Tag Archives: A Day in the Life


Follow Me Down to the Rose Parade

Categories: A Day in the Life, From the Road, Tags: ,

I’ve never been much of an Elliot Smith fan, but I feel like I could really hang out with him today. I mean, not literally. I obviously couldn’t literally hang out with him, because he killed himself. And that’s really another post altogether.

Somehow I missed the Happy New Year train.

Happy New Year.

Today, believe it or not, I’m even almost objecting to the use of that phrase. I know I have a bit of a reputation as a contrarian already, but I’m really not sure that’s the best thing to hope for from a year. When was the last time someone wished you a Thoughtful New Year? Or how about a Peaceful New Year?

I recognize that I’m straw-manning this situation a little bit, because obviously the etymology of the “Happy New Year” construction is about the day of New Year (actually “New Year’s Day”)… the phrase is actually meant to signify “Happy New Year’s Day”. This simply puts the phrase/day in line with almost every American designation for holiday greetings, save for perhaps Christmas. And wishing someone a Thoughtful or Peaceful day is a little ridiculous, or at least would get Americans to look askance at you.

They asked me to come down and watch the parade
and to march down the street like the Duracell bunny
with a wink and a wave from the cavalcade
throwing out candy that looks like money…

It’s not that I don’t have hope for the new year of 2008, or even the new year day of 1/1/2008. See? But there’s something a little bit off right now, and it feels important to detect what that is. The TV is telling me it’s the Year of the Rat, though they note that this doesn’t get underway till February 7th. It makes me look up to the television to see tens of American girls whose lives are peaking at this moment. Their televised appearance in formal gowns and dresses, high atop flower-adorned vehicles, will be the highlight of lives specifically designed to aspire to the life of a princess. They will never be closer than today. And when you ask them along the course of the next 30 or 50 years, they will mention their marriage (until it goes sour) or the birth of their child (until they rebel), and it will probably not be till 2067 or so that they turn over in their aging recliner and whisper softly to their granddaughter that “Don’t tell your mother, but the day I was in that parade was the best day of my life. My whole future was in front of me and I could’ve been something or done something. Promise me, promise me now that you’ll do something different.” And the granddaughter, age 7 (or maybe realistically it’s a great-granddaughter, with the speed that most Rose Parade highschool queens run at) will blink and promise and have no idea what grandma is talking about and go watch a movie about princesses and sigh softly to themselves.

But today, Miss Wherever, enjoy it. I can see that the biggest thing you’re concerned about is worrying whether you’re being too ardent or too reserved in your exact waving technique. By the end of the parade, you will have resigned yourself to however you have the stamina to acknowledge the crowd, but for now the anxiety about proper waving technique is probably ruining at least half your happiness on what you will look back on as the pinnacle, the apex, the Best Day of Your Life.

The day that they told me the best way to be part of the Wheel of Fortune crowd, and maybe even get called to play on Wheel of Fortune, was to demonstrate mindless, even vapid enthusiasm during the taping of the show was a big one for my perception of the world. It came another step full-circle when Emily & I, together with some of the Garin clan, attended a taping of The Price is Right 5 years ago. Now as I listen to the commentary, I am reminded how much of the world has this mandatory vapidity check at the door. Even CNN, still wearing its “most trusted name in news” label that was accurate in the mid-90’s, has hired an army of smiling toned young people to convey the collapse of various aspects of the planet with a smile and a nod to advertisers and the incredibly insipid tactic of faking impromptu conversation between anchors. Reading informal inter-anchor dialogue off a teleprompter must be one of those truly surreal experiences for its participants.

I’d say it’s a sight that’s quite worth seeing
it’s just that everyone’s interest is stronger than mine

This post is starting to feel more like fragments of a story than any sort of nonfiction presentation of the realities of my (or other’s) life. I’m sure the story has been written already and maybe in many ways, probably often with a strange moment of seeming redemption where the person who has devoted their life to the false prophets of fame and fortune quietly accepts their role as a middle-income middle-interest middleton who can be Happy Just the Way They Are. Alternately, maybe one of them has the ending I would write, where they spend one afternoon or dark night of the soul facing everything they’ve committed to and believed in and then, just before dusk or dawn, decide to willingly (metaphorically) gouge their own eyes out with a pitchfork, and undertake a dedicated regimen of controlled-substance-consumption, or obsessive collection of Pokemon cards or beanie babies, or maybe setting a goal for themselves of sleeping with as many people as possible before they die. And then, if we’re going for maximal irony, even this wanton goal is upended by either some unexpected death or even more damningly a small but important reminder of their “real life obligations” that puts them right back where they were at the beginning of the story, spending almost the entirety of their days quieting the voices of disappointment in the back of their head.

This is the point in the narrative where I usually feel strongly impelled to write some trite reassurance to my friends and cohorts that I am not actually feeling this dark and melancholy, and that sometimes I let my mind run away with my emotions and wind up in a place that I don’t really feel. I’m going to go ahead and take a pass on that opportunity.

It’s not that I’m chronically unhappy, or even particularly unhappy at this point in my life. (Dammit, this isn’t taking a pass after all.) It’s just that being thoughtful about the human experience, especially in the happiness-obsessed nation called the United States of America, always leads me to a realization of just how short we are of the way things should be. And observing this shortness, exploring it, trying to absorb it and put it on display, this process looks very sad. It is, however, deeply hopeful in the end. One could give up, stop caring, decide that humanity/America/vapid individuals are not worth saving, and then turn away and write about something “happier”. My sadness is my hope. My anger is my clinging to this planet and its meaning. I know Elliot is sponsoring this post, but I feel like I need to shout “If you’re not angry, you’re just stupid, you don’t care” from the rooftops most days.

I wonder if Elliot Smith and Ani DiFranco ever met. They seem finely attuned to have one of those profound love-hate relationships that leads to torrid romance, incredible blowout fights, and ultimately some sort of suicide pact.

and when I traded a smoke for a food stamp dollar
a ridiculous marching band started playing
and got me singing along with some half-hearted victory song

I’m working on longer pieces (outside the bounds of this blog) about the nature of rite and ritual and how our personal desire to fill our lives with such lead to us slowly carving meaning out of our lives with a spoon. Today, I think my take-home message about New Year’s is about the problems with its rituals and traditions. The entire point of a New Year is to embrace the new, the unexpected, that which we can change. And yet what defines 12/31 and 1/1 for people? Doing the same thing over and over again. The same toasts, watching the same shows. Followed by the same morning and the same (you guessed it) Rose Parade.

I was personally soaring at the idea that our TV somehow couldn’t get Dick Clark’s special last night, given that it’s both (A) a three-hour-old broadcast appearing on tape and (B) the exact same thing every single year, for years on end. All of these traditions proudly talk about being the 94th Rose Bowl or the 119th Rose Parade or Dick Clark’s 35th New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. How can it be reassuring to do the exact same thing every year to embrace a brand new year of opportunity and possibility? Why not make it a tradition to do something you’ve never done every single year?

