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

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Atonement

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

When I was young, my teeth were trying to teach me a lesson in peaceful coexistence. My adult teeth didn’t want to replace most of my baby teeth, forcing them out by coming straight down over the top of them. They wanted to live side-by-side, like shark teeth.

I lost a couple teeth the conventional way here and there, but most of them had to be pulled. Two rows of coexistent teeth just do not combine for the look most people find aesthetically pleasing, and I had plans to open my mouth regularly as I got older. It’s hard to imagine using such a tool for anything other than random and irrelevant intimidation prior to a debate round.

I had teeth pulled in several cities over several years. Visalia, Portland, Washington DC. I had gas and novocaine and at least one visit that felt like there was no anesthetic at all (the gas was the worst of the three). But the standout dental appointment, the one that has stuck in my memory the strongest, was on Monday, October 19, 1987.

It was a midmorning appointment at the Georgetown University Medical Center. I remember my Dad mentioning it being cheaper because a student dentist would be performing the procedure – pulling, as I recall, 2 teeth that day. Prior to meeting the student dentist, I had visions of him being roughly my age and equally competent to perform dentistry. I was just a little bit anxious.

However, he turned out to be in that age group of people that one knows intellectually is much younger than one’s parents, but seems, from the vantage of childhood, to somehow be older because of their general remoteness and distance from one’s own age. The connection of family seems to bridge age gaps much more than connections with intimidating sixth graders or graduate school students. And frankly, he ended up being perhaps the most competent dentist to ever peer into my maw.

It was as he was starting to work on the second tooth that I remember discussion starting about events outside that room. The room was strangely like a room full of cubicles, looking nothing like any other medical facility I’d ever been in. And my father started talking with the dentist about stocks and the market and what was going on. It wasn’t until the next few days, discussions at Roy Rogers’ after school on sore teeth, that I really started to comprehend the magnitude of the change that had taken place. 1987 proved to be a slightly volatile year. (And yes, I followed politics when I was 7. I don’t know how one could live in DC that year and not follow politics.)

I have a dental appointment today.

Yesterday was Yom Kippur. In an almost precise tie with Good Friday, Yom Kippur is one of my two favorite holidays to come out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, one of the only two I’d keep. I believe I’ve talked about this before, right around last Good Friday, so I’ll spare the full details here again. But a full day to fast, reflect, and take personal responsibility for one’s actions? That I can get down with. And what good timing to boot.

I won’t plunge into detail about the Yom Kippur that is the emotional standout comparable to the dental appointment describe above. But it was around the same season, nine years later, and involved waiting in the Advocate office, just sitting and waiting. A time for my own reflection. A time wherein I was about to embark on something I would come to regret and be overwhelmed in efforts to take responsibility for. A time that brought me to the very brink of issues of forgiveness and guilt, responsibility and atonement.

Sometime shortly after the outbreak of the Iraq War, my father coined the phrase “America will not be forgiven.” There was brief discussion of putting it on bumper stickers and banners, starting a movement that, like so many my father and I discuss, raises concerns about being disappeared or openly removed from society. We didn’t start the presses, we kept it to ourselves. But even then, with the extreme harshness of the phrase and the mood, I don’t think anyone anticipated the tsunami that is lurching over the coastline right now.

As I type this, the answer to yesterday’s question has bobbed from 4 to 8 to 1 to 2 to 3. I learned the word “volatility” in 1987 when talking to my Dad about the stock market and the association is still good today. When I typed yesterday’s post, the market was down about 50, then up a handful, yet it still managed to answer yesterday’s question with a 6.

I have started openly talking to people in daily life about the impending Depression. The quantity of denial abroad is astounding. Many are still unwilling to believe there’s a recession underway (or even to come), many still want to think that an America of plenty and excess is the way of the future, the way of all things. Despite humanity’s incredible innate adaptability, I will never fail to be stunned by each individual human’s ability to take what they have known for a very short time and assume it will carry on forever, without interruption.

Can we be forgiven for this indiscretion, this incredible lack of foresight? I grew up on lessons of the Holocaust and World War II, discussion of 1930’s Germany and the writing that was increasingly bold and red on the wall. The vantage of history was not terribly kind to those who stayed in Germany as the ’30’s progressed. Many critiqued how anyone could just stand by, continue going to their job or running their shop, hope for the best, be sure that the zealots were going to calm down, that things would turn around, that militarization was just a precaution. By the time that many realized what was really afoot, it was far too late to talk about crossing borders or bailing out. And the price was unfathomably, unforgivably high.

