 26 of the 37 titles.

Miriam and Will at the Banquet. Little do they know they are a day away from winning Nationals. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

People thin out, hugs and goodbyes and celebratory photos are taken, people thin out further. It is, eventually, Pasha, Max, Deepta, Russell, Mitchell, Shanti Hossain (Pasha’s girlfriend, the official tournament photographer, to whom I am indebted for the lovely photos in this post), and me. And a very unclean GA. And the breakfast display still outside Scott Hall, where GA was going to be, then wasn’t, this morning.

We clean. We pick up items, we mine behind chairs and under desks, we clean from spills of illicit food and beverages and pick up keys and pens and IDs left by people long before the tournament. We scour this beautiful room that didn’t exist on the campus a year prior, the heads of the team, the dinos, and a generous person who has given a lot to the tournament. And there’s something about this time, this bagging up trash outside GA and then heading to Scott Hall to move tables and do it again, that feels like the seminal moment to me. Behind Scott Hall, which hosted our team meetings in 2010-2011, the breakout year, the first time RUDU was in the top ten of anything, in front of Murray Hall, the host for the next three years, the glorious runs in COTY and Nationals and all that was witnessed. Bagging curdled milk and stale coffee and the rock-hard remains of a bagel under the cover of night, just beyond the watchful gaze of William the Silent, down Voorhees Mall.

This is water. This is water. Under the bridge, past the banks of the old Raritan, and into the ground, to be dredged and drunk in future years by those yet unborn who will debate ideas we have yet to imagine.

Me, at Rutgers. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

I fling the last black plastic bag, lopsided and slightly overfull, up over my head, into the dumpster, and hear it land with a satisfying thunk against its neighbors. Smacking my hands against each other in an exaggerated tone of “mischief managed,” I notice that just a little creek of whitish coffee has landed on my sleeve, a rivulet running down the Rutgers Student Life sweater I’ve been wearing for three days straight.


^A couple of small references, including a name, have been removed from this piece at the request of an individual referenced.

by

Shoes on the Highway

Categories: A Day in the Life, Primary Sources, Telling Stories, Tags: , ,

Shoes on the Highway
by Storey Clayton
6 April 2017

I saw two shoes on the highway
one
and then another
as I sped up the overpass
they were strewn, not placed
on the road, not the shoulder
clearly flung from great speed

and I stopped to imagine
the scene
kids or friends or frenemies
careening through the night
one joking, one not amused
as the joker hung them by the laces outside
to wave tauntingly in the windy wake

did they let go or lose control
the question
and how real was their contrition
confronted by the anger of the shoeless
saying I’m sorry through uproarious laughter
you don’t mean it, the retort
I do, I’m sorry, but did you see those shoes fly

I think this is always
the way
when someone loses something
when it’s taken and thrown out the window
someone thinks it’s funny
the loser knows it isn’t
and the rest of us have to swerve to dodge the fallout

by

School Protection in Out-Rounds at NPDA Nationals 2017: an analysis

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: ,

While my overall interaction with 2017 NPDA Nationals was overwhelmingly wonderful, some of the joy was marred at times by confusion over a very strange tab policy that was included in this tournament. The tab policy was to protect schools against hitting their own teams in elimination rounds, breaking the bracket to do so.

Here’s the official wording of the policy:

In the event that two teams from the same school meet in elimination rounds, brackets will be broken according to the following criteria: (1) protecting the highest seed; (2) changing the fewest number of brackets; (3) preserving original bracket order.

Now in most debate tournaments, it’s normal to try to prevent teams from the same school from competing against each other (“hitting” each other) in preliminary rounds. APDA makes an exception if a team is the majority of a given bracket, but APDA also has a much larger appetite for school/school “civil wars” than NPDA. In NPDA, these rounds are never actually held, but one team (almost always the higher seed at the tournament) is simply chosen by the coach to “walk over” the other team. And while I can sort of understand a distaste for a coach’s decision walk-over ending someone’s career or Nationals run, school/school protection to upend the bracket seems to be a really extreme reaction to that distaste. And the effect is very imbalancing, strongly favoring schools who bring and break a lot of teams.

But when one subjects this year’s NPDA Nationals tournament’s application of their own policy to rigorous analysis, it doesn’t necessarily even hold up as consistently applied, which is even more problematic. This post will examine the bracket-breaking switches made by the NPDA Nationals 2017 tab staff and their subsequent impact on the tournament and competitive fairness for all teams participating. And while the goal is to be objective and submit this with few comments, I must say that the data leads to the conclusion that this policy is sub-optimal for future such National Championships.

Let’s first examine the base bracket:
Partial Triple-Octofinals

It’s probably worth noting at the top how many schools broke teams to the elimination rounds as context for this policy and its impact:
Washburn: 6
Concordia: 4
Utah: 4
Lewis & Clark: 3
Point Loma: 3
Rice: 3
Texas Tech: 3
Berkeley: 2
Idaho: 2
Kansas City Kansas: 2
Mercer: 2
Pacific: 2
UT Tyler: 2
Western Washington: 2
12 other schools: 1 each

So fully forty of the fifty-two teams involved had teammates in the break! This demonstrates that the scale of magnitude for this question is not small. And with six teams in the break, including the 1 and the 4 seeds, it is unsurprising that Washburn will be a major player as the drama of bracket-breaking unfolds.

Now as we look at our partial-triple-octos bracket, we find that the two Mercer teams have been paired to hit each other, which would be pretty bad luck were they allowed to actually hit. But under this policy, the following swap is made:

This seems pretty reasonable on face – the teams are in neighboring brackets and the 40 is switched with the 41. Interestingly, however, it violates the stated first priority in the protection policy, namely to protect the higher seed. In this switch, the higher seed (#24 Mercer AL) now gets a moderately higher draw, #40 Rice PT, instead of the #41 seed. Granted, this is a very minor difference in opposition quality, but it still punished the higher seed. Worth noting, at this point, that to not punish the higher seed, you would have had to swap the #42 seed with the #41, but then that punishes the new higher seed involved (#23 Lewis & Clark MM), so this problem cannot actually be solved without kicking the can down the road all the way to the top of the bracket. Which basically shows that the “protect the higher seed” priority, despite being first, makes no sense.

So, partial-trips happen and, as luck would have it, both Mercer teams drop. Turns out they’d have been better off with the walk-over after all, but good news for Grand Canyon RS and Rice PT, one of whom really should be out of the tournament. On to double-octos:

Double-Octofinals

Again, we have one problem to resolve in the school/school protection question, where Pacific’s two teams are set to hit in round 22. And there would be a danger of a Rice/Rice round just below in round 23, but this has been conveniently resolved by the previous swap of a Rice team in to upset Mercer. So, here’s the switch still necessary:

This looks dramatic, because it switches the teams all the way across the brackets, but the 15/18 match is the natural cousin of the 16/17 match. Here, the higher seed is actually protected, because they now get the 18 seed instead of the 17, but that’s only because the actual team entitled to the higher seed is #50 Lewis & Clark BM, the lowest seed left in the tournament. They inherit the #15 seed slot, so they should probably get protected, but no matter.

Of course, you know what’s going to happen, right? We can’t just have things resolve cleanly. Both Pacific teams pick up their rounds (tough luck to the #50 seed and to Puget Sound’s lone team who should’ve hit them). And, for extra fun, both Rice teams that couldn’t hit also pick up their rounds, slotting them to hit one round later than they would’ve anyway (bad news for UT Tyler and Grand Canyon, one of who should be through instead). At this point, Challonge won’t even let us express the bracket as it’s been altered because of too many swaps, so we have to start over in doubles with manual seeds listed.

Thus, here’s how things stand going into octos:
Octofinals

The problems are multiplying. The Rice teams that should have hit last round again are hitting this round. And now we have a double Washburn match to take care of as well. Teams are going to be sent flying to other bracket halves again. And it’s worth nothing that #17 Pacific PV, the second overall team in the season-long rankings, is now stationed in place of the 15 seed, staying on the other half of the bracket from where they should have traversed the tournament. This will have major consequences for #2 Nevada AM, as we’ll see in a bit.

So here are your swaps for this round:

First, the Washburn/Washburn round:

This is where we became aware of the switching. We even called tab to ask because we thought we were supposed to hit Idaho and they said “there’s no bracket that we’ve released, so you shouldn’t expect to hit anyone”. They could have just explained that there were school-switching swaps here, as stated in the packet, but they chose to be cagey. It’s worth noting here that, while this is the technically least invasive switch, both Tulane and Idaho can have a legitimate concern with this swap. They are both supposed to hit teams lower in the seeding order. In fact, Idaho has gone from hitting a 37 seed to a 4 seed just to protect Washburn. By comparison, our swap from a 21 seed to a 13 seed looks relatively fair. But this still concretely hurt both team’s competitive chances, favoring Washburn significantly by both sparing them the harder match-ups and preventing them from eliminating each other.

Meanwhile, here’s the Rice/Rice resolution:

Again, some upset teams from get penalized for their wins here. Not systemically, mind you, but by happenstance that nonetheless risks impacting their tournaments significantly. Rather than the 23 and 26 seeds enjoying their 7/10 octofinal as a reward for upsetting those teams, the 23 is shipped off to face the #8 seed, while the #40 gets the #26 instead of the #8. This is ostensibly a reward for both the #40 and the #26 to get each other, but also ships the #40 to a whole new half of the bracket where, like #17 Pacific PV above, they never would have been but for all these switches.

Here, the Cinderella teams maintained their runs, as #37 Tulane upset the #13 seed, and both the #40 and #23 triumphed over their higher seeded opponents. But this also offers us a rare situation where exactly one of the protected school teams in each instance won their rounds, meaning that restoration of the bracket should be possible in the quarterfinals. For the Tulane/Washburn quarter, this is irrelevant, but for the Rice and Lewis & Clark teams, this mattered very much indeed.

So, let’s see where things stand going into quarterfinals:

Here is where the most obviously problematic decision was made in the whole tournament. The tab staff chose to leave this bracket alone. But the problem is that #23 Lewis & Clark MM belongs in quarterfinal match 11 as listed in the above link, being in the bottom half of the bracket. And #40 Rice PT belongs in up in match 9 on the top half. They both just swapped with each other to avoid a Rice/Rice round. So why were they not restored to their original brackets? Surely that is preserving original bracket order as stated in the policy. And it doesn’t create a school/school conflict, because Washburn can safely hit Rice while Pacific hits Lewis & Clark.

Of course, it’s worth noting that Pacific PV also belongs in the top quarterfinal there: because of all the bracket-breaking, three teams from the same quarter of the bracket are now in quarterfinals. Here, let’s flash back to the opening of the tournament when all the seeds were in order:

So really, all three of those teams should be squeezed into that one match-up. But that’s not clean and that’s not really doable at this point, so leave Pacific PV where they are. Restoring the bracket is clearly the least disruptive action here as it regards Rice and Lewis & Clark, since their bracket switch just happened the previous round and puts each of them in their rightful position without creating additional conflicts.

Nevertheless, they left the altered bracket as-is and ran these quarterfinals. The lower seeds were both bounced, though Lewis & Clark nearly upended the top seed, so we can surmise they might have had a better chance against Pacific. And the top seed should have been “protected” by getting the easier and rightful draw of #40 Rice.

So here’s where we were going into Semifinals:

And here, as you can imagine, what proved to be the last two rounds of the tournament were, again, switched to protect Washburn. #6 Berkeley traveled up to hit #1 Washburn BK instead of the #17 seed and #4 Washburn BS came down to hit the #17 instead of the #1. Both Washburn teams triumphed, yielding the first closeout in NPDA Nationals history and cancelling the final round.

Once again, the competitive disadvantage for Berkeley and Pacific is clear. Each should have had an easier path to the finals. Meanwhile, both Washburn pairs were rewarded for having their teammates still in the tournament, receiving a much easier draw.

I want to be clear about what I’m not saying. I am not saying that anyone involved with NPDA Nationals deliberately took any actions to favor Washburn, or any particular school. However, it is clear that this policy directly contributed to Washburn being able to closeout, as well as favoring Washburn teams generally. Washburn can attribute much of their top two teams’ ultimate outcome to getting 6 teams into the break in the first place, maximizing bracket-breaking that ultimately worked in their favor.

The main counter-arguments that could be levied to my concerns are, as I see them, twofold:
(1) Schools should be rewarded for breaking more teams.
(2) Teams still failed to win the rounds they were in to advance and should not blame the bracket.

As for (1), I think it’s a little silly. For one thing, the standard bracket does reward them, slightly, by guaranteeing in the instances where a school would hit the same school that one of those teams definitely advances. It’s an advantage – ask Mercer if you don’t believe me. But there’s still a difference between a reward and being able to negatively impact the fates of several other teams in the wake of getting you to avoid hitting your own school. I know it’s sad to leave your last tournament on a walk-over, but it’s also sad to hit a much better team than you deserved to. When both of these are sad outcomes, it seems like honoring the original bracket is best, especially when not doing so leads to subjective judgment calls like failing to restore the bracket for quarterfinals.

I find (2) to be a little more compelling, but ultimately a red herring. Obviously we care very much about honoring seeding and the bracket in general at tournaments. We don’t break brackets at other tournaments, for one thing. But we also spend eight (8) full preliminary rounds determining how the seeding should be allocated. Teams have worked hard to earn their seeding and their position. And teams that have won big upsets deserve to get rewarded for those upsets. If they didn’t, we would re-seed the bracket every time and #40 Rice PT would have had a date with #1 Washburn BK back in octos (presuming they’d gotten by #2 Nevada AM in doubles). We don’t force Cinderellas to do this, any more than the NCAA basketball tournament forces you to hit a one seed after beating a one seed. So the instances above where upset teams were supposed to hit each other and were instead switched to hit higher rated teams – it seems these squads have a legitimate complaint.