Emily and I got into a bit of a fight about how overt I was in my opposition to watching an East-Coast broadcast. But really, I can think of very few relatively trivial things that get me so profoundly angry as West-Coasters starting their new year by watching a three-hour-old taped film of what happened in New York City. I mean, blind-rage, literally-seeing-the-things-in-front-of-me-with-a-tinge-of-red-that-must-be-some-sort-of-squeezed-blood-entering-my-eyeballs angry. The entire point of observing a new moment, a turning over, a changing, and actually seeing something that happened far away, three hours ago, and is not really happening now (or even close to now) and this being the seminal moment of change and turning. I feel my soul frothing at the mouth just thinking about it.

And yes, I hear you. The New Year moment itself is no more meaningful, really, than any other second. After all, in my very last post I decried New Year’s Resolutions as getting in the way of valuable and important change 98.08% of the time. But symbols and metaphors and emblems are important and do have a certain weight or value. After all, this whole planet, really, is just an exercise in metaphor. And so that moment of crossover, of turning, is an important reminder that we’re living a complicated life with an open future and that we have an incredible amount of control over the future that we create for ourselves.

There are still hours left in your New Year’s Day. Go do something different. Don’t start a new tradition, but do something important you’ve never done on a New Year’s Day. Embrace the open future symbolized by the four numbers 2, 0, 0, 8.

Thoughtful New Year.


Snow Chance

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

It’s the last day of the year called 2007. I am the last one awake in a cabin at Shaver Lake, California. Most all of the Garin Clan is here, save one component family. It is late, and there are less than 24 hours remaining in this annum.

I am writing mostly to check in. It’s been a difficult last few weeks of the year, and this blog in particular has demonstrated that with sparse updates which bear out the frustration of the time. Being sick was debilitating and working through it doubly so. Wrestling with the nature of my job and some of the people I work with wrecked much of my motivation to create or explain.

There is hope, as there always must be, for 2008. There’s a reason we pile the expectant and expected holidays in the middle of winter, and it has very little to do with the weather. Here indeed, we came for the snow, but there is little about. You can call it global warming, but the snow in Boston was allegedly record-breaking for December, they tell me. There’s a reason that people started calling global warming “climate change” instead. The mistake that the last 12 generations of weather-doomsayers made was predicting that things would go in one direction or the other. Saying that things will go in both directions saves us from any contrary evidence. Even the scientific method has been beaten back by propaganda and marketing spin. At least in 2005, everyone banked on more devastating hurricanes. That was a sure bet for 2006-7.

But nothing is sure, as that does a pale job of illustrating. This was meant to be a personal check-in and I’m already off on my high horse about political issues. And ones most of you don’t agree with me on, to boot. That’s no way to end a year. Maybe I’ve forgotten how to write these things. Or maybe the laptop in a foreign house is just no place to be coming back to a familiar venue.

My Dad and I have a running debate about how many units of housing there are per person in the United States. Or, hopefully, the debate is about how many people there are per housing unit. I guess that’s part of the debate. Regardless, it has occurred to me already on this trip that we have utterly forgotten vacation rentals, timeshares, and other such pseudo-units in calculating the equation. How, after years of Pismos and Aspen (PIRG) and a couple cabins at Shaver (Garins), not to mention an entire childhood on the Oregon coast (Seaside) this factor eluded me is beyond me. But it’s not beyond me anymore – vacation rentals must be a huge part of the equation. Em said NPR told her it was in the “high millions” a few days back. Borrowed housing, borrowed time. It’s a great opportunity, like “being in the Real World” noted one of the Clan as we entered the house. Most of my readers won’t need the explanation that this was a reference to a TV show. The Real World is a TV show. Being there is like being on TV. Are we getting somewhere?

Of course the real world is not a TV show, and little could be less like a TV show than the real world (Brandzel’s theory of my life duly excepted). But that pioneer of reality television has brought us an ever-cascading series of series that package the life of aspiration into narrower and more expensive boxes for people. It’s not to say that what we’re doing here (here, as in at the cabin) isn’t great, but it gets me thinking late into the night. How long has the American economic bubble of housing and consumerism been kept afloat by houses intended only for brief visits? And where do these fall in the overall picture as it slides down the screen?

Already three legs into what I tongue-in-cheekily dubbed the EmStor Winter World Tour 2007-2008, I realize I’ve reported on naught so far. It’s been a whirl of hellos and goodbyes, lights on trees and in bags and in skies and on screens. I can no more recount the details on this particular night than I can attempt to sum up the year that falters and fades this very eve. I will say I have had a great time so far and expect much more. That goes for the Tour and the year, and perhaps every day therein.

My expectations rarely are as well developed as they are on this particular cusp. I think it comes with getting older, being a little more conservative, feeling like on has a little more to lose and things to really hope for. I guess that’s the opposite of at least part of the popular perception, but it’s where I’ve been for awhile. Youth is as free as the openness of the future, which tends toward the vast. With age comes a more finite vision, and that specificity lends itself to careful prodding of the future, squeezing it and shaking it like so many wrapped gifts, and having something fixed in mind when tearing open the package. Watching my nieces and nephew this Christmas, I was reminded of my own time when I simply tore at the package in blind blank anticipation of what lay within, letting the surprise hit me at once instead of feeling it out.

I’m sort of walking away from a chance to do that now (or technically soon), instead choosing the more sedate (but wiser?) method of analyzing, holding on, weighing, and deciding. There’s no telling whether that’s the right call (and this fact, in itself, gives me a bit of that bald open future rush), but I feel confident that this is the decision that leaves me the least likelihood of immediate and irreparable regret. What a sad standard that is. It sounds so safe, so sedentary, so moderate. But I used to weigh debates by the better worst-case scenario. And how better to view that than through regret? And yes, I must dance this cryptic dance a few more days until someone gives me the official signal to speak. But many of you know already.

I think this post may exhaust every category I have for this blog. At the very least, it’s exhausting me a bit. Or maybe that’s just my age, or the significance of a year (which I’ve always revered), or the cancer seeping into my legs from this laptop.

You already know I don’t look to 2008 with the aura of political hope. Many do, and I bid you all the best of luck. How you will react to the inevitable crowing of Queen Hillary I from the House of Clinton remains to be seen. Had two royal families ever conspired to take turns with each other and steal the word “demos” from the Greeks, we may never have had experiments in voting and the current widespread form of government in the Western world. But they weren’t as clever as the modern plutocrats, and so we get to test the experiment a little late in the day. I think anyone who knows me knows why I can’t stand Hillary Clinton (well beyond the royalty thing). She will probably start as many unending wars as her predecessor, combining the general Bush/Clinton hawkishness with a unique desire to prove that women aren’t “weak”. And her ability to prove that being someone’s wife is a higher credential than any other experience, leadership, or character for a woman….? That will set everyone back a good few decades.