Surely no one can be blamed for being hopeful in a time of crisis. But there is a line between hope and delusion that is critical and can literally differentiate between life and death. I do not think the situation locally parallels 1930’s Germany precisely for several reasons. Not the least of which is that I can’t think of a place to go right now.

But as I consider that, this can’t be all that dissimilar from then. The whole world was immersed in a Depression then. Everyone was electing dynamic dictators to navigate out of the crisis. America’s breadlines could not have been beckoning from across the shore, whispering of the opportunity for a better life outside of Germany. Indeed, the outlook was so globally bleak the Germany’s machinations of progress might have looked the most stabilizing, the most hopeful. One could almost be forgiven for bailing from another country and sneaking into Germany.

But like the move for those who rode out of the dustbowl into California, only to find that opportunity was dead across the land, this would have been a poor decision. Being wise in an era of panic is difficult and sometimes requires an amount of forethought that humans are simply not equipped to exercise. No wonder so many people just burrow – dig in and entrench in their current environment, pretending that nothing is going to change.

I once said, working on a project where I was obliged to defend Robespierre, that “paranoia is healthy in paranoid times”. I don’t think Robespierre can be forgiven on these grounds, but it occurs to me that I might ask others to forgive me along these lines. I have been compared, recently and by more than one, to the guys on the street with signs about the end being near. The irony, of course, being that we work with street people every day and I haven’t seen a sign like that in 2.5 years of life in the Tenderloin.

Forgive me if I’m right. Forgive me if I’m wrong. And I will try to find a way to forgive those who, through denial, misrepresentation, and greed, have created the maelstrom that could drown the whole world.

If you’re looking for hope, there’s a rainbow after the flood. But first, we must survive the flood.

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The End of Capitalism

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

It wasn’t long ago that I was talking to whoever would listen about a world without money. A world after money. I got the blank stares and befuddled looks of a generation that grew up in the Reagan years. Who could even conceive of a world without money? (I could.) Hasn’t there always been money? (There hasn’t.) What are you even talking about?

Apparently, I was talking about 2009.

My third novel (yes, #2 is unwritten, so you can guess about the status of #3) was about the natural outcome of capitalism, or one of them. This, apparently, is another. The outcomes all have one thing in common – ultimately the profit motive (or “greed” as people aware of their souls like to call it) eats the system. Think Cookie Monster eating the plate on which the cookies were served-style eating the system. Nom nom nom, it’s time for greed.

It may take a century or two or three. Proponents of the free market in its purist form don’t realize that it’s all the government regulation that keeps the sham of capitalism going as long as it does in the first place. The market will solve nothing unchecked, because ultimately it becomes about fraud and manipulation and finally out and out theft. The only difference between the free market and the black market is that one is endorsed and one is condemned. Much like the only difference between intoxicants on one or the other. They all produce the same results and they all end in toxicity.

The problem with even regulated markets is that, much like the saga of computer hackers and computer security (or, one could argue, the history of crime in the human era), the crooks are always going to be a half-step ahead of the law. And when there are trillions of dollars on the line, and these trillions can be used to bring the law over to the side of the crooks, that’s pretty much ballgame.

In my lifetime, should I be fortunate enough to live to the life expectancy of my generation in this country, I will live to see younger people write history books ridiculing the philosophies that were Gospel truth in an America hooked on greed. And I’ll be loving every minute, because those philosophies are ridiculous. Capitalism’s only virtue over Stalinist Communism is that it managed to keep itself in check for 17 more years. Congratulations, Capitalism. You get an extra micro-dot on the geologic landscape of the human experience.

To say that I am wide-eyed with the first authentic hope for society at large that I have felt in many years would be an understatement. Again, I must disclaim that I’m not a fan of the suffering that will be associated with this. Watching people actually starve or fight as the absurd fantasies of their faulty assumptions come crashing down around them is no fun. But the end result is necessary and overdue. It’s time to learn to live without money.

It’s early yet (indeed, most of you are blinking at me and saying far too early), but it’s good to think about things before the pundits on TV are talking about it. A few months ago, I was talking (at least in person, probably not on this blog) about the Greatest Depression. And that’s finally on the TV, though I should’ve trademarked the term, since no one’s using it yet. Trademarks, however, will probably be another casualty of said Depression. So it goes. And if not, who wants to be the bastard living high on the hog because he coined the phrase for what we’re all suffering through? Now really, that’s just impolite.

But see, that’s the kind of mentality that even socialists get into in this kind of society. I see in myself so much that needs to be cleansed of the filthy touch of the invisible hand. I play poker, hoping to take others’ money. I played the stock market for a while, mercifully liquidating on Monday morning (if it had been last Monday, but there I go again…). I go to a day job for goodness’ sake, a real sacrifice in the interest of money. I even have advertising on my website. I think of schemes and projects, often with a financial angle in mind.