The past is the past. We’re not going to re-run NPDA Nationals. Some of the teams were little impacted, but many arguably would have gone further or less far based on this bracket decision. Ultimately, all the rounds were won and lost and judged fairly as they were announced. But in future years, it seems obvious that the NPDA should at the very least clarify what these alleged tab priorities mean when breaking brackets (addressing, for example, bracket restoration and what exactly “protecting the highest seed” really means). And most likely, they should just scrap this school/school protection scheme altogether and let the seeds fall where they may.

by

Tulane Debate Reaches NPDA Nationals Quarterfinals in Historic Upset

Categories: A Day in the Life, Marching to New Orleans, Primary Sources, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , ,

The Tulane University Debate Team on Sunday at NPDA Nationals. Left to right: Alexander Parini ’18, Ben Ozur ’18, James Capuzzi ’17, Sina Mansouri ’17, Khristyan Trejo ’19, Michelle Daker ’17, and Claire Kueffner ’18. (Not pictured: Elise Matton ’14)

The Tulane University Debate Team reached the quarterfinals of the National Parliamentary Debate Association (NPDA) National Championships last Sunday at the Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The partnership of Claire Kueffner ’18 and Khristyan Trejo ’19 finished in the top eight of the title tournament, besting more than 125 rival teams from more than forty schools across the country.

After 8 preliminary rounds of competition, Tulane KT broke to partial-double-octofinals (52 teams) with a 5-3 record. Their preliminary run included an opening round win over the 15th ranked partnership in the nation, a team who had just made the quarterfinals of the National Parliamentary Tournament of Excellence (NPTE) the prior weekend. Tulane KT entered the single-elimination playoff as the 37th seed. They proceed to knock off #28 Utah HH (#7 in the season rankings), #5 Berkeley GY, and #13 Washburn PH in three consecutive elimination rounds on Saturday night and Sunday morning. They were finally eliminated by #4 Washburn BS (#6 in the season rankings), a team that went on to win semifinals and share the National Championship with other teammates from Washburn.

This was the first time Tulane won an elimination round at NPDA Nationals at only the second NPDA Nationals the team has attended. Trejo and Alexander Parini ’18 made the double-octofinals last year, losing that round to Nevada. Trejo was the top novice speaker at that event.

This year, Parini attended the tournament with Ben Ozur ’18. Seniors James Capuzzi ’17 and Michelle Daker ’17, the team’s President and Vice President, also competed. The combined results for the three pairings gave Tulane overall a twentieth ranking in the tournament’s sweepstakes.

Not only is the quarterfinal finish an amazing result for a team competing in its second NPDA Nationals, the top eight finish placed Tulane among several elite teams at this culminating event. The seven other teams in quarterfinals were all ranked in the top twenty in the season-long rankings; Tulane KT was ranked 456th. The other teams were ranked #1, #2, #3, #6, #10, #14, and #19.

Full tournament results can be viewed here.

Tulane has been competing in both NPDA and the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) this year, two national leagues of parliamentary debate with some stylistic differences. The school as a whole finished the NPDA season ranked 47th on the NPDA circuit out of 179 schools. The school is ranked 26th on APDA. Tulane will finish the debate season this year with trips to the William & Mary APDA tournament and the APDA National Championship at Rutgers University.


Tulane University has only had a debate team for six years, at least in its modern incarnation. The team has a website, but in one of those administrative confusions that seems universal to college campuses, we’ve been locked out of the ability to update it. And while there’s a lot on Facebook and in various places about how this past weekend happened and felt, I felt compelled to put a little write-up here for posterity as well, since this has been such a big part of my life so far in 2017.

Alex and I have been coaching the Tulane team for almost two years, invited to help late in the year prior by their then-coach, Andrew Bergman, a Pitt (APDA) dino who graduated from Tulane Law last spring. Last year, we volunteered and this year we are receiving a nominal stipend for our time, which largely consists of coming to two out of three weekly practices and the occasional tournament, plus generally trying to support the tournaments we don’t attend as much as possible. We’ve also been offering logistical help to their hosting of tournaments and navigating various debate leagues. The team started out competing in IPDA, then went to NPDA, and now sits at a crossroads between NPDA and APDA where it’s finding success in both formats.

I did not travel to Colorado with the team for this tournament, a decision I quickly came to regret as the successes piled up and our pre-round calls became increasingly excited and frantic. But in some ways, it was still a perfect tournament, even to be appreciated from afar. Below, I’m including my public thank you to the team who went (and Alex), as I posted on Facebook yesterday…


Y’all, please allow me to give some individual thanks in a public venue to a team that did something really incredible this weekend…

Sina Mansouri, it has been a real pleasure to work with you this year and observe your intense dedication to fostering this team and ensuring Tulane’s debate legacy continues to grow. I’m so glad you got to be on the ground this weekend to coach and be a part of this incredible accomplishment for the team you helped start.

Alexander Parini & Ben Ozur, I know this weekend didn’t go as well as you’d hoped for y’all individually, but I know you met your challenges with resilience and high spirits. I can’t wait to work with you on APDA next month and everything next year as we build toward what I think will be Tulane debate’s finest hour yet.

Michelle Daker & James Capuzzi, I am so glad you won your last NPDA round ever and that this weekend proved to be a holistically good experience for y’all. This accomplishment is a testament to your leadership this year and I appreciate all the time and hard work you’ve put into the team. I am so excited to see how y’all do in our upcoming April marathon swing through the mid-Atlantic!

Alex Jubb, I still maintain that you had the single best suggestion for every single round from the bubble through quarters. You have been an amazing coach for this team, even when they’re competing in a style that we’re both still learning. As sad as I was to not be in Colorado this weekend, it was a joy to share the vicarious excitement with you here in New Orleans.

Elise Matton, I don’t think this could have happened this weekend without your presence. When Alex first told me she’d met someone who went to my high school, was in her TFA cohort, and had founded the Tulane debate team, I couldn’t believe it, but I knew you would immediately be a person I shared a real connection with. I am so glad that you were able to lend your expertise and wisdom to the team this weekend, that you were the team’s leader throughout, and that you got to see firsthand the results of your creation.

Finally, of course, Khristyan Trejo & Claire Kueffner, I am simply in awe of y’all. I am still coming to terms with the magnitude of what you accomplished, for a partnership ranked 456th in the season standings to finish in the top 8 at Nationals among teams all ranked in the top 20, for a total outsider student-run team to crash a party reserved for teams that fly every weekend on the school’s dime with mammoth professional coaching staffs and scholarships. And that you did it your way, talking about what you feel is most important, *convincing* people that it *is* most important, makes it all the more special. You are the change we want to see in the world. Thank you.

by

Seventeen Years of Blogging

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Let's Go M's, Marching to New Orleans, Metablogging, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Quick Updates, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Here are two relatively unflattering portraits of me, seventeen years apart. What can I say – blogging hasn’t always been pretty.

Yesterday was the seventeenth anniversary of Introspection, my first blog. It lasted for just seven years and change before the daily short-format gave way to this more haphazard long format, now nearly ten years into process. My first post was mostly about dreams and teeth. My first post on StoreyTelling was mostly about Introspection, but also my larger history with blogging and the web. Today’s post will be about neither, really, but it felt like an anniversary to mark, not least because of the significance the number 17 plays in my life. But I haven’t posted in a while and that’s partially because I’ve had only a bunch of micro-post ideas flitting around in my head and that reminds me of Introspection and its flitty, flighty, one-liner format. So here we go:

-Mardi Gras was great for parades and great for Uber and kind of terrible for Uber. I gave multiple $150 rides and also had half-hours where I went six blocks without a rider the whole time and wanted to tear the steering wheel out of the car. Ultimately, it was still a very very good couple of weeks. I got pretty Zen about the traffic once I saw just how much I was making on most of the rides that I actually was able to give. I’ve also never had so many cancellations and frustrations since both Uber and especially Lyft had no real idea how to line people up with a pickup spot that made sense given parade routing. Driving during the parades was the worst; just after was much better.

-After a fantastic January for writing, February and March so far have been dismal. I partially blame Mardi Gras, but also wedding planning and also that it’s just flipping hard to focus on writing and anything else. Like yes, Uber is both a pretty easy casual job and the subject of my book, but it still consumes 35-45 hours a week, depending, and that’s time that really needs to be close to empty for me to write effectively. And/or I am also wrestling with too many internal confidence demons to really commit to writing fully and effectively. And/or there is too much variation and too little routine? I am inclined to think they are all factors, in the order presented. The book remains half-finished, but feels over the tipping point and should still be available to my loyal friend readers by summer at the latest (no whammy).

-Today was one of the first times I’ve ever delivered rolled change to the bank and they didn’t kind of whimsically roll their eyes at me. This is kind of a thing that I do regularly, in part because I find rolling change relaxing and re-ordering for me. I was almost heartbroken when Capital One briefly decided they weren’t accepting rolled change anymore and had me actually unwrap and unceremoniously dump all my change into a bucket so it could be fed into their automatic coin-sorter. By the next time I was ready to turn my change into electronically tracked currency, however, their coin sorting machine was out in the shop, perhaps indefinitely, and they were back to asking me to roll it. The bankers are always kind of bemused by me bringing in rolled change like I’m some sort of crank, but then again, most all commercially available change starts in rolls – someone is doing it somewhere, regularly, to keep the economy going, right? Is it so weird?

-Another relaxing and re-ordering practice for me is reading, which has been even more dismal all year than writing in the last forty days. I blame my ambition as a reader – I’ve spent most of the year allegedly reading The Familiar, vol. 1, a gigantic graphically bedecked book that looks like an elaborate prank. It was a mistake to try to read this, especially at a time when I want to be writing, but I really liked House of Leaves by the same author. The last renewal ran out at the library today and I returned it, having done about 160 pages in two months. I’m sure it’s brilliant in some way and I found some of the characters intriguing, but it just hadn’t spoken to me sufficiently to make it worth the work. I need to be reading regularly, though, and it needs to feel like a joy and not a chore. I may return to it someday, but long after I’ve written a couple more books.

-I am so insanely jealous of the folks living in the path of the snowstorm that’s about to batter the eastern seaboard. There’s a lot I don’t love about the northeastern United States, but the regular access to blizzards is not among them. I keep repeating the promise to myself that someday I will live in a place where I don’t have to anxiously anticipate snow, but it will be a regular occurrence with no possibility of not happening. I worry that places that used to be on this list are starting to fall off of the list, but no matter. Next year in Murmansk.

-Was there ever a more short-sighted decision than to decline to name that British ship Boaty McBoatface? Now the yellow sub they allowed to be called by said moniker is getting all kinds of press its expedition never would otherwise. Sometimes you have to steer into the curve. People are so often their own undoing by taking themselves too seriously.

-The Louisiana state government is having massive budget shortfalls this year because gas prices are low. This prompted them to try to charge state taxes from me from 2014 on all of my New Jersey-earned income. My only Louisiana income that year were some poker winnings from a large payout at Harrah’s. They sent me a bill for nearly $2,000 a few months back, including fees for failing to file and interest (as though interest were something that exists in the world these days). They sent multiple threats via certified letter. After three responses from me, all also sent certified, they sent me a check this weekend for $108, which was actually what they owed me for taking too much out of the poker payout in the first place. I was happy to let this money go in exchange for not filing a Louisiana return back in 2014. But they wanted to push it, so I’m happy to make them pay. Of course, in reality, it all feels like a huge waste – of state employee time, of my time, of the certified mail system. But I know to them it’s not a waste, because like all made-up bills, 80% of people probably just get scared and pay them no questions asked. And we wonder how the poor are kept poor in our system.

-Something I have been doing a lot lately is play chess. It’s not quite as relaxing as reading or walking or even writing sometimes, but it’s good for me. The problem is that I should spend more time between chess club “tournaments” practicing, but that would cut into time potentially writing or driving. This is actually an argument that cuts into a lot of things lately, including a pretty successful video-game moratorium I’ve put on myself for all of 2017 till the book is finished. Chess, like all games, is great patience practice, even the fifteen-minute games I favor and we play on Monday nights. The problem is that I still am spending more time looking at my mistakes and how to get out of them than not making them in the first place.

-I lost about an eighth of a tooth the other day. I think I swallowed it. I have an impacting wisdom tooth that’s pushing its neighbor on a tilt out of position, and I’ve just realized that this has made my bite sufficiently uneven so as to hammer into the tooth below with every chew. As a result, the top corner of the tooth below finally gave way. Luckily the root was not exposed; unluckily I have not had dental insurance since 2014. Trying to get into the LSU dental clinic is proving to be a chore, but at least after three days my tongue toughened up enough so that the newly jagged tooth edge stopped serrating it. It was an ugly couple days at first adjusting to the new reality.

-The Mariners lost their Spring Training game today by a score of 24-3. That said, all their best players are at the World Baseball Classic. They were doing really well before the WBC started. I am irrationally exuberant for the lineup of Dyson, Segura, Cano, Cruz, and Seager.

-Peak Trump Outrage seems to have passed. I know a lot of people want everyone to stay angry and vigilant, but I feel like Trump has slowed down into a kind of plodding pace of not being able to get any of his agenda done. I had long predicted that a President without either party really behind him would have a lot of trouble getting anything done and I think that’s coming to fruition. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stay vigilant or react strongly to the truly bad stuff that comes out of the administration, but a half-assed tweak on a bad healthcare law to make it slightly worse doesn’t pass muster on that for me. Especially when the best analysts don’t think they even want it to pass in the first place.

-Speaking of which, “Get Out” is one of the most flawlessly executed movies in recent memory. Right up there with “Arrival”. However, the former’s third act is its weakest point while the latter’s third act is its best, so just keep that in mind. “Weakest” in this context, however, is still mighty strong.