Whether she gets to kick around Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani will probably not be decided till summer, or whenever the Republicans are having their convention. While Hillary will lock things up with a 5-point outright win in Iowa (she has a role-model martyr without having to die, after all), the Republicans are facing a scenario I first anticipated over a year ago with all of the colliding early primaries. They seem almost destined to have the first undecided (read: meaningful) convention since the infamous Chicago ’68 sham put on by the Democrats. Rudy’s fading and the Huckster’s coming on strong, and Mitt may enter the convention with the most delegates but the startling reality that the Republicans will never ever nominate a Mormon to be their horse. The party bosses are most likely to close in behind Giuliani, depending on how 9/11-crazed people are and just how many decomposing corpses are exhumed from Rudy’s closet. Huckabee will possibly be standing out as a clean bit of contrast and the only mainline traditional Republican in the bunch, so he could end up with it. But McCain has enough followers and Thompson enough watchers to almost guarantee that this convention will see no one close to the magic number going in. It will be exciting to watch, and even more interesting to see the various implosions of the party as they try to consolidate and can’t and end up spending months running 2-3 people against Queen Hillary I.

The most interesting thing to see will be whether the Republicans, after the shellacking of ’08, will be able to convince King Jeb I to return the favor King Bill I dealt King George I and jump in 4 years early in ’12. Unlikely, though… it’s far more dignified to let the monarchs have 8 years to reign. Even if it turns out the way King George II did.

So, no, my hope for ’08 is not political in nature. It is wrapped up instead with projects and possibilities, travel and even turmoil. 2007 has been good, but has felt like a long extended period of practice. 2008 will hopefully feel a bit more of a game. With any luck, that would leave 2009 as the beginnings of a real showcase or tournament.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I don’t really do resolutions, being open to the future and all. Anyway, if a resolution occurs to you, you should probably start doing it right away if it’s a good one. Which means that only 1/52nd of the time that really leads to a New Year’s Resolution. Anyway, the last thing I need is to be making more commitments and promises at a time like this. Let’s just agree to hope for today and leave it at that.

Keep checking back, because I really owe you more details. As they say on the TV shows, “stay tuned”…


Winter World Tour 2007-2008

Categories: A Day in the Life, Keepin' it Cryptic, Pre-Trip Posts, Quick Updates, Tags: , , ,

As I’ve often been known to say, change is the only constant. This has perhaps never felt more true than this week, which is simply over-brimming with upheaval and possibility. Forget ungainly metaphors about baby steps and windows and doors. Every door and window in the whole house has burst open and is flooding. Equal parts elation, nervous apprehension, and general anticipation.

As I told one of my assistants today, “I am an emotional ocean.”

Sadly many of the details are not public yet and I do still have to try to play ball with a world that thinks privacy is not an outdated relic. So it goes. What I can announce, however, is the EmStor 2007-2008 Winter World Tour.

I feel like we should have a corporate sponsor. Y’know, if I weren’t a Non-Profiteer and believed in that sort of thing.

The EmStor 2007-2008 Winter World Tour

21-25 December 2007

Albuquerque, NM

Parents, Nuevo Friends

26-28 December 2007

Berkeley, CA

Work, Beth Visiting

29 December 2007
6 January 2008

Shaver Lake, CA

Cabin with the Garin Clan

7-22 January 2008

Berkeley, CA

Work, Little to Report

23 January –
10 February 2008

India & Nepal Trip

Featuring 7 hours in London, partial Garin Clan

Yeah, you read that last part right. India & Nepal. For 2.5 weeks. With a stop in London. Oh yeah.

Most all of this (and more things TBA) have just materialized in the last 48 hours. It’s kind of incredible. 2008, you are looking mighty mercurial. But exciting. Very exciting.

The downside of all this is that I have to jettison tentative plans for judging at the Brandeis 2008 debate tourney (8-9 February 2008), as I will still be in India. And I may also have to forgo a President’s Day Weekend jaunt to Chicago, though that can be delayed instead of cancelled since it’s not as temporally tied as a debate tournament. Although, who knows… maybe I’ll be up for more travel just 10 days after return. Chicago, you may make the Winter World Tour yet.

So, I’ll see you when I see you. Not a ton of these have the options of meeting up with people that, say, Boston & Chicago have. But certainly Albuquerque, starting tonight and for the next four days, will be a big opportunity for hanging out. Frontier, luminarias, and Pac-Man, here I come! Only 7 more work hours until almost non-stop holiday fun of one kind or another…


The Beat(ing) Goes On

Categories: A Day in the Life, Quick Updates, Tags: ,

I am still sick. Quite sick, in fact. No more sick, perhaps, but certainly no less.

Today, possibly, my head will clear enough for me to begin a deluge of posts that, like so much nasal discharge, has been welling up in me for the past 9 days.


My voice is shot. I lost it fully once, for nearly 48 hours. It came back. I then lost it, functionally, for 3 or 4 days. I’ve been fighting it, persisting, forcing it to do my bidding at work and through Fish’s visit, but the larynx is waving a white flag. It is done.

The doctors (since I know you’re asking) analyzed this as allergies exacerbated by a possible cold. They assigned me to take something that wouldn’t show results for 2-3 months. I don’t think feeling like this is going to be viable for 2-3 months, but I’m hoping the idea that this will go away before that date is implied.

The most important day of the entire year at my division of my workplace was Friday. The second most important is Monday. The third most important was Thursday. So I have been persisting, enduring, and blowing out my voice further.

I guess I have always been a little sickly, a little prone to colds and ear infections especially. Anything which gives me the deeply reviled sore throat. My larynx took a beating throughout high school and especially college. I probably lost my voice once a semester on a debate weekend. I tended to have an excellent (maybe undefeated) in-round record with a lost voice and something like an omnidefeated out-round record with same. They are different worlds, and in the latter one is expected to project to an audience beyond the judge, partner, and opponents. Or maybe judges felt a little twinge in the back of their mind during out-rounds: if he loses, he can stop debating and get some rest.

Rest doesn’t really help this one. I feel very tired most of the time, but lying down upsets the careful balance of sinus/nasal/eustachian canals and prompts one side or the other to hurt badly and everything to get clogged. It takes about 45 minutes to recover from the intense pain of having lied down. At least I can sleep now, unlike the first 48 hours of this thing.

So I must be getting better. Just older. As one ages, one’s body starts reminding one of its existence. I think I’ve lived a life as oblivious to my body as possible, except when facing obviously risky situations (e.g. riding bicycles, swimming). I don’t think of myself as corporeal, and the more I have to, the more weighed down I feel by existence. And sometimes plain freaked out. But more and more (I know, I’m not yet even 28), my body will say Hello. Or yelp for Help. And it will take longer, longer, longer to recover from illness. Many people, one who I work with closely, in their 40’s and 50’s seem to take weeks to recover from colds. Sometimes literally months. It’s unimaginable, but it seems to be the future.

It could be worse. But I’m really ready for it to be better.


The Sickness

Categories: A Day in the Life, Quick Updates, Tags: ,

Been sick since late Thursday. Still sick today. Going back to work, still sick or not, tomorrow.

This explains the lack of everything. The thing about being sick is that one suddenly has tons of unbudgeted time, but the energy budget drops well below zero. So it just feels like squandrance as one can’t concentrate on much of anything. And there’s a great need to try to focus on something, or you won’t be able to think about anything but the pain.

This one has featured a blockbuster sore throat, which those who know me well will know is my least favorite physical sensation of all-time. It clean knocked my voice out for two days, though it’s roughly back at this point. The throat pain and ear canal popping (with associated pressure-pains) are still around, but seem to be slightly receding. Maybe I’ll even put in a half-day this afternoon to ease myself back into things.

I have tons of things that needed doing and about three posts I wanted to write, but I can’t really think for more than a few minutes at a time. It was especially neat to have an appointment on Thursday at Kaiser for a suspicious-looking mole (and my apparently recurrent acne, which is back after a decade-long hiatus), only to return to Kaiser on Sunday with this illness. I now have a regimen of creams and sprays that reminds me exactly why I tend to prefer suffering through physical setbacks rather than attacking them.

But I can’t complain too much. I have between 9-9.5 work days left before heading home to luminarias. And then 3 days and then another 9 days off with the Garin clan. And Fish is visiting, starting today. And Beth is visiting during that 3-day stint. Lots and lots to look forward to.

So can I stop being sick now?


Historical Perspective

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

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

I know, I know.

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

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

*-if we make it that far

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Market Will Sell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What, exactly, has the market solved lately?


Wasted Weekend

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

I am so frustrated. With myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Next Stop, Orinda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

What if the world ended and nobody cared?

This post is as bad as I feel.


Existence is Futile?

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

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

To wit:

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

Really? Really? Groucho, you said that?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Ants Go Marching

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

The ants came in from the cold this weekend.

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

She let everyone know, right quick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah yes, Ants Marching…

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

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


Tracy, I Hardly Know Ye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Ghost of Thanksgiving Past

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

Today has felt portentous.

There is something about the arrival of cold. Cold and dark. I have always liked winter, as long as I can remember, and there are few places in the world when it isn’t finally cold(er) and dark(er) by late November. Richard Adams’ caveat about winter still stands – humans like it because they can resist it, not because colder and darker really feels better. That’s part of it. But there’s something deeper, closer to the core of winter. Maybe it’s that this time, more than any other, forces us to band together. Rabbits could feel that as much as humans, as much as those on the streets of the Tenderloin. Summer is a time for isolation and a casual attitude. If you’re not huddled together in winter, it’s over.

So winter is finally here, and for some reason I’ve been quite reflective on the passage of this Thanksgiving. I’d posit it’s a larger feeling than just my own – this particular holiday seems charged with something larger than itself. And it’s making me contemplate this, perhaps the best conceived of all traditionally celebrated American holidays.

I don’t mean conceived as in created for birthing. I mean the concept. Because the birthing process for Thanksgiving, as I’ve discussed in Introspection and probably elsewhere, is a flaming scar on the American landscape. It’s hard to imagine a German holiday celebrating a hearty Seder with Jewish immigrants, perhaps commemorating a date in the 1920’s. Harder still to picture it being the centerpiece of the secular German calendar.

But the concept, once we get past the actual creation of Thanksgiving and the subsequent destruction of the culture who inspired it, is a good one. Giving thanks. Appreciating what you have. Not taking things for granted. Not working yourself to death. It’s all very unAmerican. No wonder we slaughtered the folks who helped us think of it.

But the tradition remains. And in thinking how my tradition has changed over the years, it’s interesting to note that most everything that stands out is from college. The high-school years all blend together in a sea of similarity. There was one particular Thanksgiving in Oregon spent with a friend’s family and much Scattergories and basketball that sticks out. But mostly, it’s college.

Sometimes I wonder about high-school and college, which tend to stand out in an irradiated hue as opposed to the rest of one’s life. The glow (warm or creepy) that these 8 years cast across one’s life seems to reverberate through most everyone’s experience. I didn’t expect this to be the case for me, but of course it’s proven mostly so, especially in light of holidays and other annual instances. The cascading highs and lows, the sheer breadth of variety and emotion, this surely must be at the heart of the elevation of the power of these years. It’s not that any were the best years of my life. Nor were most of them particularly formative (with perhaps 2 notable exceptions – junior year in high school and senior year in college). But life stabilizes so much after college (or at least mine did – after all, I’ve been engaged or married since college) that sometimes the patterns meld into a similarity. This is not a bad thing – it’s very comforting that life is less of a struggle. But the big Thanksgivings that stick out were from the days before…

In 1998, I was invited down to Philadelphia by good friend Kate Myers, who was still in high-school at the time. It was bizarre and wonderful in many ways, both in the way Kate and I related in her hometown, in the participation in a glorious Thanksgiving Day Parade, and in the relating to a family – anyone’s family – who was not my own. Kate and I had good times and bad times before and since, yet it often seems like that trip encapsulated what was and is best about our friendship. It was also crazy, less than three months deep into college, to be home for someone else’s Thanksgiving on the East Coast, having spent precisely the prior 18 Thanksgivings with my own parents.

The next year, though, was different. Kate had gone to college herself and there may have been a repeat invitation, but I didn’t want to crash her homecoming. I seem to recall at least three or four invitations from various sources, but it was nothing doing. I was struggling through one of the lowest points in my life, a sophomore slump that was both profound and pervasive. On the verge of leaving Brandeis (for a semester or perhaps for good), feeling utterly isolated, I checked into a Chinese restaurant in Harvard Square for dinner and then proceeded to a downtown mall (Copley, maybe?) for several movies. I remember just making the train to get me to just make the last commuter rail back to Waltham by mere seconds. On the ride back, under heavily labored breathing, it occurred to me that missing the train might have been a more fitting end to my solo Thanksgiving. Finding a cheap hotel or huddling in a subway station as the rest of the world dozed on too much dead animal.

I didn’t even feel that way about it at the time, that it was an emblem of loneliness. Loneliness can be different than isolation. I had plenty of both that semester, but that Thanksgiving almost felt like a reprieve from loneliness. I was voluntarily embracing being alone, taking it in, putting both arms around myself. It seemed far preferable to trying to find a way to communicate across an abyss with families of various classmates who’d invited me to their festivities. So much pressure, so much East Coast/Catholic school feeling of inadvertent wrongdoing and misstepping. That Chinese restaurant and those movies felt like freedom. “Anywhere But Here”. “The Insider”. I still remember the films I saw that night, and their titles were my anthem.

I was telling my work friend Pete Lee about this Thanksgiving of 1999 and he said it sounded dismal and stereotypical. He aped several pop culture scenes of me as the despicable lonely wretch, who can’t even find someone to be with on Thanksgiving. I wasn’t ready to fire back with a dissertation on loneliness in crowds and the nature of true isolation. I meekly went with “It was kinda fun.” And it was.

The next year, however, stands out as perhaps the best Thanksgiving of my life. It seems cruel and even crazy to say that about a holiday spent without my parents, my wife, or my wife’s family, but there was something magical about that weekend. My friend Ben Brandzel (no webpage to link) had secured an invitation to “Haystack Mountain Farm”, a trumped-up name for a fall retreat that a professor friend of his had in New Hampshire. He was able to bring three fellow stranded Westerners up to the Farm, and thus Brandzy, his then girlfriend Michelle, Gris, and I embarked for a truly wacky adventure. I feel like a tremendous portion of Brandzel’s and my inside dialect was derived from that trip. (Or maybe just the one joke about the fish and the water… yes, our dinner gift for the host family was the “Big Mouth Billy Bass” talking fish from Cracker Barrel that sings “Take Me to the River”.) We played Clue with a full six people. I had countless talks with Gris and with Brandzy & Michelle, and I think even with just Michelle, though we’d just met. When everyone else had finally gone to bed, I plucked a book off the shelf of the utterly spectacularly cozy library that was my bedroom for the night, which proved to be Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods, one of the 25 best books I’ve ever read. I finished almost half of it before drifting off to peace.