-I feel supremely lucky to live in a time when the Lumineers can be as popular a band as they are. The Lumineers being popular feels like one of those things that shouldn’t be able to happen – they defy all the tropes of what you’d expect of rock music success. And yet, there they are. Alex and I saw them ten days ago in the UNO basketball stadium and it was incredible. They seemed to express the same kind of incredulity at their success and following that I felt. At one point, referencing the time that they used to spend playing in living rooms and similar tiny venues, they came out into a literal pop-up stage in the center of the arena, closer to our seats, and played part of their set there. It was magical. The Lumineers feel magical in the way that New Orleans does when it’s at its simplest, most historical, and most charming. They seem like they shouldn’t be real. They aren’t passing Counting Crows or anything, but I forget how transporting and inspiring music can be sometimes. It can get so habitual and dull or so processed and rote. The discovery of music, the reimagining of it, makes me supremely sad that I didn’t end up in music somehow even though I have no natural ability there whatsoever…

Submarines
Flowers in Your Hair
Ho Hey
Cleopatra
Gun Song
Dead Sea
Classy Girls
Where the Skies are Blue
Charlie Boy
Slow it Down
Sleep on the Floor
Angela
Ophelia
Big Parade
In the Light
My Eyes

Long Way from Home
Subterranean Homesick Blues
Stubborn Love

-Nothing compares to the magic of having by far and away your favorite song from a band close the encore. Especially the first time you see them. You’ve spent the entire show wondering if they’ll play that song or not, with the drama increasing the whole way. And then finally it happens and it’s their sign-off and you don’t even want them to keep playing after because it’s too perfect. I think this has literally only happened to me one other time, the first time I saw Counting Crows. That was in November 1999, notably just more than seventeen years ago. You would think that means you can’t read what I thought of it at the time online now. You would be wrong.

by

They Showed Us Our Past

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

When we found them, we were not thinking of our history, even while we were watching theirs.

We were thinking of visitation, of proof of life, of how similar or different they were from us. We were thinking of little green men and ominous grays and the slim possibility that the similarity in their planetary structure might mean similarity in species structure as well. Maybe Star Trek would be proven right after all, that the greatest variation would be in skin color or pointiness of forehead, that something ape-like would win the evolutionary struggle on every sphere, if only to reaffirm our perceived inevitability. We were not prepared for the victory of their cephalopods or cetaceans or proboscideans, much less the co-existence of all three. We were not prepared for how long or how carefully they had been watching us.

We wanted them to show us our future, to show us possibilities. To show us solutions for problems we had not solved, to show us the way forward, to show us how to get to other planets and survive and thrive, to live long and prosper, to be fruitful and multiply among the stars. Instead, they showed us our past.

It turns out the speed of light is an absolute barrier after all. There would be no real-time two-way street, no communication that built relationships between live members of contrasting planets forty light-years across the universe. We opened with a simple hello and it was eighty years before we got hi back and by that time the first hello’s author was on her deathbed in a beepy antiseptic corner with barely the muscles left to smile. And it’s not like they were all living to four-hundred over there, that was one of the lessons that was slow to sink in, that lifespan is meant to be finite, that something else always gets you in the end, that appreciating what you’ve been given requires not always ungratefully trying to negotiate the terms. But that came later, much later, after the videos.

The realization first occurred to us when we realized that the forty-year lag-time meant they were watching our past in real time while we watched theirs. We quickly surmised that the opportunity of space travel, of interstellar communication if not physical relocation, was actually a question of time travel. Until we could summon a craft ready to traverse forty years into the unknown with no hope of return, we would have to settle for the slow and unsettling dialogue. It actually took us about a hundred and sixty years to realize we could send questions rapid-fire, that we didn’t actually have to wait for a response before sending a follow-up question, that we could bombard them with inquiries in the hopes that they would respond in turn. I wish I could say this was borne from ingenuity, but it was much more that eighty years after hi back, the second response was somewhere between “what?” and “I don’t understand.” And we just got fed up and greedily asked them to send us blueprints for their faster-than-light ships, which of course they didn’t have. But if we kept our inquiries short and declarative, they could respond in sequence and then, at least for the next generation, there would be news from beyond every day.

By the time they got around to asking whether we would like to see our past, their existence had been inculcated as both a regular part of life and a mammoth disappointment. We had spent so long imagining interstellar space travel that we’d assumed this would immediately follow contact with them, especially when it was immediately obvious that they were more advanced than we were. Which made it all the more surprising that it took them centuries to reveal the quality of their telescopes, the sophistication of their listening devices. But of course, they were smarter and more experienced. They knew it would take time to build up to the idea of viewing the reality of what they’d been watching all along. Turns out the prime directive, while not an absolute, was going in sort of the right direction. It is up to the weaker, less intelligent “civilization” to do the asking, to initiate. There’s too much potential for abuse the other way.

Before we knew about the recording device, when they threw in some idle commentary about when we sent the message or we asked them about things that were half a lifetime ago to the recipients, some of our philosophers got excited about what could be seen through this reflected lens. If we could ever, however frustrating it might be, make contact with species a hundred, two hundred, five hundred light-years away, then we could dip our oars deeper into the tide of what came before. Think of the possibilities! they declared. Imagine what we could learn. No longer would victors write the history books, for the books would write themselves, in technicolor video no less. Of course, the sad irony was that whenever contact was initiated and all that came before would be lost to history, to this process. We could only get history, only ask them to reflect our past back to us, once were dialoguing.

That, of course, proved to be untrue. It presumed that we were the more advanced tribe, that no one had been watching all along.

Their picture was incomplete, of course. They did not have ships just offshore from our atmosphere, hovering in some sort of invisible orbit. They did not have anyone anywhere close. They were locked into their fixed relative perspective, only a particular angle on our planet from the ships in their own star system. But oh, the rotation of planets! Every hour, we would show them a new face, a new vantage full of people and struggle and mistakes and triumphs. It was almost enough to make us believe that there was purpose, real intent behind the rotation of planets. That they spun to ensure that from any angle, everything could be seen.

It was not everything, of course. It was not an on-demand library of every event in history. For the first few centuries, in fact, they couldn’t even penetrate buildings. It was only the outdoor events that were recorded, only the declarations in full view of the sun that made it to the archive. It was enough, though, to get the gist. It always was. It turns out what mattered to us most was not the speeches whose memory still imperfectly trickled to our contemporary collective imagination, not the battles and names we’d grown up studying. It was the way we were, writ large, the toiling in the fields and the minor atrocities of daily living. An anonymous rape in a back alley. A botched robbery on a lonely dirt highway. The distribution of smallpox blankets at a formal trading session.

For a long time, we’d known and internalized that witnessed horror held so much more sway than mere described horror. That the thrall of the camera, much less with audio, created a truth we could not bear to deny or resist. We were wholly unprepared for the impact of this reality applied to a history before we’d invented our own means of recording.

It is vital to stress that they offered this with utmost neutrality. There were a mirror, not a documentary filmmaker. They showed us garden weddings and spontaneous beachside births as well, we were awash in humanity’s humanity as well as its inhumanity. But the overall message was somehow clearer than our own extensive efforts to self-monitor, to spread surveillance to every corner of our own little sphere. Someone is watching. Someone has always been watching. Someone far smarter sees what you are doing and so might your grandchildren’s grandchildren.

No longer was history a mere abstraction, something to be reframed and repainted. It was something living and breathing, in better quality than we could produce ourselves, even after its precarious journey across the empty echoes of space.

It made us take our present more seriously, as we pictured it re-refracted through the rebound from our newest neighbors, offered to our descendants with quiet condemnation, a condemnation made all the quieter for arriving without commentary. We could no longer use past precedent as a justification. It was future understanding we needed to appeal to.

We wanted them to send us blueprints for overcoming mortality and the speed of light. Instead, they showed us our past. And it was the only way we could finally learn how to build a brighter future. Not one of eternal life or instant travel. But one, more vitally, that future generations could be proud of. Or at least less ashamed.

by

Stop Calling Trump Incompetent

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

“There’s an old joke, um, two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort. And one of ’em says ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says ‘Yeah, I know, and such small portions!'”
-Woody Allen, “Annie Hall”

I know there are those of you who will be turned off by my even being willing to quote Woody Allen to prove any sort of point. It’s tempting to say, I guess, that this post is not for you if so. But I think, possibly, this post is precisely for you if you feel that way, because sometimes it’s important not to shoot the message even if you want to shoot the messenger. “Annie Hall” itself is hardly a vehicle I would often invoke – it’s one of the most profoundly disappointing movies I’ve seen, establishing a long line of popular films (e.g. “When Harry Met Sally”, “High Fidelity”, et cetera ad infinitum) that can be boxed up as “the asshole gets the girl” films. But that line, the opening salvo, I’ve always liked. And it’s never been more relevant than today.

You may have guessed that this post will be in the “critiquing Trump critics” box of my own burgeoning collection. And as always, it’s important to note that this is not defending Trump. It is pointing out that effective criticism of Trump requires logical consistency, forethought, and understanding. Frankly, most Trump critics seem short of all three these days in their haste to shout from the rooftops “THE END IS NEAR AND ITS NAME IS TRUUUUUUUUMP!” There’s a satisfaction in doing this that I understand. But it’s also helpful to remember that part of what you hate about Trump is that he can so sweepingly dismiss an entire estate (namely, the fourth) by calling them “the enemy”. It is perhaps just as rash and foolish to dismiss Trump wholesale and brand everything he does, including breathing, eating, and speaking, as innately evil and incompetent.

It is the and in that above sentence I want to focus on. Evil and incompetent. Because in the rush to throw all the spaghetti at all of the walls of Trump’s gold-embossed White House, most of that spaghetti is failing to stick because it gets hit, midair, by other spaghetti. If that metaphor sounds like a mess, it’s because it is. And the primary result of that mess is that Trump can give a press conference and rightly point out how messy and self-defeating all these noodles on the floor are, then leave everyone else to wonder how a President can withstand the onslaught of just so much pasta and come out unstained by sauce.

Either Trump is evil or he is incompetent. Or, I suppose, he could be both. But if he is both, you cannot blame him for being both, nor should you criticize him for being both. Put another way, if he is evil, you want him to be incompetent. And if he is incompetent, you want him to be evil. You don’t want him to be incompetent but good, right? That would just be tragic failure. And if he’s evil, do you really wish he were more effective? Really? You have to pick one.

It makes absolutely no sense to believe and perpetrate the idea that Donald J. Trump is a fascist mastermind who is hours away from closing his vise-like tiny hands around the last vestiges of the Constitution and that he is so utterly incompetent that he could not plan an intimate tea party for his grandchildren’s doll collection. One undermines the other. If he is truly that incompetent, then we have nothing to fear from his evil machinations. They will end in laughable failure to the obvious ridicule of all concerned. The only way we should fear his plotting and subterfuge is if he is, in fact, competent.

Further, it is simply becoming more unlikely that he is as incompetent as purported. This line of reasoning – that he’s a bumbling, narcissistic, possibly mentally unstable fool – has always been suspect, but downright absurdist since November 8th. You really think he just tripped over his own shoelaces into winning both the primary and the general election? He was so downright self-defeating that he just happened to crush the most experienced political machine ever assembled, the candidate who garnered an all-time record number of endorsements and dollars? Really?? You believe that he kept figuring out exactly what to say and how to react to attract huge crowds, divide and defeat all the establishment Republicans, completely dominate the media while criticizing them for over a year, and then become President, all by incompetent accident??? How?

People don’t like feeling stupid, I get that. In fact, it’s one of the things you probably criticize DJT for, his fear of seeming or being stupid in the public eye. So you look at this guy, you loathe him, and you know, you just know you are smarter and more effective than he is. At everything. So it can’t be that he tapped into an opportunity, understood it, planned for it, and exploited it. It simply cannot be that he is more in touch with America than you are. And it certainly can’t be that he has skills and strategy and deployed them to great effect. No, it must be that the guy won by sheer force of utter total luck.

Look, there’s an extent to which I agree with this line of logic. The role of luck is vastly under-rated in human life, especially on a societal level and in analyzing accomplishment. But at a certain point, even if luck is a factor, maybe someone winning three straight Olympic sprinting titles didn’t happen by accident. After Usain Bolt locks up a record number of Olympic running golds, it might be time to consider that the man is, in addition to being sometimes lucky (as are literally all successful people), fast. It’s just Occam’s Razor. At a certain point, it takes so much more work, so many hurdles, to come up with explanations for why someone has succeeded. Maybe they’re just good at what they succeeded at.

And look, being good at that does not make him a good person. In fact, the better he is at strategy and understanding the American psyche, the more dangerous and resistance-worthy he becomes. If you want to generate a groundswell of fear-mongering and terror in the land to bolster the resistance to Donald Trump’s America, by all means do not focus on his blunders. There’s plenty of ill will and mistreatment of people and concepts to focus on. But people aren’t going to rationally fear that if you zoom in on his lumbering incompetence. That just makes people laugh. And laughing people do not fear.

Say what you will about Donald Trump, but he is a masterful showman who understands the American mindset better than perhaps anyone who ever lived. People criticizing Trump often forget that Reagan, considered by a majority of Americans to be the most effective President of the past half-century, was an entertainer before he was a politician. He too understood that Americans love to be entertained, they love show business, they love the glitz and glory of celebrity culture. Reagan’s campy cowboy movies could never have presaged the degree to which this reality would accelerate during his presidency and beyond. The eighties took celebrity culture to an unprecedented level, an extent that would make the most decadent of Romans blush, and the Internet has only heightened the scope and reach of that broadcast signal. Crass consumerism, raw humor, glamorous wealth: these things have been methodically exalted by American culture throughout my (today observed as officially longer) lifetime. And no single human being in history better emulates and reflects these cultural priorities than Donald J. Trump.

To believe that he’s there by accident, that he built this empire and drove it down Pennsylvania Avenue by sheer happenstance, requires believing that he was some sort of ingenue in building his cult of personality in the first place. How many standard deviations of unlikeliness, going back how many decades, do we have to add here? Or perhaps the better question is, if it’s so easy to become one of the most recognizable, discussable, and ultimately successful people in history, why isn’t everyone doing it?