That weekend was simply magic. Maybe it’s something about finding family in people who aren’t your family. Maybe it’s something about connecting with a range of people. In that set of four, each of us had at least one person we’d been incredibly close friends with for years and years, and at least one person we’d just met. And I couldn’t have been much more grateful for the whole thing.

The Thanksgiving to follow, though my life was in infinitely better circumstances overall, could not have been more diametric. On my way to meet Emily’s family, which was to be a surprise to them (not my idea), I had as close as I can think I’ve come to a panic attack in the Phoenix airport. By no means was I prepared to meet her family then or under those circumstances. I already knew that I was in love with her, that I was almost certainly going to marry her. And yet she had this gargantuan family that I’d never encountered, who I had to care about what they thought of me, which is a position I tend to be in with approximately no one. The feeling of other people being able to hold that kind of control over me was enough to make me sick. Almost literally. And it was nothing against them personally, it was just the circumstances.

Emily’s mom did not take the surprise well. She looked pale and on the edge of fainting. I knew how she was feeling. In an effort to make me feel less awkward, she likened the surprise to “Y’know, expecting an orange life-saver and you get, uh, cherry instead! It’s not bad, exactly, just different!” I wanted to drill myself into the asphalt of the parking lot where we were standing in a very warm November.

The family was huge and boisterous and all knew each other really well. It was like my first day at the Academy again. Except the Academy hadn’t had a veritable photographic shrine to Emily’s ex-boyfriend in the main thoroughfare hallway. No one had thought to taken the pictures down because, right, it had been a surprise. And because some people left their exes on that wall forever. At least two siblings still have them there.

I remember a panicked call to my parents where they offered to come pick me up from Albuquerque. I remember starting the tradition of holing up in an upstairs room with a book and feigning sleep. Some day I will write a memoir entitled Pretending to Sleep in Other People’s Houses. The title has rattled in my brain for nearly a decade. I think it has to do with the loneliness in crowds vs. freedom in isolation thing again.

This probably sounds terrible and Emily’s probably going to be mortified at me writing this. But it’s real and true and it’s been 5 years. Each year has been better than the last. The pictures have come down, and I’ve come downstairs more and more. The family has developed a penchant for board games, which brings everyone together in a most positive light. There has been a cascade of kids, getting older and thus more interesting by the annum. I’ve gotten to actually know this wonderful family, rather than seeing them as surprised strangers who are hosting an alien for dinner. The alien who made their daughter/sister a vegetarian. Even on Thanksgiving.

This year, we’re not making a big deal of Thursday. Some of the Garin Clan is assembling on Friday in Tracy for a limited version of the usual affair. Even the 10 people present will dwarf my family’s traditional trifecta Thanksgiving, but it’s not the full 15. And this is looking, in a couple ways, like possibly the last year of 15 being the full number. If nothing else, it is good for Emily and I to have the full experience of each other’s completely different families.

I will get to rest, to take time, to take stock. To give thanks. There may never have been a year when I have so much to be thankful for. Nor never a year prior when I actually had to worry about how much I was eating. But there are always changes. I’m actually excited to be giving Gris & Anna a ride at 3:45 this morning, just for the difference of it. It might make this year a little more memorable.

As the years start to recede, it’s the highs and lows that stand out where the water used to be. And I can be glad not to be in them, but to appreciate their depth and gravity. And thank God I got here in one piece.


Domain Registry of America (or: Never Trust Anything with the American Flag)

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

At work today, I got a charming piece of mail from some new friends in Buffalo, New York! They invited me to renew my domain (I have a registered domain in my name for work that we haven’t managed to use) for the low-low price of $30 a year! (Market rate = $10/year.) It isn’t really an invitation so much as something that carries the universally accepted format for a bill. But ever fear, Americans, this invitation, stamped with the American flag on both the envelope and the fake bill, reminds me “You must renew your domain name to retain exclusive rights to it on the Web, and now is the time to transfer… Failure to renew your domain name by the expiration date may result in a loss of your online identity making it difficult for your customers and friends to locate you on the Web.”

To be completely fair, this document is probably legal (American flag aside). It does say, buried in the text somewhere, “This notice is not a bill…” (emphasis present in document). However, calling it a notice is confusing even in the disclaimer. This isn’t a notice at all. It’s a solicitation. It’s like someone referring to a telemarketing interaction as being a “notice”. That word sounds serious, important, and as though it would be an error in judgment to ignore. There is no better use of judgment than to ignore something like this.

And yet I’m not ignoring it. Domain Registry of America, I’m calling you out. Everyone should go pelt their website with virtual rotten fruit. Even their icon is an American flag.

I’m not quite sure why this particular piece of mail is making me so angry. Perhaps because there was just the briefest moment of pause that I was given when I opened it up, and I’m about as cynical as they come with regards to spam, phishing, junk mail, solicitations, and advertising. There was never a moment when I was about to break out a pen and a stamp, but my first thoughts were “Why are the rates so high?” and “How did they get my address?” This was followed quickly enough (for me) with “What on Earth web company handles renewals by mail?” and “Why did Active-Domain switch to this ridiculous name?” and then, of course, “Oh, I know how they got my address!” And then the anger set in.

We are legally required to post the address of contact information for every registered website and keep it current. Presumably, of course, so the American flag can send us mail trying to scam us out of an Andrew Jackson a year.

But why not? Andrew Jackson himself swindled half a country away from its people. So how can we complain about invoking his image, and the image he upheld, to lie, cheat, and steal?

The actual reasoning for the required registry of addresses probably has a lot to do with 9/11 and the WWE (War Without End). After all, if someone makes a threat on a website, it’s important to be able to hold a fall guy accountable for that. Police get very irritable when they don’t have a door to knock on or smash in.

So required registration gives them a door, or a collective set of doors to open the way for the real American way: enterprising swindling. After all, money is a conserved entity. No one is making it unless someone else is losing it. We get blind to this in the US, sometimes, because the people losing it are all over the rest of the world. In our own borders, the stealing is rarely so present and obvious as when it comes in a fake bill carrying a false flag.


Uncollected Works

Categories: A Day in the Life, Blue Pyramid News, Let's Go M's, Quick Updates, Upcoming Projects, Video Games Killed the Free Time, Tags: , , , , ,

While you’re waiting for the Country Quiz II to be out (maybe tonight?), here are some random assortments to tide you over. And if you’re wondering why there hasn’t been anything big, it’s because the CQII is about to come out. Latest calculations have it that it takes me an hour to write 8 answers, fully coded. There’s also the question tree (done a while back), the image collection (done more recently), and getting all the merchandising ready to go ahead of time (a significant time-suck). So it sort of saps the creativity. Non-stop writing and coding will tend to block out other writing.

The 2007 Mariners (in my MVP 2005 season) are 9-2 (.818) since switching back to All-Star level. One of the losses was a heartbreaker where Travis Blackley coughed up two solo homers in relief in the 7th inning of a 1-0 lead. They also lost the first of the 11 games on All-Star, so they’ve won 9 of 10. This is looking most auspicious, but admittedly most of these games were on a tour of NL Central ballparks – not exactly stellar competition. The sweep of the Pirates just completed was the first sweep of the season – in the second week of June. Just before, RJ took a no-hitter into the 7th in Milwaukee. Thus, the playoffs are looking at least like a longshot instead of an impossibility.

The CQ2 has 32 of 64 answers completely written. Full merchandising of about 80 items per design will be available at launch. Additionally, a new advertising strategy is going into place with the launch of this quiz. You wouldn’t want everything to be just like the original, would you? I briefly thought about holding the launch till the day of the 5th anniversary of the original (it would be 18 January 2008), but timed launches of quizzes have never exactly served me well. It’s going up this month, and probably within minutes of me finishing it.

After a few months of notable average improvement, I’ve gotten beaten down with the migraine stick this month. Maybe seasonal changes have something to do with it. I’m also noticing a November pattern, given how concerned I got about these things last year at this time. Still, overall severity seems down big in 2007.

After the longest-ever 4-day week last week, it’s hard to get as excited as I’d be inclined to be about a 3-day week upcoming. Who knows how long those 24 hours can be? But there’s reason to believe they’ll be relatively straightforward, a brief lull between twin storms of last week and the entirety of December. In other news, there is no news yet, but there will be by ’08.

Finally, Free Rice is perhaps the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.

This is my 62nd post in StoreyTelling, in its 48th day. Duck and Covers count for exactly half (31) of those posts.


They Shoot Messengers, Don’t They?

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

If anyone had lingering doubts about my post from about a week ago (the one with the distinct lack of terrorists), this latest missive from CNN should clear those right up for you. And it’s not this article in and of itself, per se, so much as the fact that one of these articles gets released every couple weeks. Just in case anyone in the world is wondering, the US could not be more open to terrorism if it took out large billboards in unfriendly nations saying Please bomb the United States of America, North America, Western Hemisphere posthaste and greeted would-be bombers with VIP dinners and a show.

And yet, no terrorism.

It should be extraordinarily relieving to realize that there is not actually a terrorist threat to the soil of the United States of America. Maybe it would be more so if we didn’t seem so obsessed with trying to create one. Or believe that one is already there when it is not. But the absence is nevertheless blatantly and painfully obvious. There is no other explanation for the lack of action despite abundant motive, opportunity, and means.

Shooting messengers was probably an early form of terrorism. In the old days, it wasn’t just a rhetorical joke to get one’s boss to not yell about bad news. They actually shot messengers. Or stabbed them, when the practice was popular prior to firearms’ invention. Talk about a conversation stopper.

It’s sort of the ultimate act of bad faith. Someone is entrusted with the courteous gesture of giving you fair warning, knowledge, or understanding of a concept. Sometimes an unfriendly concept or plain old bad news, to be sure, but still just letting you know. Giving you a heads-up. And then you take their head out. No doubt some of these instances were simply rage or a lack of control. But occasionally they would be deliberate, and punctuated by things like sending the messenger back, hand delivered (no COD), by your own messengers. Few volunteers raised their hands for that return journey.

Obviously, at some point, it just becomes inconvenient to engage in such messengerial slaughter. After all, the incentive becomes high for one’s own messengers to book a ticket for a cave in the woods rather than deliver the actual message. In any case, it all boils down to one thing: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Nowadays, we have e-mail to keep us from the dilemma of whether or not to execute a messenger to make a bold, if rude, point. And the worst you can do with e-mail is ignore it, which must be worse than deleting it. Unless you’re the White House, in which case e-mail deletion has been criminalized. Good luck winning that case, courts. Ordering someone not to delete an e-mail is sort of akin to ordering them not to think about something. Not only will you have no way of proving whether it’s happened or not, but telling them not to do it will guarantee the opposite.

Ignoring e-mail is dangerous, if not often deadly, because there’s full documentation that something has been communicated and a complete lack of acknowledgement or response. Some days, I half expect an urgent notice in my Inbox saying that my Outlook courier has been shot by a colleague.

But it beats the alternatives. Some of the world’s great bloody battles could’ve been prevented by a good e-mail system. The Battle of New Orleans was among the largest of the War of 1812, and fought entirely after peace had been declared. It just took a while to get the word out. It’s hard for me to pick and choose amongst deaths in war as being more or less unjustified than each other, but that one’s pretty objectively hard to explain. War deaths are needless enough without waiting four to six weeks for delivery.

Around the same time last week, I promised another post about the misperceptions associated with the War Without End (WWE – remember, WWF is taken) that the US is engaged in. To review, Iran will get toasters and there are no terrorists in or coming to the United States.

The perception that’s making it impossible for the US to prosecute an effective war in Iraq and Afghanistan (and indeed would hold true in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and wherever suicide bombing is sold) is individualism. Individualism is, almost by definition, a Western concept. Yes, home on the range, but more specifically (or actually, less specifically) “Greek Western”. (And now you’re just thinking of Alexander the Great in a John Wayne film. We’re getting nowhere. Or maybe I’m too glib tonight to really write this post seriously.)

The point is that many people see the world as West vs. East (or at least West/East… there is not always diametricity). The Islamic world, neatly, serves as a bridge, both geographically and conceptually. While Islam falls squarely in the evolution of Judeo-Christianity, which is at the core of Western culture, there are sufficient links to the East in the cultures who tended to adopt Islam (Persia, Arabia, The Stans of Central Asia) to muddy the waters. And a (the?) central question in West/East debate is individualism vs. communitarianism. All for one or one for all? Or really, one for one or all for all?

Suicide bombing, as a tactic, is at the heart of this issue. Again, I’m going to speak tactically and strategically about war and violence despite being a complete pacifist. I’m not exactly sure why I keep doing this. Maybe because what’s going on in this country is so broken that I’m not sure how everyone doesn’t see it, and yet I recognize that pacifism is not widely espoused. So I seek to explain a middle ground, or even “win on the road” as it were. If I can beat people in their own violent ballparks, just showing how ridiculous the status quo is by their (your?) own standards, then maybe I’m getting somewhere.

It beats just accepting things.

So back to suicide bombing. In some ways, nothing is more individualistic. One person’s sacrifice and martyrdom for the good of all. Your name in lights. And the much-ballyhooed “72 virgins” theory. Although, upon reflection, it seems these are all extremely Westernized views of a phenomenon that, deep down, the US mind can’t fathom. My suspicion is that these suicide bombers do not actually make much of the glory and the individualism of it all. My guess is that this is the West trying to put what it finds incomprehensible into some neat little package that makes sense, such as 72 times as much hot sex, forever. But I’m not really buying it. Sure, I guess there’s a passage somewhere about 72 virgins. But tons of smart activists have done a really good job of carving up Leviticus to demonstrate the unending prohibitions contained therein. And the whole Judeo-Christian lineage is on the hook for the Old Testament. Pretty much any religious text reads like a string of self-defeating schizophrenia. This is one of the damning things about organized religion – it tries to be so all-inclusive and universal that it ends up saying everything. And thus, ultimately, nothing. And God gets lost in the process.