I know the main answer most folks give to that question is that they haven’t inherited $50 million. Fair point. That certainly sets DJT above everyone with less money (read: almost everyone) in terms of luck and positioning. No question. But in today’s America, no one else has done so much with $50 million. Not in terms of business, sure, he’s gone bankrupt a lot and famously under-performed the index funds and probably won’t release his taxes to cover up the fact that he’s kind of meh at business. But doesn’t that make his reputation as the best businessman of all-time, the best negotiator ever, actually more impressive? The greatest trick the devil ever pulled may have been convincing the world he didn’t exist, but that’s arguably a less challenging task than convincing the world that your bad judgment and loss of money makes you the foremost authority on wealth accumulation and business. Or in the nomenclature of the original phrase, the devil would have had an even harder time convincing the world that he was, in fact, God.

It is really important to get this right. Accusing Trump of being evil vs. incompetent is not just a matter of what looks better on a handmade sign. It is a question of how to defeat him and his agenda, because the prescription is totally different depending on which one he is. If you’re not sure if the patient has hyper-thyroidism or hypo-thyroidism, you don’t just apply both treatments and hope for the best. One treatment will defeat the value of the other and, more damningly, make the patient’s symptoms worse. Both can be damaging, both can have treatments, but you should be very sure which one is in play before administering treatment and then you should very consistently only administer that kind of treatment.

Perhaps you believe that the American voting public, the marketplace of ideas at large, is far less sensitive and precise than a human body. That we can actively tell Democrats that Trump is evil, but Republicans that he’s incompetent and this will somehow thread the needle of getting everyone to hate him. This falls victim to the same sort of solipsism so frequently exhibited by Hillary Clinton in the last campaign (and for years before), the belief that what we say and do can be compartmentalized and is largely targeted and private. (After all, the argument goes, HRC made the “basket of deplorables” statement at a private fundraiser, as though such things exist when you’re running for President.) The truth will out, people will talk, and everyone is always listening. The more you simultaneously promote both narratives about Trump, the more obvious it looks that you’re not actually sincere in your criticisms. You just hate the guy and will latch on to literally anything you think hurts him, no matter how trumped up (yup) or absurd or far-fetched.

The fact that the media has latched on to this all-spaghetti all-the-time strategy and embraced it as its sole civic duty is not helpful. It is, perhaps, literally the only way to prove Trump and his supporters right that the media is biased, unfair, and out to get him. I think it is far more likely that Trump realized, months or even years ago, that the media would take this bait if routinely provoked and fashion themselves as a more monstrous adversary to Trump than even he could fabricate, than that Trump just lucked into perfect messaging to win the White House in 2016. Every time the media exaggerates and willfully misinterprets what Trump says about Sweden for humorous effect, they are cementing the understood truth of what Trump says about them to everyone who voted for Trump and can re-elect him. This is not working. It is not helping.

I’m not saying that the media can’t say when things are demonstrably false. But they should also perhaps try to at least understand what Trump is trying to communicate when he says things. I watched the entire press conference that got so much attention last week. It was billed, long before I watched it, as “unhinged” and “insane” and “totally off the wall”. I saw none of those things when watching it. It was heated, yes, and adversarial. It presented viewpoints that are more tangential to mainline politics than is traditional, in a packaging that was far less conciliatory than politics as usual. But it was none of the outlandish adjectives used to describe it. And more vitally, Trump actually said in the middle of it that the headlines tomorrow would be “Trump rants and raves” which would mischaracterize him. He called his shot and he was right.

Now if I, someone who hates pretty much all of Trump’s policies, who would never vote for him, who finds him difficult to watch or listen to, who loathes all of his capitalistic values and New York perspective, if I feel like he’s getting a bum rap from the media on this, where do you think anyone who actually voted for the guy stands on this issue?

And it’s not just the media. If anything, compared to my Facebook news feed, the collective outcry of close friends and distant acquaintances, the media has been quite consistent and restrained. Most of my feed these days is spaghetti-slingers competing with each other to find new, innovative, and deeply self-contradictory ways to lampoon Trump. Some of this goes back to the old expectations of American power issue, wherein, e.g., people who oppose most of the CIA’s historical actions cry foul at Trump’s mishandling of all the all-important CIA. But forget self-consistency. If the national security apparatus of our nation mostly does harm, isn’t it kind of okay if Trump screws it up? How can you be equally upset that Trump is a nationalistic hawk and that he is insufficiently defending the nation against foreign threats? It doesn’t make sense. And people can see that and observe that you are being disingenuous and just trying to bash in a partisan way.

It’s this kind of behavior that convinces Senate Republicans it’s all just a partisan game and they have to stand by their man, and that means we get Betsy DeVos and Scott Pruitt. And worse, that you can believe that he just accidentally picked people who will dismantle their agencies out of incompetence rather than a well devised strategic plan to do so. I’m not totally convinced that Trump is actually as evil as those who say he’s evil think – I do think his values are detrimental and pretty diametric to mine, but I also think he prefers single payer and would never want to overturn major recent progressive court rulings. But he’s clearly smarter and more effective than anyone on Team Incompetence gives him credit for.

And even if you don’t believe any of this, if you think I’m dead wrong about him being competent or effective, there’s this. Good old Pascal’s Wager. Would you rather believe a cunning villain is just a fool and act accordingly or believe a fool is a cunning villain and act accordingly? The former is deeply dangerous. The latter is merely over-cautious. I think we’re all a lot better off, even if Trump is completely incompetent, believing and responding as though he deliberately planned all this, because it’s much safer.

But whatever you do, please stop doing both at the same time. Drop the and. End the and. Pick one and stick to it. Critiques of Trump, to be effective, must be ever simpler and more direct. There’s a reason that “lashes with a wet noodle” is a phrase to indicate failure to punish. No amount of spaghetti is ever going to be enough to defeat Trump, or anyone else.

by

Twisting the Night Away

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

For more of my life than I care to admit, I was an avid player of Dark Age of Camelot, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG for, well, long). Dark Age, for the uninitiated, was basically the precursor to World of Warcraft (WoW), which you’ve definitely heard of, except the graphics were better (far less cartoony) and the game was harder. Much harder. When a former family member got me WoW for Christmas (perhaps the last thing I wanted at the time), I remember playing it and marveling at how little work everything took. Dark Age felt like work and, thus, in its weird way, was kind of rewarding.

In Dark Age, I primarily played a bard, who I named Fiver Mep, whose task was to sing and play songs to aid, comfort, and heal his friends. Bards in Dark Age were (I should say “are” because the game still exists and I still occasionally play the free months the remnants of the game offers me to try to get drawn back into the addiction) equipped with three particular songs: one providing power, one endurance, and one speed (of movement, not amphetamines). The intent was that only one of these could be played a time – it’s pretty hard to imagine that multiple songs offered by a bard simultaneously would be of any real value. However, at some point early in the game’s inception, a bard discovered that two songs could be played at once to mutual effect. This strategy came to be known in the gameplay parlance as “twisting”.

Because each task in the game was initiated by a keystroke, twisting entailed constantly pressing two buttons in a row, in a vaguely frenetic rhythm, permanently during the game. This while also peppering in other tasks such as, for instance, typing to chat with other players or pressing buttons to heal or conduct other magical activities entailed in the game. I tried twisting for an hour or two one night and quickly found that it wasn’t for me. Playing just one song didn’t involve any repeated keystrokes at all – just a single button to start the song, which would play indefinitely until you decided to stop. This differential in gameplay experience was easily the distinction between enjoying a game that still felt a little like work sometimes and working very hard indeed at a job that was supremely boring. Many players disregarded or refused to adventure with Fiver when he informed them, emphatically, that he did not twist. Others, who had actually played bards in other lives, were more forgiving.

I offer all this as a little metaphor, though one that most may find inscrutable, for the experience of simultaneously driving for Uber and Lyft. I have now been an Uber driver for just shy of nine months (!), but only recently finally got around to signing up for Lyft. The primary motivation was the emerging #DeleteUber campaign sweeping the nation in the wake of the startling discovery that a corporate CEO was not, in fact, a good person. While I myself was not about to delete Uber, I had long been wondering if Lyft was better in some way and was eager to not lose all my business, or at least all my business that hated Donald Trump (read: basically all my business). Plus, it felt like essential research for my book: it would be weirdly neglectful to write a whole book about driving for Uber and not even mention Lyft or detail the rival’s pros and cons. So a couple weeks ago, I began peppering in sessions of Lyft.

The word on the street has always been that Lyft pays better (including and especially because they enable tipping through the app), while Uber keeps you busier because many more people use Uber. I have since been told that this last part is a regional difference – there are apparently some US cities where Lyft is actually the primary service and Uber is struggling to catch up. But in New Orleans, Uber is completely dominant, or at least was before the advent of the Trump administration. In my time with Lyft so far, most of the stereotypes above have demonstrated themselves to be true, though the better money is somewhat inconsistent. There is a $1.25 fee built into each fare with both services – Uber pockets this, but Lyft splits it with drivers. Thus the minimum driver compensation for a ride is $3.75 with Lyft and $3.00 with Uber. For about six weeks, Uber actually upped theirs to $3.75 (for min-fares only, keeping the difference for all longer rides) in New Orleans and lowered the airport pick-up bonus to try to stop 80 people at a time from waiting 60-90 minutes in the airport lot for a single trip. Apparently, this brought about heavy backlash from the seeming majority of NOLA Uber drivers who just want to be airport shuttles and they reversed the change. No amount of praise for the change from me could stop it, so I was pleased to see the extra 75 cents a ride from Lyft, which really adds up when you’re doing short runs in the Quarter.

Tipping, however, has proven to be a bit of a red herring. While it is true that a much higher portion of Lyft riders tip than Uber riders (I would say roughly 40% choosing to tip as opposed to the 12-15% I’m used to), the tips tend to me much smaller. With cash tips, $5 is customary (people actually apologize for tipping less even though everyone tipping me exactly $1 per ride would yield more in total tips than I currently receive) and $20 is not terribly uncommon. It helps, I suppose, that it’s usually 2:30 AM and people are drunk out of their minds. Whereas the cold sobriety of the app, plus the option to decide on a tip up to 24 hours later, yields a ton of $1 and $2 tips. Now, don’t get me wrong, $2 tips are fantastic! But it’s not quite the difference of tripling my tip total vs. Uber that was purported. Additionally, of course, all the Lyft app tips are reported to the IRS, so that can be a difference depending on how you treat your cash tips (relevantly, many waitstaff and bartenders still give cash tips on Lyft). Though as I’m realizing doing my taxes this year, the US has lots of ways to make it basically impossible for anyone who claims to be in business to pay any taxes whatsoever. The horror stories and fears I had about a significant Uber tax liability have been pretty well put to bed by a quick tax session Uber hosted and a newly thorough understanding of Schedule C.

The really tangible potential differences in money break down as a comparison between Uber’s surge and Lyft’s Power Driver status. Uber’s (in)famous surge pricing squares up supply and demand and offers a real opportunity to make bank when driving during, say, Halloween weekend, or, as I can hardly imagine, the upcoming weekend featuring a full slate of Mardi Gras parades and the NBA All-Star Game. When demand is high, during such times or at the end of a game or concert, then Uber drivers can make a normal night’s worth of fares in a good few rides. This is definitely slightly over-rated as part of the income of Uber driving, especially with recent efforts by the company to nerf surge by making the zones much smaller and rebound on each other more slowly. But it can add up on Saturday nights and holidays and during events. Lyft allegedly offers PrimeTime as their corollary to this, but there’s only one problem. It is, apparently, a lie. When you agree to do an Uber pick-up, they tell you the value of the surge the fare will carry. I have done hundreds of surge rides and they’ve all added up to the total promised. When you agree to do a Lyft pick-up, however, they do not tell you if it has a PrimeTime value. And despite picking up many riders in the thick of a pink-shaded PT event, not one of my 88 Lyft rides to date has been deemed a PrimeTime fare. Some preliminary Internet research reveals widespread belief that PrimeTime is somewhere between a scam and a myth and my experience certainly correlates to this. More disconcertingly, many drivers attest that their riders have said they were charged PrimeTime for pick-ups that did not pass such bonuses on to the driver.

This would make Lyft super problematic were it not for the Power Driver status, which is almost enough and possibly quite enough to forgive them for lying about PrimeTime, if they in fact are. (It’s possible that it just doesn’t work somehow, given Lyft’s other technological inferiorities, below.) If a driver accepts 90% of their offered Lyft rides in a week, while completing at least 15 rides during peak hours (a narrow band of afternoon rush hours plus Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights) and 40 rides total, one gets an extra 10% of the total fares, getting 85% instead of the normal 75%. Bump those last two numbers up to 20 and 60 and you get another 10%, meaning you keep a full 95% of the fare charged to the rider (less whatever lying about PrimeTime may be happening, of course). For those of you used to Uber rates, this is the equivalent of getting 1.26x surge on every single ride for the whole week. That’s pretty great. The one week I made the grade here, it was worth an extra hundred bucks. Not enough to compete with surge during Mardi Gras, perhaps, but certainly something to boost a lot of Tuesday nights.

The problem, of course, is that Lyft is often slower than Uber, and more problematically is not afraid of sending you on a wild goose chase for a fare. Uber often strands riders with their requirement that every pick-up be 10 minutes or less from a driver’s current location. (Surge gets triggered if no riders are available within 10 minutes.) Lyft, on the other hand, has given me multiple requests that are 25-27 minutes away. Which is insane. Especially in New Orleans, where you’re always 15 minutes from everything. 13-20 minutes away is a regular occurrence. Of course, most Lyft riders don’t want to wait this long, so 85% of my requests that are that far away get cancelled within 3 minutes. Which just doesn’t smack of efficiency. And because acceptance rate is such a core part of Lyft’s access to the coveted Power Driver status, then you really can’t just turn your nose up at a 20-minute trek. With Uber, I often have enough work that I decline something 8-10 minutes away as requiring too much unpaid gas.