God is for another post. And certainly little could be further from God than suicide bombing. The point is that despite the West’s claims that “suicide bombers are doin’ it for themselves”, I’m not buying. I think they’re making a sincere, if abominable, sacrifice. I think they mean it. The reward, if they really believe it, might not hurt, but they’re mostly motivated by making their life an effective weapon in a communal fight for a communal ideal.

So what has the primary strategy of the US for four (Iraq) to six (Afghanistan) years been to combat this new communitarian weapon? You heard it in the very first hours of the Iraq War. “Decapitation.” The entire core strategy employed by Western forces against insurgents/rebels/freedom-fighters/terrorists who use suicide bombing has been to try to kill leaders so that the whole movement collapses on itself.

Obviously, the grand-daddy of this strategy was the original “decapitation strike” (attempt) on Saddam’s life when the war began. But it has continued ever since. The only news stories of purported mini-victories have been about this or that person, key leaders who you just heard about for the first time after their death, being killed. And all future speculation is about killing this person, and then that person, and Osama, and then maybe it will all be over.

This is very Western. In the West, we like individuals. We like strong personalities and people who tell us what to do. I just finished reading Shantaram a few days ago, continuing to find it over-rated as all get out. I couldn’t stand the narrator. But he was a classic Western hero. And time and time again, he was admired and admonished for not believing in anything except people. He didn’t believe in God, religion, society, but he liked individual people. No wonder this book is so popular among Americans.

And when you kill our people, boy does that weaken us Westerners. JFK’s death killed a generation’s hope and perhaps the whole damn country. MLK’s shooting plunged the Civil Rights movement into chaos from which it is still recovering. RFK. John Lennon. The US does not bounce back from the dead.

But this is an individualistic perspective. It is one that innately believes that people are more important than their ideas. The author’s name should be bigger than the title on the book cover. The actors are bigger than their movies. The artist beats the art, the politician beats the politics, the ideologue beats the idea.

This is not what the suicide bombers believe. It is not what the people who follow al-Qaeda (if and how it exists) or any of the other groups fighting Western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan believe. In fact, even saying “people who follow” is misleading. It would be better to say “people who are”. Because that’s what believing is like for someone with that kind of conviction.

Conviction is not hip in America, unless we’re talking about sending people to prison. It’s cool to be apathetic, dispassionate, not stand out in your love for something or your dedication. You don’t want to be labeled as “obsessive” or “compulsive” or in need of heavy doses of widely advertised and unsafe legal drugs.

The Eastern world seems to lack these hang-ups. Despite noted emotional dispassion in much of the Eastern world, it can widely be seen that there is a greater level of conviction and dedication therein. And this is usually toward a higher ideal or purpose, almost always with a communal aim.

Thus, there is no decapitation strike. To use a weird and disgusting and easily misinterpretable (but still compelling) analogy, the “enemy” (of the Western forces) is basically like an army of worms. And the US is trying to use decapitation against an army of worms. Every strike just makes two more where there were one.

And what’s the US motto? An Army of One.

In a hypothetical struggle between an Army of One and an Army of Worms… Ditka. (After all, what is the Da’Bears sketch but a testament to the unending faith of Americans in one individual’s ability to vanquish all?)

Hopefully you can see by now why the US has yet to make any progress against the purported “enemy”. The thought that we might spend the next few decades listening to overpaid pundits and analysts say “Now if we just kill this next leader…” is pretty daunting. The fact is that the top twenty al-Qaeda leaders could be killed tomorrow and they would be replaced overnight with forty more, plus thousands of new recruits who were on the fence until this mass-murder angered them enough to finally get involved. What binds them is not devotion to leaders or individuals, but the ideas of the cause. And one of the core ideas is revenge and punishment for injustice. The steady fuel of American injustice is not doing a good job of quelling the motivation here.

So, you may ask, what is the solution? For you militarists, there is probably only one purely tactical solution, which is genocide. There is no way to continually inflame more and more of a population, doing their recruiters’ job better than your own, killing leader after leader and brother/son/father/mother/daughter/sister one after another, torturing the survivors, and somehow quell the population. The intimidation thing isn’t exactly working. The people being attacked are too passionate to be afraid and (especially in Afghanistan’s case), they’ve just suffered too much already to be scared of more war or torture. Afghans have been living in an almost unending state of war since before I was born. You wonder why people liked the Taliban – they actually united the country in some semblance of peace. It was a pretty awful government, but oppression usually beats out endless mortar fire and land-mines. At least you know where you stand and how to wake up the next morning. Ditto that for Saddam vs. status quo in Iraq.

The other unsettling reality (unsettling really only for militarists) emerging from all this is that conquest is no longer really a viable option for world affairs. It’s hard to accept as someone who’s played in excess of 200 Risk games in his life, but I pretty much have to admit it’s true. When was the last time a country was conquered and held by force by an external power? (And Grenada doesn’t count.) Afghanistan was supposedly conquered by both the Soviets and the Americans in the last 30 years, but neither of those have really turned out to be sustainable. Vietnam and Korea? If World War II gave us anything, any consolation prize, it’s the end of conquest. You can’t take over other countries by force anymore. After watching what Hitler did and how the resistances in each country helped bring him down, every nation on the planet has resolved to never let an outsider come in and tell them what to do. No matter what.

As a pacifist, I have to look at this a little like nuclear weapons. This huge commitment to violence is devastating and depressing. But the net impact may (eventually) be to scare people out of fighting, which has to be good. Or, as Shantaram would put it “the right thing for the wrong reasons”. A little like belief in global warming theory. It gets people to do something good, but for bogus reasons. But sometimes, these days, maybe we can take the bogus reasons.

As a strategist in this post’s discussion, one has to think that the sooner the “great powers” realize the no-conquest rule of the post-WWII reality, the sooner they’ll be able to preserve their resources and be reasonable about things. Which puts the US pretty much squarely on the ore cart to the abyss at the moment.

So the actual best strategy (not just what I believe in morally) is total withdrawal. There will never ever be “victory”. There will never be a stable conquest. And make no mistake, victory = conquest in the minds of the US. Sure, it’s not technical “51st state” conquest, but it’s the kind of economic domination over the property and wealth of the remaining country that becoming a 51st state might be less invasive. And there’s no way the people of Iraq or Afghanistan, so long as they’re alive, will ever accept this.

So we can fight forever or fight for a day or just stop already. The question is quite simple: how many times do you want to bang your head into an unbreakable wall?

At least with total withdrawal, there’s a chance of credibly being involved in subsequent diplomacy. The US can again become (or seem) a disinterested party, who has the neutrality to be reasonable, as they are sometimes perceived in other negotiations (though, really, all that comes to mind is the cessation of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 that won Teddy Roosevelt the Nobel Peace Prize). The US can join with the world community in hoping that these countries truly find their own way to be a part of the world, not a branch of Western-based corporation culture.