As a result, twisting becomes the norm, especially not on weekends or during events that are busier. In this instance, twisting entails keeping both apps on simultaneously and ready to go, then switching off one app as soon as a request comes in on the other. As I predicted when I first heard about this, this process is hectic and stressful, especially when you remember that you are also, y’know, driving while this happens. Usually driving just involves hitting the phone screen once and then a second time to navigate – not hard when the phone is mounted to the air conditioner or some equally accessible spot. But all the opening and closing of apps is challenging. Already, I’ve had two instances of basically simultaneous requests and had to cancel one (usually the Uber one because acceptance rate –> Power Driver) and just take the other. It’s not quite playing power song and endurance song at once for hours, but it’s not the easiest either. And at least that only impacted fake or simulated people, er, magical creatures?

Of course, the problem is that just choosing one of the apps now creates this insidious FOMO effect whenever one doesn’t immediately have a ride request. I am driving around just trawling for a ride, but I could have both apps on, my brain tells me. I bet there are constant requests on the app you have closed! Is it really that hard to twist?

A week before Saturday, I even was double-apping on a Saturday night, something I swore never to try because of how busy Saturday nights are ’round here. But that promise was so quickly broken the second I’d gone five minutes without a request.

As far as other empirics, there’s not a lot of difference. There seem to be more women traveling alone on Lyft, which is a big part of their marketing strategy for both drivers and riders. (Lyft actually conducts an interview, which Uber does not, though I would not exactly describe it as much of a screening process from my experience.) Lyft riders have disproportionately talked about how they don’t want to use Uber, or are trying not to, but many find it hard in New Orleans given the dominance of Uber in the market. Lyft riders seem much more diligent, on average, about being ready for their ride right away when I pull up, though this may be a product of the significantly longer wait times involved in sending drivers long distances to pick-ups. When the GPS or rider mess up on the map, Lyft automatically starts the ride when you leave to go to the right location. While this theoretically is to help the driver get compensated, it empirically just creates cancellations when the rider freaks out that they’re listed as riding in the car when, in fact, they are not. Lyft won’t let you text riders for some reason, which Uber insists is what riders prefer. Most riders on both platforms cannot remember which service they’ve used to hail me, which is something I definitely remember from just doing Uber as well. Though the ones that do remember and are not strongly anti-Trump have usually just had a bad experience with Uber, which seems weird to me knowing that so many drivers use both platforms interchangeably.

Many people in the cultural imagination, including a guy out front of a bar last night who saw both my signs in the windshield and asked me incredulously how such a thing was possible and wasn’t I a traitor to both companies, seem to not realize that one can do both, much less at the same time. For companies that brand themselves with such contrast, black vs. pink, businesslike vs. whimsical, pro-Trump (now not-un-pro-Trump?) vs. anti-Trump, the reality is basically the same. You are in a person’s car and they are taking you where you want. No matter how much corporate veneer and artifice we put on things, we remain, unflinchingly, just people in all that we do.

by

This Land is… Your Land?

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

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I feel about the United States of America. I suspect I am not alone in this.

In fact, I know I am not alone in this. Every post on Facebook, half of the reports on the radio, and a third of my conversations in Uber drives involve people thinking and feeling about America. This country, its values, and its way of doing business in the world have never witnessed such scrutiny in my lifetime. And on face, that’s a great thing. I have, in many ways, been wishing for an event to prompt this self-examination my entire life, or at least my whole life since I first took a serious history class.

But self-examination doesn’t only apply to others, of course, no matter my history of self-critical reflection on this nation and my role in it. Self-examination starts with… the self.

Last night, a paradox hit me that I am still kind of reeling from and can’t quite solve. And the more I considered the paradox, the more that I realized it’s the same paradox most Americans seem to have about America, except it’s inverted. And I don’t quite know what to do with this conclusion, other than explain it, offer it as lived experience, and try to see where other people are on this spectrum. I know how alone I am in most of my conclusions about the advent of the Trump administration, so I suspect I’m pretty alone in all of what follows. But I’m curious what this dredges up for anyone reading it. I’m curious what articulating it will dredge up for me.

I am someone who goes around saying that they hate America. This is not common. Increasingly, this might be dangerous. Hate is a strong word and most people who hate are prone to violence and violence against the country is the scariest thing anyone thinks exists since 9/11. Of course, I’m also a pacifist, but one who doesn’t aspire with the best of them to live without hate in their heart. I have hate in my heart. Lots of it. A lot of personal life experiences and impersonal history have combined to make me angry a lot of the time. When I’m not angry, I’m sad. When I’m neither sad nor angry, I’m usually really ecstatic. This is probably because I am a manic depressive. It might just be because I’m really aggressively not afraid of my emotions, which – near as I can tell – amounts to the same thing.

But this isn’t about mental health. It’s about hate. What does it mean to hate America? The conclusion most people have about people who hate America is that they hate freedom or that they are fanatically devoted to some sort of cause hell-bent on the violent downfall of America. This is not how I feel. I was born here. My parents were born here. Their parents were born here. I know that some of what separates me from most of those who don’t hate America is that I don’t feel like those facts make me in any way special. Lucky, yes, but not special. I know and have discussed how much I would’ve wanted to be born in America had I been born anywhere else, not because America is a place I would want to be, but because America is the seat of power of the world so far in my lifetime, and also the seat of harmful influence on the world’s people, and I would be committed to changing that. And I can imagine the angry quarrels I would have with friends in foreign cafes, where they would look at me bemusedly across the table and claim that if I were born in America, I would not be capable of hating it, because where are the Americans who hate America. And I would glare back at them and say I knew, I knew they were wrong. How could anyone be aware about the role of America in the world and not seethe?

Of course, the other issue with the chain of births in America leading to my own is that I lack contact with living ancestors who lived elsewhere and voluntarily came here. I don’t have a relatable ancestral story of someone clinging to a raft or looking over a boat railing or sneaking aboard a vessel or over a wall into what they thought would mean freedom. I did not grow up on stories of how much was sacrificed and forgone so that I could be here on this red, white, and blue soaked soil. I can understand how it would be different if I had. If dad or granny had sold all their possessions for a sketchy ticket to this nation under the cover of night so that their grandchild or child could be born American, then it would be harder for me to feel the way I do. It would feel ungrateful, no matter what else the facts or feelings about the country said. It would feel like betrayal.

So what do I mean when I say I hate America? If I don’t want it destroyed and I don’t wish to do it ill, what does my hate really mean? And if I don’t hate freedom or immigrants or the colors red and blue, how does my hate manifest? What is it I hate about America? Its people? Its ideas? Its success?

The best one-word answer I can give is this: hypocrisy. There are many things I wish America did differently, or had never done. But it’s the hypocrisy that really riles me up, gets me actually angry and upset. It’s that America parades around in the world pretending to be a beacon of freedom, hope, and light, while actually serving as a vehicle of empire, destruction, and manipulation. If America unapologetically embraced its imperial attitude in the world, it would actually make me less hateful. At least there would be some truth, some sincerity in advertising. At least other countries would know what was coming and why. It’s the old difference between a backstab and a “frontstab” as we used to call it in weekend games of Diplomacy in Albuquerque. You can have begrudging respect for a “frontstab”. A backstab is just evil. There’s a reason Judas is a greater villain in history than Napoleon, why Dante put the betrayers in the ninth (and worst) circle. If you’re going to do a bad thing, at least let people know. It’s the absolute least you could do.

This is why I have felt so powerfully alone in the wake of Donald Trump’s first fortnight as President of the United States. The people who love America, who feel like America really does represent freedom, hope, and light in the world, they only feel betrayed by the President now. This two weeks, or maybe the three months since the election, these are their introductions to the stab of betrayal I’ve felt since I first took a serious long look at the nation’s history. To them, the country is good and Donald Trump is leading it, single-handedly, astray. To me, of course, Donald Trump’s values look exactly like America’s values. Naked self-interest, self-serving hypocrisy, abridging rights and freedoms at will, bullying, manipulation, and intimidation in the service of empire. I can recognize that he is being more brazen and escalative about these values, but again, if anything, that makes it a little more like a frontstab. He’s not making much of an effort to dress the emperor in clothes, to cloak his actions in the finery of noble causes. He’s basically going commando to the world, nude and proud, saying “come and get it, this is what we are.” When you think it’s what we’ve always been, it just doesn’t feel like that much of a change.

If you’re sitting here wondering what I could possibly be talking about when I discuss America as hypocritical or problematic, then I don’t know exactly what to tell you. I guess my best recommendation would be to watch this video that Russ Gooberman and I made ten years ago about America’s transgressions against humanity, often including its own people. The motif of the commercial was making fun of Chevy ads with John Mellencamp’s insipid “This is Our Country” tune celebrating a nation that had just wrecked Iraq and conducted Abu Ghraib as standing beside “the idea to stand and fight”. Make no mistake, Photoshopping Chevrolets into a series of American atrocities was just a vehicle (!) for reminding people of said atrocities:

And that entire two-and-a-half minute barrage is pretty light on the last fifty years, leaving out the CIA’s role in destroying democracies across the globe, barely touching on Vietnam or Afghanistan, not engaging with drone strikes or corporate imperialism or police shootings. And if you didn’t watch the video, it ran through slavery and the Native American genocide, firebombing Dresden and nuking Japan, Japanese internment and lynchings, Abu Ghraib and mass shootings, 9/11 and Katrina, the Martin Luther King assassination and the Rodney King beating, poverty and Kent State, border guards and Donald Rumsfeld, the KKK and the Westboro Baptist Church. If you think Trump is a betrayal of American values but those events don’t all make you want to throw up in your mouth, I don’t understand you. I just don’t.

From what I can tell, the way most people reconcile this endless history of human abuse and slaughter with loving America is precisely in the same way that I find America hypocritical. It’s because all those events diverge from the purported rhetoric of America. For some reason, America claiming to represent what’s good and right, claiming to represent democracy and freedom and openness, can forgive a million sins against those ideals. Because, according to this perspective, at least we’re trying. No matter that Soviet or Chinese shortcomings on their purported ideals of equality and freedom are written off as deliberate fraud while we make these claims. No matter how many people who observe this hypocrisy are branded as enemies and shipped to Gitmo or summarily executed by sky-robot. Our sexist and racist Constitution, our rosy image of the wealthy white male landowners who killed Britons over taxation with insufficient representation, our acceptance (and exploitation) of immigrants from select countries over the years, these are enough to absolve us of any missteps along the way. That, and we maintain the belief that we are always improving. No matter how many disastrous and catastrophic wars are fought by the last administration, no matter how many freedoms suspended in the wake of the last perceived threat to America, we always feel like we’re moving forward. Until now.

It doesn’t wash for me. I can’t do it. I can’t get through the mental hoops required to look at all that history, all those deliberate injustices and murders perpetrated in the nation’s name, and just write them off as innocent mistakes on the ledger of our role on the planet. Sure, this probably blinds me to some good that America occasionally does that I’m forgetting. But that’s just applying the same standard America does to every other leader and country on the planet as long as we’ve decided the time for them to face our wrath has come.

But the weird thing, the revelation the other night, the paradox, is this. I kind of love Americans. And I really love the place that is America. Like to a kind of absurd extreme in both cases. And driving for Uber has really reminded me, profoundly, just how much that is all the case.

I’ve been to 48 states and lived in nine cities. And I’ve been to most of those states three, four, five different times. I feel like I’ve done a tremendous amount of traveling, but it’s mostly been domestic. I really know this nation. I have been most everywhere and seen most everything. When discussing wanting to visit San Antonio a few months ago, I stated it’s the major US city I’m most interested in visiting that I’ve never seen. But then I had to pause to realize it may be one of the only ones. Indeed, after visiting Omaha this summer, San Antonio (7th) and El Paso (19th), also in Texas, are the only two cities among the US’ fifty largest where I haven’t logged time. Corpus Christi (60th) is next on the list after that. And one road trip, a pretty accessible journey from New Orleans, could probably knock all of those out.

I love road trips across America. I love the high speed limits and open scenery of the freeway. I love roadside truck stop gas stations with their cheesy trinkets and sincere drawling service staff. I love Waffle House, wherever it is, yellow beacon in the dark promising delicious cheap greasy food and heartfelt cooks and waitresses. I love Cracker Barrel and its hard candies and needlingly difficult little triangle-peg game. I love Taco Bell drive-throughs at three in the morning, often with an Uber rider or five in tow. I love unique diners and farmers markets and scenic overlooks and cheap roadside motels where insomniacs wait behind the desk for middle-of-the-night arrivals to talk to about their rambling thoughts.

I love specific places, too. I love every National Park I’ve ever been to (except maybe Cuyahoga Valley, because it just looked like a random unimpressive urban park and I think only exists because Ohio wanted to pretend it has nature). I love the perfectly carved depths of the Grand Canyon and the bubbling vapors of Yellowstone and the majestic cliffs of Yosemite and the alien landscape of the Badlands. I love other natural wonders less storied in our landscape: the waterfalls off the Columbia in Oregon, the golden beaches of Biloxi, the rocky windswept shores of Maine. I love the cities, so many cities. I’ve passed the cable cars traversing hilly San Francisco daily, reminding myself each time to appreciate how fortunate I was to see such a sight as part of a mundane commute. Ditto driving through the low-slung French Quarter each night, now, these days, in my life, past gaslamps and into narrow three-century alleys. Ditto hiking through the crooked streets of Santa Fe from its oldest hotel to the Capitol building to simulate representing a foreign country in annual Model UN competitions. Ditto driving through all those roadtrip hallmarks to college campus after college campus, full of old quaint chapels and high brick libraries and grand domed ceilings and modern glass facades. Ditto waking up each day for a year in the Castle, now doomed to be reunited with the gritty earth of Waltham, Massachusetts. I love Harvard Square and OMSI, the Georgia Aquarium and the L train, the dingy chess shops of New York City and the forgotten bookshops of New Orleans. Powell’s, the Frontier, the Smithsonian, the Gateway Arch, the Space Needle. Chipotle and Southwest Airlines ticket counters. I love so many places in this country that does so much damage.

I play a little game with many of my Uber riders. When they ask about my background, I see how long it takes before I can talk about a place that I know and love that they’ve been. Maybe they’re from there. Maybe they just visited. Maybe they’ve always wanted to go, but they’ve read more about it than I ever will. When it comes to America, I’ll put my experience here up against most folks. It’s rare that I get stumped, that someone’s mostly been in central Texas or the west coast of Florida or Alaska or North Dakota or one of the other small pockets I haven’t traversed. And when we find that connection, whatever it is, we usually bond over our mutual love of something there, or a shared memory of a place we visited separately. Sometimes it really hits home – a couple who grew up in Albuquerque or a woman who also did Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim in her youth or a student who went to Rutgers or Brandeis. But more often, it’s just a place I’ve passed through, remembered, taken to heart. And in that process, I come to love these people too, these kind wonderful appreciative people swirling in their newfound awe of New Orleans as I drive them to their hotel or to another bar or to the show. They are good people who want good things for themselves and others. And I want that for them and theirs as well.

So what can I hate about America? Is it really so that what I hate about America is the idea of America? Or, more perfectly (!), how the idea fails and becomes the reality of our actions, our collective actions, our place in the world? Do I love the sinner and hate the sin, love the place where we commit the sins but hate the consequences? That seems about the size of it. I should hold these people more accountable for all of our collective actions, perhaps, but they seem so remote, so uncontrollable. Even with the soldiers or their families, even with the corporate attorneys.

This is what my best novel, still unpublished, American Dream On is mostly about. How bad things happen from good people. And how beautiful the backdrop is. I put so many of those little places that I love throughout the book. Not just because I wanted it to be an epic that encompassed the whole idea and reality of America. But because so much of the place is so memorable and so great. Is that really all that people who love America see? Or where they stop?

Of course, the more unsettling and alienating reality, for me, is that most people who love America and hate Trump increasingly seem to hate many places and people in America. And, to be fair, ditto those who love America and love Trump. The cataclysmic divide accentuated by this election and the string of shock doctrine actions by new President Trump has created an America united in its self-love, but bound in conflict by mutual loathing. Red America hates Blue America and vice versa. People lampoon the iconography and geography of the “other” America, discredit its people as unthinking or unfeeling, sabotage the other half as irrelevant or downright evil. I am not here to get preachy about why you feel that way and that you shouldn’t – I get it. I get why so many people say that anyone who even said the word “Trump” without hate in their heart during the year 2016 is complicit with his racism, sexism, and xenophobia. And I get why so many people observe this as hypocrisy when Obama did much that was similar, if more measured, muted, and dignified. I get where y’all are coming from. Maybe because I feel like I love all of you. Really.

What do I do with a country I hate full of people and places I love? What do you all do with a country you love full of people and places you hate?

You tell me. Because I really don’t know.

by

When the Good Die Old: Mary Tyler Moore (1936-2017) and Richard Adams (1920-2016)

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

Richard Adams died on Christmas Eve last year. That will always be a fact of my life, that I got engaged to Alex on the night of the day that Richard Adams, author of my favorite book of all-time, Watership Down, passed away. I was sad, of course. Not sad enough for it to derail my planned proposal, or luminaria day, or anything like that. And not as sad as I wanted to be. Because, after all, the man was 96. It is sad to know that the world no longer contains a person who has done so much for you personally as to write your favorite book. But less sad to know that they got as much time as anyone would want here, and perhaps more.

Eighty is not ninety-six, certainly, and Mary Tyler Moore didn’t have quite the impact on my life that Richard Adams did. But I spent a lot of my teenage years watching Nick-at-Nite incessantly, hours at a time, and both The Dick Van Dyke Show and especially The Mary Tyler Moore Show were key features of the late-night network’s lineup at the time. I loved them both, but especially the latter, where MTM had been able to shed some of the sexist tropes of the DVD writers and really star on her own as a model of independence, talent, and humor. It’s not to say that the MTM writing was totally without sexism, but as people have observed the world over in the last 24 hours, Mary Tyler Moore was ahead of her time and a pioneer for feminism.

Of all the Nick-at-Nite shows I really liked (along with close second Get Smart, Dobie Gillis, Dick Van Dyke, Bob Newhart, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Taxi, and Cheers) I think I loved Mary Tyler Moore the most. Her show was fresh and funny and avoided a lot of traditional romantic arcs that one would expect from that kind of show. Mary Richards was not continually pining for one person in a will-they/won’t-they battle that where we all knew the ending on the second episode. She was independent, smart, and worked in journalism, but not as the flashy broadcaster you might expect for someone in her role. She was a producer, and one who can see the buffoonery of the pretty figurehead in the anchor role. She worked with a tough boss, an old-school journalist, and the insight into the world of the news and how it really gets made fascinated me. More than anything, Mary’s world felt real to me. Her effort to make it in the world of work, friendships, relationships, and what we now might call “adulting” resonated with my picture of what the future might look like. She, and the show, were eminently authentic.

Watching Mary Tyler Moore, growing up on the coming-of-adult-age story meant for a prior era, I found so much to emulate. I wanted to be like Mary. I wanted to be compassionate and emotional and independent and capable like she was. I wanted my life to look like hers. And not just because I wish I’d been my age in the sixties instead of the nineties.

I’ve probably seen every episode of the show at least twice. It’s in the pantheon with Gilmore Girls and Doctor Who and The Wire and Lost and probably a smattering of the other Nick-at-Nite selections listed above. I think of myself as someone who really doesn’t like TV, but I’ve honestly watched a ton of TV for someone in that category.

Richard Adams is not my favorite author of all time, any more than Mary Tyler Moore is my favorite actor. Adams’ other works are uneven, generally disappointing. He is one of those authors who possibly had only one truly great story to tell, his first, something crafted over years of oral storytelling in long car rides with his daughters. I tried to get into The Plague Dogs and couldn’t, largely because it was about dogs and not rabbits. (It prompts the question of whether I would have been deprived of the grand and life-changing allegory of Watership Down had it been about dogs instead.) I liked The Girl in the Swing, but it was a bit overly sensationalized. Even the sequel Tales from Watership Down, which I was so excited to hear of and read, rang hollow, felt a bit contrived, felt like an effort to tweak and/or cash in on the past, left me feeling pretty empty. None of this really cheapens Adams’ legacy for me, though. Just ask Harper Lee, whose only (until the cynically commercial effort to publish Go Set a Watchman) book stands atop the Blue Pyramid’s composite list of people’s top twenty-five books of all-time. You don’t need to write more than one book to change the world.

How do we mourn those who had a full long life? Is it okay to feel less sad? Having so recently experienced the sudden death of a 34-year-old, I can say that it feels different and it probably should. Of course, the other key difference there is that I knew Jon, while Richard and Mary only influenced my life as far-away strangers, through their art. As someone who hopes to be an influential artist, I can mourn this loss by proxy, while still recognizing that I would expect the sadness of people impacted only by art to be quite muted compared to those who actually know me in real life.

Perhaps a more apt comparison would be how I feel about Moore and Adams relative to, say, David Foster Wallace. They all impacted me from distance, but DFW, by his own choice, didn’t get the time he should have been allotted. Part of that loss, to be sure, is the pain of the books unwritten, the art unmade, the other things one could have enjoyed. And part of it, perhaps, is not being able to meet someone who influenced you so much. I never much carried the illusion that I could meet Mary Tyler Moore or Richard Adams someday. But DFW felt more accessible, gave me more time to get in a position where such a meeting would be more likely.

Which makes mourning all feel a little selfish, I guess. And stranger in light of my primary emotion at the loss of Adams and Moore being somehow sadder that I’m not more sad. But maybe being at peace with death, when it comes late in life and after it has been full, is okay. Maybe a little more acceptance is just what’s called for when the good die old.

Or maybe I should look to one of the most profound and powerful meditations on death I’ve ever read:

One chilly, blustery morning in March, I cannot tell exactly how many springs
later, Hazel was dozing and waking in his burrow. He had spent a good deal of
time there lately, for he felt the cold and could not seem to smell or run so well as
in days gone by. He had been dreaming in a confused way — something about rain
and elder bloom — when he woke to realize that there was a rabbit lying quietly
beside him — no doubt some young buck who had come to ask his advice. The
sentry in the run outside should not really have let him in without asking first.
Never mind, thought Hazel. He raised his head and said, “Do you want to talk to
me?”

“Yes, that’s what I’ve come for,” replied the other. “You know me, don’t you?”

“Yes, of course,” said Hazel, hoping he would be able to remember his name in
a moment. Then he saw that in the darkness of the burrow the stranger’s ears
were shining with a faint silver light. “Yes, my lord,” he said, “Yes, I know you.”

“You’ve been feeling tired,” said the stranger, “but I can do something about
that. I’ve come to ask whether you’d care to join my Owsla. We shall be glad to
have you and you’ll enjoy it. If you’re ready, we might go along now.”

They went out past the young sentry, who paid the visitor no attention. The
sun was shining and in spite of the cold there were a few bucks and does at silflay,
keeping out of the wind as they nibbled the shoots of spring grass. It seemed to
Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the
edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get
used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing
inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.

“You needn’t worry about them,” said his companion. “They’ll be all right —
and thousands like them. If you’ll come along, I’ll show you what I mean.”

He reached the top of the bank in a single, powerful leap. Hazel followed; and
together they slipped away, running easily down through the wood, where the
first primroses were beginning to bloom.

by

The Case Against Free Trade

Categories: A Day in the Life, Call and Response, It's the Stupid Economy, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Primary Sources, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , , , , ,

I spend a lot of time arguing on Facebook. It comes and goes as a use of time. It’s often frustrating, but in the best moments, it feels like there’s a real opportunity to change someone’s mind. Facebook has become this distilled part of the Internet where enough smart, thoughtful people spend enough time that it’s like tapping into a collective town square. The greatest democratic theorists always talked about the proverbial town square, the marketplace of ideas, a place where concepts are freely exchanged and rebutted and synthesized into the best decisions for our future.

Granted, my Facebook feed may be more like this than the average feed. In a world where people talk about their feeds being overly siloed and sectioned off from disagreeing opinions, the majority of my Facebook friends have been associated with APDA, the American Parliamentary Debate Association. This league of collegiate debaters has its flaws, but it does bring together a group of intellectuals who care about persuasion and the future of the planet’s people. And that’s pretty cool.

It also has plenty of people who disagree with me. Then again, the main reason my feed is probably not siloed into people who agree with me is because there are very few such people, if any. There’s a reason my site is called the Blue Pyramid, after all.

Anyway, a recent argument, primarily with some former Boston University debaters, but also with some former Cornell debaters, enabled me to distill a response to one of the most prominent arguments against free trade. And I feel like I want it to be in a more prominent and permanent place than a Facebook sub-comment thread. Both because I live to try to persuade but also because it proves that all the time spent arguing on Facebook doesn’t have to end fruitless with a feeling of unsettled angst. It’s not just wasted time. Even if a lot of it is.

As background, the initial discussion topic was Democrats and leftists, including Bernie Sanders, celebrating Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). I am one of those leftists celebrating this, as a lifelong opponent of free trade. We then got into a lot of the reasons I’m against free trade. Part of my case could be the entire book The Shock Doctrine. But I see free trade as problematic for even more reasons than Naomi Klein does. I see it as the proliferation of unfettered capitalism, the system that creates waste and worships waste as a value above all others. It places corporations in a superior position to nation-states – while I’m not a fan of either institution, I’d choose nation-states every time. They at least try to have popularly utile motives, whereas corporations care only about the bottom line.

But I’ve always believed the most damning thing about free trade, especially in its recent incarnations as something that mainstream establishment politicians want to see sweep the globe into one giant market where enormous Western multi-national corporations (MNCs) run wild and free, is that it’s telling a false story about competition. The narrative is that a level playing-field will enable those with the most talent and merit to rise and gives everyone an equal opportunity to succeed. The reality is that the playing-field purported as level is anything but. Free trade is giving some groups a 200-year head-start on a race and then celebrating how fair it is because everyone was allowed to run. Worse, those with all the monetary and power advantages of having been competing in a capitalist marketplace for vastly longer are the ones who write the rules of how the race will be run. The idea that this is passed off on the developing world as a fair fight is laughable.

I got two key counter-arguments in defense of free trade, though, which I want to reprint my responses to because I think they’re the most clear and cogent articulations of my beliefs on this complicated issue that I’ve put forward. And then I’d like to invite y’all to join the debate on this critical issue of our time if you have further counter-arguments.

The first counter-argument questioned, essentially, why I would advocate for protectionist trade when that essentially divides the world and what I ultimately want is a united world under the banner of a more socialist structure. Isn’t free trade a possible stepping stone to a united socialist world? Am I cutting off my nose to spite my face here?

My response:

Think of it like harm reduction vs. the AA model of addiction cessation.

Ultimately, I want the AA model for capitalism – no capitalism, nowhere. That’s my ideal. I recognize how unlikely it is, but that’s not going to stop me from railing against capitalism my whole life until other people see its flaws too.

But, in the meantime, we can also seek harm reduction. This is why I’ve spent most of my career in non-profits and why I’m not a pure accelerationist. I see protectionist trade as harm reduction. With free trade, the top-dog best-funded MNCs end up owning everything and superseding governments. They are able to make the rules and will turn the globe into an unfettered capitalist wasteland. Protectionist trade, while riddled with innate flaws of capitalism, curbs that outcome that the MNCs so desperately want. It enables some countries to protect themselves and their interests rather than being overrun by greedy colonialists.

Protectionism in America doesn’t really *directly* protect anything I care about, which is why people often assume I believe things I don’t when I align with Bernie and Trump on this issue. I don’t care about the American worker. I care about the Nigerian worker. And if the most powerful country in the world that holds most of the rapacious MNCs takes a big step away from free trade, it extends that trend around the globe, making it more likely the people I care about are saved from free trade’s devastation.