It’s not looking likely. Will we stop banging our head first? Or will our brains splatter all over the wall?

It’s not a pretty image. But it’s not a pretty time. It’s an ugly time to be an American individual.

I’m just the (gulp) messenger.


News You Can Use

Categories: A Day in the Life, Blue Pyramid News, Quick Updates, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , ,

Or read, at least.

You probably can’t help but noticing that this page has been overhauled, as the October season wanes and is replaced by an oncoming winter. At some point I may try to institute one of those snazzy things that lets you choose which theme to use when reading, but for now the change is complete, and affects back-posts. So the pumpkins are gone, either till I figure out how to let themes coexist or until next October.

Since we’re on blogging news, I want to introduce everyone to my Dad’s new blog, Qala Bist .com. He’s actually been writing since early October, but we’ve been ironing out the kinks of him having a blog, getting the style set, and so forth. My Dad and I, despite our uniqueness, rarely do anything alone. So it’s only fitting that he start this up now. I think you will find his posts to be much like his interior design, for those of you familiar with that… layered, textured, fascinating, and (above all) colorful.

I have a couple of larger post ideas brewing in my mind’s eye, but it’s just not happening tonight. I spent tonight on the phone, which was great but cumulatively tiring. There’s even more news on the horizon on several fronts, but nothing to really delve into yet. Except one thing, I guess: I can almost promise that The Country Quiz II will be out this month. Note the “almost”. But if I went ahead and promised, then I would force myself to make good on it, whatever the consequences.

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day.” Or perhaps “today was just a day fading into another.”

To read. To sleep. And not to dream.


Chto Dyelat?

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

Al Qaeda: The Looming Terror
An AC360 investigation into the formation of al Qaeda, where they are now, and their illusive leader.
Tomorrow night, 10 p.m. ET
-CNN.com, 11 November 2007

A little over ninety years ago, Vlad Lenin completed a relatively bloodless takeover of power in what was then Russia. It had taken about eight months to become obvious that democracy had failed.

But, as in so many American wars of the last half-century, the takeover of government was just the beginning. Protracted fighting across the nation, against royalist-revivalists, lasted for years after the “revolution” was complete.

Lenin had written a pamphlet at the turn of the century laying out the plans and predictions for this coup, eventually leading to successful execution 15 years later. It was called Chto Dyelat? (transliteration), which can roughly be translated as “What is to Be Done?” The question seems profoundly relevant tonight, when I am somehow railing in frustration at nothing at all.

The question sounds more elegant in Russian. My frustration needs some art tonight.

Emily and I went to a movie tonight, “Lions for Lambs”. It was pretty awful. The movie simultaneously lacked subtlety and clarity. It pounded one over the head with preachy nothingness. Despite CNN (why do I keep quoting this source?) saying the movie was targeted at a “thinking-person’s” audience, the movie seemed to be written for toddlers. And the final conclusion, a crescending call-to-action, was left blank. There was no action. Only an uneasy settling of the fact that CNN (renamed in the movie to prevent a lawsuit) was so deeply manipulating the news as to distort reality. And the absence of action spoke louder than the prior 86 minutes of calling for action.

You can feel Robert Redford’s frustration in the film. It’s everyone’s. Everyone who ever believed in this “democracy” feels so swindled and cheated that they don’t even know which end is up. At least Vietnam gave everyone a fighting chance. People seemed to react to reality in Vietnam. People cared. Injustice was met with horror rather than indifference. The media took the right side. There was hope. Replication of Vietnam in perpetuity over the coming generations might not have been ideal, but it would’ve worked. People could’ve slept at night knowing they had some power or control in “their country”.

But this? What is this? When every aspect of the country has been sold and everyone who could care is in debt or discredited, how can one even begin to mount a response? What would it even look like? Who would be left to care?

So you have this slow choking of American belief in democracy and destiny and all those so-called lovely things we used to care about. Redford was trying to make a movie to shake some hope into people, as near as I can tell. He ended up making a deafening case for hopelessness. His suggested actions are to either (A) go to Afghanistan and get perforated by bullets for no reason after killing people who are not the enemy or (B) stare in horror at the television while realizing that everything you’ve done in your life is worthless.

Oh boy.

He really wanted to have a suggestion at the end there. But it was left blank for the audience to fill it in. At least Al Gore’s equally terrible movie ended with hundreds of suggestions for what you can do to “prevent global warming”. At least he maintained the illusion that corporations are not in control of the planet, but individuals are. At least he maintained the noble lie, full of hope and strong lyrics.

Illusion. Let’s get back to that word. No one proofreads anything anymore. I have to remind myself when reading documents for the people I work for. I sit there, sometimes, thinking “Helen Rosner and I are the only people left on the planet who care about proofreading.” Today’s news doesn’t have time for proofreading or copyediting or even thoughtfulness. As in the movie, it’s about getting facts up on the roll. Or maybe it’s as my Dad would say and no one wants to work anymore. Personally, I think it might (as in tonight’s example) be the universe fighting back, railing through little clues to conspire against a plutocracy hell-bent on recreating something between the Fall of Rome and the Extinction of the Dinosaurs.

Osama bin Laden, not even bothered to be named in CNN’s website promo for its latest shock-n-awe program about idle terrorists, is described as “their illusive leader”. Now whether it’s because grammar is dead or work is dead or what have you, the intended phrase was probably “elusive leader”. As in hard to find. But the devil, they say, is in the details.

The sentence instead reads that the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, is an illusion. A mirage. And just to make sure that the universe is with us on the themes of tonight’s show, Dictionary.com’s first full entry for the word gives us this: “based on or having the nature of an illusion; ‘illusive hopes of finding a better job’; ‘Secret activities offer presidents the alluring but often illusory promise that they can achieve foreign policy goals without the bothersome debate and open decision that are staples of democracy'”

That actually gave me chills just now. You can look it up.

Orwell tells us this in 1984:

The program of the Two Minutes Hate varied from day to day, but there was none in which Goldstein was not the principal figure. He was the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Party’s purity. All subsequent crimes against the Party, all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly out of his teaching. Somewhere or other he was still alive and hatching his conspiracies: perhaps somewhere beyond the sea, under the protection of his foreign paymasters; perhaps even–so it was occasionally rumored–in some hiding place in Oceania itself.

An argument could be made that it would be better a Two Minutes Fear. And while there is plenty of fear of Goldstein and fear in general laden throughout the ceremonies of Orwell’s Oceanians, it’s hard to rally around fear. Of course, the real powers don’t want people rallying at all. The real powers are squarely between Orwell and Huxley, using just enough manipulation and self-destruction to form their brew.

Go back to your Orwell. And your Huxley. And your Bradbury. And then tell me: Chto Dyelat? Because their answers weren’t very good either. Retreat. Run. Maybe you can make it to the woods or the Falklands or maybe they’ll get you first and take you to Abu Ghraib and torture the hope out of you. Maybe you can read or write or remember and be the last living testament to the way things were.

And I know dystopias end badly because they’re supposed to be cautionary tales. But we already blew through those checkpoints. There was no caution.

In a dystopia, my friends, what is to be done?

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