It’s kind of weird, I guess, that I vehemently agree with both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump about the importance of opposing free trade, but not for the reasons they do. But it’s also why the typical rebuttal to economic populism doesn’t resonate with me. People are basically saying “those jobs ain’t coming back, fools!” And it’s true. Automation has killed American manufacturing, permanently. But I don’t care about that. Automation and free trade are both killing everyone’s jobs, pretty quickly, and part of our thread was about the need to develop safeguards in a post-work society. Which, by the way, will not be aided by allowing corporations to sue governments for implementing protections that limit profits. If we need to give universal basic income or benefits or even just the right not to be enslaved by a corporation to former workers who have been edited out of the economy, we will need to tax corporate profits to do that. Both of those things could be clear violations of the TPP as written. This is bad.

But then I got the seminal argument, the one I see most proliferated in defense of free trade, the golden myth propagated by everyone to carry the torch of free trade forward for a new generation. And my response to it was actually liked by the folks asking the questions and arguing against it. If I didn’t change their minds, I at least offered something to give them pause. So this is the main focus of this post and what I want people to think about.

The question:
“What do you make of the statistics that show that this sort of trade and development has reduced extreme poverty ($1 or $2 a day) to single digit percentages in 30 years from 60-70 percent, if I’m right…for all its manifest problems? And before industrial capitalism virtually everyone that lived in extreme poverty.”

My response:

I feel like what’s being calculated is highly misleading. On a capitalist spectrum, the numbers have slightly increased. But people have traded functional subsistence economies for being enslaved by a capitalist machine that destroys their countrysides and makes them all the property of foreign sweatshop-owners and foreign resource exploiters.

This is a complicated question, but there are a few key points in evaluating this widely propagated (mis)perception of free trade:

1. Comparison to pre-colonialism. The only suitable comparison of current standards of living is to pre-colonial days. Because I see free trade and directly colonial ownership as two phases of the same trend. And if you started with chattel slavery and then went to Jim Crow, you don’t get congratulated because Jim Crow is better than slavery. You get blamed for enslaving people in the first place. Developing world poverty was not an innate state of being as it’s represented as being – it was manufactured by colonialism. A shitty quick fix that puts everyone in the GDP matrix does not count as “lifting people out of poverty”. It’s rearranging the deck chairs on an unending disaster.

2. What is counted. My argument would be that if you’re living in a functional pre-colonial barter economy, or even a somewhat feudal economy, all of your labor and standard of living is invisible to conventional contemporary capitalist metrics. You may be making $0/day because you’re not paid in money or you’re paid in a money worthless compared to the American economy. But this does not mean that your life is awful or that you are even functionally poor relative to your actual sphere. Globalization puts everyone in the same race without recognizing that there are different definitions and perceptions of the good life in other countries and different scales of magnitude.

3. Winners and losers. These averages and things are often calculated with the few robber barons of each developing country factored in. Not only can this skew the math, but it recreates the wealth inequality situation over and over again in societies all over the globe. This is deeply problematic because capitalism tends to recreate its own kind of aggressive feudalism where the few rich people functionally own everyone else in society and can abuse them and get them to do whatever they want. That’s actually somewhat new in the US and it’s giving us Trump, endless government corruption and cronyism, and will eventually replace democracy with kleptocracy. That’s bad for everyone’s quality of life.

4. Materialism. The problem with poverty and quality of life as measured by GDP stats is that it puts the innate value on materialism. The ability to own toasters and cars and other things, regardless of how wasteful and problematic these things are. Are these really necessary for the good life? Refrigeration increases the convenience of your eating experience so you can run back to your 16 hour/day job. But that 16 hour/day job in the West is prompting the world’s largest stream of anti-depressants and people trying to mortgage their schedule to have one day at home where they actually cook a meal and taste their food. How to compare this to a pre-colonial society where people lived on the land, took 3 hours for each meal in a three-generation family under one roof, and took time to appreciate each other as people? It’s a hard question. Capitalism dismisses the latter situation as poverty because it doesn’t cut the mustard in dollars and cents. I think it’s probably objectively a preferable way to live. I don’t see someone being forced out of that to go work in the sweatshop so they can eat processed food that gives them cancer in the middle of a tenement as being “lifted out of poverty”. But that’s how it gets calculated.

5. Access to health care, the internet, etc. This is the one area where I think there may be some ground to argue that modern life and culture does improve quality of life across the board. The problem, though, is that the more unequally things are distributed, the less you can make arguments from this vantage. If socialism were the overriding philosophy, or even protectionist trade, then equal access to improved modern medicine, the internet, and quality education would be priorities. Unfortunately, free trade has created kleptocractic neo-feudalism in most developing countries, meaning that these fundamental improvements are proportionately accessible only to the rich. This is part of why I’m advocating for protectionist trade. If you run the state-run oil company and have some capitalism, you can still use those oil profits to give everyone hospitals, schools, roads, and internet-accessible phones. If it’s everyone for themselves in the MNC-run rat-race, those are only going to be accessible to the people at the top. I think this is the best conduit to improving lives and the best argument for the capitalists. But free trade actively hurts this benefit.

What do you think? Is free trade an unfettered step in our ever-upward trajectory of progress that only Luddites and idiots would oppose? Or is free trade a bill of goods being sold to us by ever-hungrier MNCs controlled by a Singularity-like focus on cancerous growth? Or something in the middle?

I welcome your responses and thoughts. Send me something, post on your blog and send me the link, argue with me on Facebook. This is an important discussion to be considering as we face the future.

If you’re connected to me or the debaters I was debating against on Facebook, you can also see:
The original post with all comments
The specific comment thread where we discussed these aspects of free trade at length

Using this image ought to stoke some reactions!

by

Obama’s Legacy, Trump’s Window, and the Future of Hope

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

President Donald Trump shakes hands with ex-President Barack Obama after he took the oath of office at the Inauguration Ceremony in Washington, D.C. Trump became the 45th President of the United States
US Presidential Inauguration ceremony, Washington DC, USA – 20 Jan 2017 Photo by REX/Shutterstock (7945015bf)

I didn’t vote for Barack Obama in 2008, or in 2012. As regular readers will know, I also didn’t vote for the Republicans in those elections. I wanted to vote for him in 2008, came very close, but ultimately decided I couldn’t. I had been rooting for him throughout the primaries, I loved hearing him speak, but my calculus broke down as follows:

So while I’m excited about the upside possibilities, I have to decide based on what I can be confident Obama will actually do. He will surround himself with people like Joe Biden. Disaster. He will move troops from Iraq to Afghanistan and accelerate hostilities there. Disaster. He will attempt to enact tax policy that is exactly right for this time. Good. He will support measures like the $700 billion bailout that passed Congress earlier this month. Disaster. He will increase the amount of healthcare coverage in this country, though he may use mandates to do so. Toss-up. He will talk about hope and change and sacrifice and be aware of the times we are engaging in, as much as most any politician could. Good. He will talk to foreign leaders. Good. He will not commit to ending the war in Iraq. Disaster.

That’s a lot of disaster. I could be accused of being close to a one-issue voter in many ways… war and violence are pretty much the only thing I care about at the end of the day. I think tax policy is somewhat important, and certain social issues here and there (gay marriage, for example). And there’s an increasing issue about who will have the dignity to allow America to step down from its throne of arrogance and superpowerism to gracefully withdraw without pressing red buttons and going nuts. On that last front, Obama clearly beats McCain, though there’s little confidence I have that any American politician can really do that.

Ultimately, I can’t end up supporting someone who has made one of their only concrete policy articulations a description of exactly how many Afghans they want to kill. You can say all you want about him having to say that to get elected and that he’ll actually end both wars, but I need to see that happen before I have any reason to believe it.

In the end, I feel good about my decision not to vote for Obama, not to support accelerating the war in Afghanistan and, as became more important over time, the unending war with everyone via drone strikes. But as I’ve discussed frequently here, the last two years of Obama’s term were his best, by far, and agreeing to release Chelsea Manning capped a run of commutations, negotiations, and executive orders that made me truly sad we couldn’t have had six years of that President beforehand. Had Obama’s first four years looked like his last two, I probably would have voted for him in 2012. The fact that he released Manning after years of punishing whistleblowers and tightening the screws on American secrecy indicates that maybe his heart really was in the right place all along. Or that Trump had shown him the danger of building up the executive’s power to persecute individuals without remorse.

But how I feel about Obama has always been hard and hard to talk about. On Inauguration Day 2009, I stood in Freedom Hall at Glide in San Francisco, shoulder to shoulder with co-workers, homeless San Franciscans, addicts, and leaders. I was swept up in the moment, in the vast unconditional love and admiration, in the tears of all the African-Americans present, in the shaking weeping of Cecil Williams as he watched a Black man become President. I could feel the pulsating hope, the unbridled joy, the feeling of unexpected fulfillment, and my heart, too, was full. I wanted so badly to be wrong about Obama, for him to be the Socialist visionary that Cecil was, that the Republicans accused him of being. He wasn’t, of course. But that didn’t make his Inaugural Address or the speech in Chicago on Election Night that much less magical. The man has always been magical. He captivated our hearts and minds and, for all this flaws, never let them go.

This is the problem of Obama for a radical leftist. The man is so damn likable. He’s a grand orator and an eminently reasonable person. His family is so charming. Michelle Obama is his equal and perhaps a braver potential leader. Her speech at the DNC stole the whole show. I want to like Obama and his cadre and his aura so much, reinforced by all these positive memes and posts and adorations from 95% of my friends. And yet, as it takes someone like Larry Wilmore to remind us, the man is an unrepentant murderer. He has used American power to accelerate and reinforce the post-9/11 strategy and doctrine that we should kill everyone who disagrees with us, that we should maintain and expand imperial power through the use of force. It’s hard for me to square, to reconcile, with all his other rhetoric and his lofty speeches about hope, about being the people we’ve been waiting for. But it’s the reality and one that I have to work hard not to forget.

The other issue, of course, is that Obama’s philosophy was to negotiate himself out of the room. It’s hard to say how much of this was naivete or blind faith that the Republicans would be as reasonable as he was trying to be and meet him halfway or even the surreptitious belief that Republicans had better solutions than Democrats. Regardless, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that most of his legacy is cribbed from the Heritage Foundation (the ACA) and the W Bush Administration (nearly all the foreign policy besides the Iran deal and Cuba). He didn’t write a healthcare bill he wanted to see as a strong step toward socialized medicine with a robust public option. He asked Congress to write it, then made even more concessions. He didn’t push for a strong reconciliation in the Middle East, at least after his Egypt speech, and allowed Hillary Clinton to convince the rest of the Cabinet to bomb wherever possible. He understood that a lot of the strength of power is found in not using it all the time, but in so doing handed it to people far less hopeful than he. The result was that most of his policies, especially in the areas I care most about, looked like eight more years of George W. Bush.

On the other hand, of course, now we have Donald Trump as President. Trump is everything that Obama is not, as a human being. He is crass and classless, entitled and boastful, sexist and scornful. Where Obama preached hope, Trump preaches doom. They both advocated change, but much of Trump’s change is a reversal of Obama’s legacy. Of course, when Obama’s legacy looks a lot like W Bush, what do you do with that? Trump says he can replace the ACA with something cheaper that covers more people. And Obama has said that if someone can actually do that, he’ll support it. There’s a window here, a narrow one, for some actual real change and improvement. But it requires working with and trusting someone who has taken every step possible to make himself appear as an enemy of the people who supported Obama, the people who I care about most, the people who I generally agree with in direction, though I disagree substantially with in degree.

It also requires Trump not being an instrument of the party that reluctantly, nay, almost at gunpoint, got him to the White House. Trump’s rhetoric has always been far more populist than Republican, a third road entirely from the traditional parties. But his appointments, from Vice President throughout most of the cabinet, looks like he’s trying to usher in a mainline Republican establishment administration. Far from draining the swamp, he seems to be pumping water in from other wetlands, doubling down on rich old white men who care only about themselves and their bottom line. This, obviously, is the opposite of populism.

Yet the fate of the Trump years, however long they last, relies on the extent of division between Trump and the Republican Party. Many of his speeches, as even a PBS commentator observed during the Inauguration, sound like FDR. He talks about getting America back to work with an investment in infrastructure, building roads and bridges and even railways! Unlike FDR, of course, he touts an isolationist foreign policy. And while I would love to see an America that invests in the rest of the world without fighting with it, I strongly prefer isolationism to the policies of the last sixteen years. America’s role on the planet since 9/11 has been to bomb and to bully, to use 3,000 dead as an excuse to claim a moral authority we abdicate daily. Withdrawing from that entirely, resetting the position of our empire relative to the rest of the world’s people, is better than continuing to accelerate it.

Of course, to build investment in infrastructure while withdrawing from the rest of the world, Trump will have to resist Republican machinations. There’s a reason that the Republican establishment coronated Jeb Bush before the voters revolted. The Republican Party, in 2017, is still the party of Bush. The last two Republican Presidents prior to Trump have their hold on the collective imagination of the the party leadership. And Jeb wants privatization. Jeb wants America to bully more and bomb more. Jeb and friends will pull out all the stops to make Trump’s rhetoric as meaningless as Obama’s promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

On the flip side, both mainline Democrats and mainline Republicans agree that many of Trump’s policies – the worst he’s advocated – are garbage. Building a wall on the Mexican border, Muslim bans and registries, cracking down on immigration. No one besides Trump and his most rabid voters think these are good ideas. Again, American progress from 2017-? will depend on Republicans ditching Trump when they actually disagree. There’s a narrow window here, a window of possible hope in the darkness, where Republicans ditch Trump on his worst policies, stand against their “own” President, but acquiesce on matters like building new trains and roads and bridges. Or that enough of them acquiesce there and that Democrats see the opportunity to implement FDR-like policies even during a Trump administration, that they get on board with the best parts of populism and help facilitate them.

The worst case scenario, of course, is the opposite. That Republicans get behind the Trump agenda in its worst ways to support the President, but that new infrastructure is a bridge (pun intended) too far for them, while Democrats just try to stonewall everything Trump says or does, regardless of its value as a policy. This is why I get nervous about the way people on “my” side of the aisle are talking about Trump. Yes, many Trump supporters represent racist, sexist, backwards thinking. Yes, Trump has manipulated these people into getting into the White House. Yes, Trump himself is a horrible human being who, like Bill Clinton, has committed sexual assault and bragged about it. None of this means that we should oppose a Trump plan to build new high-speed rail in the US, nor a Trump plan that replaces the ACA with something better. We don’t know that he will propose any of those things, of course – it may all be smoke and mirrors. But if he does, we should be ready to support it. Even if he’s a loathsome individual personally.

And this relates to the other main concern I have about the disloyal opposition’s approach to attacking Trump. I fear that people see Trump as the problem with America, not a symptom of its problems. In focusing so much attention on Trump as a person, on Trump’s supporters, on the worst aspects of Trump’s proposed policy and Cabinet, we are ignoring what about Trump is a natural outgrowth and evolution of the road we’ve been on since 9/11. And that, I fear, is very dangerous. Because if we think Trump is the problem, much less the genesis of the problem, and not merely a symptom, then we will think we are cured whenever we move beyond Trump. And that means we might celebrate someone who is only a couple minor steps to the left of Trump as a wholesale solution.

Trump offers us an amazing opportunity to see what is wrong with us, in full view. It’s not that Trump is good, by and large, though I agree with him on infrastructure, the TPP, and not doing a lot of interventionist wars. It’s that so many people from all walks of politics can recognize that Trump’s hateful rhetoric is wrong. That so many can see his bravado and authoritarian love of displays of military might and his appeal to traditional white male domination, to the rule of wealth, that all of these things are horrible. They are horrible. We are right to stand up and attempt to shout them down.

But it is not really about Trump. It is about an America that has always championed these values, has always believed in wealth and power and corporations and white men at the expense of those people they oppress. About an America that has always been racist and sexist and homophobic. About an America that has a long, long way to go before it can be considered good, much less great. This is why the attack, the Clinton slogan, that America has always been great was both insidious and a losing strategy. It’s not true. America is a force for ill in the world and we need to work very very hard to try to steer that ship in a new direction. Blaming the captain who is maintaining course and only accelerating it has truth to it, but only partial truth. The whole truth is that we needed to crank the wheel, regardless of speed. Yes, accelerating is a bad plan when we’re going in the wrong direction. But as long as we’re going in the wrong direction, the speed is actually a secondary issue.

In this way, the likability of Obama and the obvious odiousness of Trump almost work against us. They confuse the issue. As do all the comments about decorum and dignity of the office. One of the very very few things I actually kind of like about Trump is that he can’t be bothered to make nice with all the establishment traditions and norms. This is what his supporters adore about him. The “ain’t nobody got time for that” attitude is refreshing in the face of a government that cares more about appearances than actually helping anyone. But of course, Trump’s odiousness goes far beyond firing off tweets that always speak his mind. It goes to sexism and crassness and dismissing people’s rights and some stuff that is very important and very bad.

In this context, Obama was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or maybe a fox in sheep’s clothing, someone doing some really negative things with a lovable appearance. Trump, by stark contrast, is a wolf in wolf’s clothing. Or maybe a wolf in shark’s clothing, or T Rex’s clothing, the manifestation of a monster while his policies are perhaps just a little bit worse. By focusing on the costume, we avoid looking at the actual teeth, evaluating the actual danger. The danger is real with Trump, but it has always been real. We should not let the fact that Obama is smart and nice and looks the part get in the way of criticizing his failings. And we should not let the fact that Trump appears to be the devil incarnate get in the way of supporting the very few things he might suggest that are good.

And maybe there will be nothing. I am open to this unfortunate and scary possibility, that Trump is indistinguishable from Jeb, that he just saw an angle and a constituency he could galvanize and will then use his platform to aggrandize mainline Republican policies through and through. Or that he will make deals with the Republicans to those ends. I can’t imagine why the Republicans would have fought so tremendously hard to stop him if this were the case, but it could happen. Really, anything could happen. And in that uncertainty, we get the last piece of the puzzle that people hate about Trump. He’s unpredictable. They go to bed at night not knowing what will happen in the morning.

But change and hope and possibility depend on uncertainty. Maybe not Trump’s uncertainty, certainly. Maybe everything he does will be bad and awful and damaging. But with the fomentation of that uncertainty, there is real opportunity. Opportunity to enable Trump to show us the error of our ways, all of our ways, and chart a new course. Opportunity to accept and acknowledge anything Trump does that happens to be helpful. Opportunity, perhaps most importantly, to shift the landscape of how we view American politics, away from a bifurcated D and R and into a new road and new alignments that enable us to ditch time-honored traditions like murdering everyone who disagrees with us along with several wedding parties in countries where such people disagree.

It’s not much. It’s a cracked window opening, or perhaps a crack in a window. But it’s there and we can try to let a little light in as we steer the ship into rougher seas.

by

Start Walking

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Metablogging, Telling Stories, Tags: , , ,

By any metric, 2017 has been a great year so far.

Now that I’ve said that out loud (on print), in public, it feels like a jinx. And not just because of my erstwhile belief in Mack Truck Time, the notion (reinforced by countless events in my life, really) that as soon as things start to go truly and obviously well, there is a Mack Truck waiting to hit you around the next corner.

I’ve told people that my New Year’s Resolution was to write every day. Simple, no frills. But it’s also a little less absolute than previous such attempts, because I’m not actually trying to write literally every day. The problem with a resolution like that is that failure is cooked right into the formula. It’s not really possible to actually write every day, really. There are migraines and exhaustion, there are, say, impromptu trips to Atlanta, there are days where household chores take over any other possible priority. And for those of us with self-hating shame-spirals who rely heavily on self-intimidation to get anything done, being that inflexible about something important – something that feels like it could be renewing and even life changing – is a bad plan. Every day is going to be different. Every day is going to have its unique challenges. Writing every day is not really an option.

But writing just about every day is. And part of the magic here, the tricky alchemy of convincing oneself to take this seriously while still not holding it to be every every day, is expecting to write every day, but not being crushingly disappointed with oneself on the days when that doesn’t happen. To look forward to tomorrow’s writing if today’s didn’t happen. It’s very hard for a self-hating person to do this. But somehow, in 2017, I’m managing better than almost ever before.

The reason this really feels like a jinx is because the last time I talked about writing in this forum, it was a jinx. A gigantic one. In an effort to update friends and (more importantly) hold myself accountable, I chronicled the first fortnight of my work on the Uber book, which now has a tentative title: Driving for U: Behind the Wheel of a New Orleans Uber. I had written over 12,000 words at a nearly 1,000/day clip, which is often used as the over/under margin for a productive writer. The date was 20 September 2016.

I didn’t write another word of the book in 2016.

As October led to November to December, I spent a lot more time trying to parse why that had suddenly been the moment the wheels came off after I’d projected an end-of-the-year deadline for myself. The jinx theory is convenient and hapless, but of course not what I really believe. Though part of me felt like it was a factor, like looking too directly at my own methodology somehow abridged its ability to be effective. This would sound crazy if there aren’t a lot of real-world parallels: driving, typing, breathing. When one thinks too intently about things that are best done by effortless repetitive rote, they become suddenly challenging and, in some cases, impossible. If you start to focus on the mechanics behind driving a car or even the pulse of your heartbeat, you can think yourself into non-functionality mighty fast.

That was part of it. More of it was that I’d met a literary agent in my Uber and he’d seemed excited about getting a query letter and a little after I put that post up, it became clear he was never going to write back. It was a small stupid setback, minuscule really, not even worth thinking about for veterans of rejection. But it had been a while since I’d queried anyone and I was more fragile than I realized, especially in light of the tangible hope his (drunken) enthusiasm provided. There is a deep conundrum here, especially given that basically every successful writer in the past century has been rejected by virtually everyone in the publishing industry at least once and yet hope/daydreaming provides a profoundly large quotient of the fuel necessary to enable writing consistently significant quantities of text. Say what you will about writing for its own sake and to slake some inner thirst that needs no external validation. You’re kidding yourself, honey. If you felt that way, you wouldn’t write. You would think. That’s what internally motivated intrinsically rewarded writing is called. Thinking. Your urge to put it into text that lives somewhere (a page, a webpage, even someone’s ears for a fleeting moment) is directly correlated to your desire to impact other people. This doesn’t cheapen the exercise. If anything, it makes it meaningful, powerful, it makes it matter. After all, as I always say, there’s a reason we’re not all born on our own individual planet. We are here to save each other.

Did I get distracted by the political situation? Sure, everyone did. Did I get run down by the day to day of driving for Uber and playing poker again and trying to read and trying to coach debate and trying to keep up with housework? Definitely. It’s everything. Writing is the greediest habit I have, the greediest habit I can imagine shy of an addiction to an innately destructive substance. It even puts video games to shame. Those at least can be done casually, the voice trying to make them all-consuming does not actually require you to set aside other activities. Writing, however, demands to be a part of one’s attention all the time. And it requires silencing of distractions, quieting of other uses of time. You have to be bored to write in twenty-first century America, because otherwise more distracting excitements with shorter attention spans will consume your energy first. It is easier to read, it is easier to play video games, to watch TV (even if you don’t usually like it, which I don’t), to walk, to talk, to play, to do anything else. And it’s not that writing is some torturous event that is painful and torments the soul (I guess it is for some; this has never resonated with me). It’s just that writing takes time that is cleared out for no other purpose because it takes more effort and concentration than any other effort. And, frankly, because anyone who’s been through the American educational system associates writing with obligation and procrastination and burden, with getting that paper done at 3 in the morning, with chunking out all your thoughts after a long delay. All writing still feels a little like that. And that makes it very hard to just set everything else aside and be excited about doing it.

There is a counter-weight to this, however. And this, ironically, is what I was trying to gin up when I wrote that blasted jinx piece on 20 September, the piece I hope to God I’m not repeating in some way today. That counter-weight is, roughly, momentum. Because writing is actually fun in the throes of it and it is exciting when the words are coming down on a direct line from somewhere else, bypassing the critical brain, when your fingers are struggling to keep up. And as a project comes together, as the hope/daydreaming gets some flesh and teeth and energy into it, it starts to transform from a vision to something with real shape and substance and tangible reality. And that morphing is exciting as all heck. I’ve written three books in my life and at some point, the tipping point has always been hit where it’s easier to finish than to not finish, where the book is mostly out in the world, where the head is crowning and if the last few pushes are the most painful, at least we know there’s a baby coming so it’s all gonna be worth it. The real alchemy of writing, of being A Writer in the sense that everyone would agree with and no one could dispute, is being able to be in this state all the time. Which, of course, is best aided and abetted by being able to do it full-time, professionally, of knowing that you don’t have to trudge through another job or another use of time that takes away from writing. For some, of course, that kind of freedom and control becomes its own enemy and leads to a lack of urgency, to writer’s block, to stalling out. But for me, I crave it. The entire struggle to write is in drying out my mind enough to make the space available. To clear the decks of all the other life stuff that gets in the way, that requires an occupation to provide food and all the rest. There’s a reason all three books prior were written at times when I was making no income whatsoever. And why the current struggle, to do it with a pseudo-job (driving for Uber) is a key litmus test of transitioning to a slightly stronger model.

Momentum. 2017 has it, so far. No whammy no whammy no whammy.

First of all, here, on the blog, because that counts as writing and it kind of helps me excise other distracting thoughts so the writing on the book itself can be more pure. This is the fifth post of 2017 to appear here. It’s the 18th day. In 2016, my fifth blog post appeared on June 7th, nearly halfway through the year. My first didn’t even show up till March! And yes, I had a day job for that first half of 2016, one I was rapidly becoming disenchanted with. But you know when the fifth blog post after September 20th, 2016 was? It was a month ago. The sixth was two weeks ago. The tenth is this post.

How about the book?

I started writing it again just over a fortnight ago (no whammy no whammy no whammy), on January 5th. In the intervening two weeks, I’ve written 19,279 words (1,377 words/day), which is over 60% of the book’s total so far. This makes 31,700 words in two two-week sessions, with a high-end ballpark figure of 100,000 words total for the first draft. Which is a three-month pace. Which is what I do, generally speaking.

For me, this time, if I can keep it up, it was the promise of a new year. Say what you will about New Year’s Resolutions, but they’re a good excuse. Mostly, when we need to change something, it’s not news to us that we need to change it. We just need a good excuse to explain to ourselves why we’re only changing it now. Is it because 17 is my favorite number and this is the only year ending in 17 I’ll ever live through? Sure, I’ll take it. Is because I just got fed up with my own inadequacy but needed a better story to tell myself? Probably. But hey, we all live off of signs and meaning, whether real or self-imposed.

I haven’t been reading much lately, not nearly as much as I’d like, a casualty of writing and also trying to exercise again (Grand Canyon 2020, baby!) and just getting everything in order. But the other day, flouting the reality of how much energy I have for reading, I checked out The Familiar, vol. 1 by Mark Z. Danielewski. For the unfamiliar (ha!), picture a brick full of inconsistently typefaced, bizarrely laid out text, often spiraling into unreadability. Like a graphic novel without the characters, where the text itself is most of the illustration. This is apparently my light-reading antidote to an effort to write my first non-fiction book.

In my first 70-odd-page flurry of reading it, something fell out of another section of the book. It was the following hand-written note:

I’m going to transcribe it here, in text, for readability and searchability:

You know that thing you have always wanted to do, to be?

The path you were on as a little kid, before middle school, before you ever had a drop to drink or touched a drug.

That thing, that dream.

If you start walking towards that, now, a path will appear, seemingly out of nowhere.

It will. It will open up.

I promise you.

Start walking.

I’m not the perfect target audience of the note, having already never had a drop to drink or touched a drug. It’s New Orleans, after all. But that’s really just window-dressing on the overall message. The message is one I was already heeding, again again again but also for once, when the paper fluttered out of the book. But life is like a horror movie with a trick ending laden with clues along the way. Once you’ve figured it out, everything you see thereafter reinforces your having figured it out. Everything after is a reaffirmation, if you know where to look.

We are here to save each other.

Start walking.

1 2 3 4 5 37 38