I attribute two major factors, both of which I’ll forgive myself for (though, like violence, everyone has their own reasons that, in the end, are all unjustifiable, right?). One is the fact that I don’t want a house or multiple cars or really anything out of all these schemes, save the ability to liberate my time on this planet. I don’t feel I was put here for day jobs and as long as I’m anchored to one, I’ll feel the need to find a way to disengage. Though without money, that comes sooner than later. The second factor is probably good old genetics, as I inherit an entrepreneurial streak from my ever-planful father. I grew up in the ’80’s and it was a time for entrepreneurs, but I can’t remember how many conversations led to an angle on a project. And even more amazing are how many we actually pursued.

Ultimately, my father’s curse in entrepreneurship is much like my ultimate curse in poker: making just enough money to have paid for the passage of time. Functionally breaking even.

I’m not going to appeal to some grand karmic restriction on my father making a lasting profit on his projects, but I’m sure he’d argue it’s possible. As for me, I’m still checking into the day job, and still actually finding ways to enjoy it. But yearning to write. This weekend’s crash-project (The Bailout Betrayal Quiz, if you haven’t taken it) reminded me just how quickly I can be creative if I want to. Part of the joys of manic depression.

Hey speaking of which, this article, written as much about David Foster Wallace as about anything else, strikes me much like 1990’s economics will strike people in twenty years. Absurd. Not that thinking there exists a link between creativity and what some label “mood disorders” is absurd, but thinking that they are somehow not inextricably tied and that this might (shock of all shocks) indicate that “mood disorders” are not 100% negative. I mean, come on.

Things this article lists as negative:
-“reflectiveness”
-“kind of ruminating”
-“sensitivity to a large extent”
-“If you think about stuff in your life and you start thinking about it again, and again, and again”

That’s my favorite, that last one. Don’t think too much, kids, because the more you think about things, the more depressed you’ll get!

Could this possibly be because, I don’t know, things aren’t good?!?!

No, that couldn’t be the explanation. Thinking must somehow make things bad. Imbalanced mortgages, mountains of debt, and 20-to-1 leveraging aren’t bad. It’s just thinking about them too much that makes them bad.

Good thing no one bothered to do that.

Maybe if “bipolar” (again, I must stress: one is supposed to have two poles, see also planets) people were running financial firms instead of writing books, we could look forward to another century of propped-up capitalism that looked like it functioned better than Stalinism, feudalism, or anything else we’ve tried.

Whew.

Though it looks like I’m down a book idea, unless somehow this thing finds a way to get salvaged. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the last 7 years, though, it’s that people’s fear will override any other emotion they could possibly manifest. Even, thankfully, faith in the almighty dollar. Maybe if we hadn’t spent the last two terms of Presidency getting fear beaten into us like an enforced mantra, there’d be an escape hatch for the world of money. It’s almost like someone planned it this way.

But whoever did, if they did, was counting on their money counting for something. Here’s the problem with that – money is just an idea. It’s no more real than hope or fear or depression or joy. It’s a widely held collective agreement to suspend disbelief. We could hand out utility tokens or joy tickets or anything else and start believing in those, refusing to be happy unless we had the requisite joy ticket. It would make just as much sense and have just as much behind it. The willingness of everyone to agree to something.

And while there’s something to be said for a gigantic exercise in collective action, I think this one has done enough harm for now. We can use the same principle to create many new, much better forms of collective action and belief. Seriously, what an opportunity is unfolding before us.

But we’re going to have to learn about choices again. That we all have free will and are not just indentured servants of our mistakes and obligations.

I mean, look:
“Just as heart disease sometimes presents itself for the first time as a fatal heart attack, mental illness sometimes presents itself for the first time as a suicide.”

I’m sorry, but this is the most broken description of suicide in human history. Suicide is not a random side effect of mental illness. It is a choice. One does not have to be mentally ill to commit suicide. One has to make the decision that death outweighs life. This may be a difficult decision, or a sad one, but hardly so illogical in all cases that even those who believe in mental illness would render it universally mentally ill.

Kids, if we’re going to make it as a species, we have to reject this specious notion that we’re not making choices. Every day, you make decisions. You choose how to spend your 24 hours. You. Only you. Everything you do is really, truly, up to you.

Maybe you don’t see it yet. Maybe you’ll see it better when the Dow Jones hits 5,000 points, or 2,000. Maybe you’ll see it better when there’s no more treadmill job to attend. Maybe you’ll see it better when everyone’s eating the same thing every day and it’s all there is. Maybe you’ll see it better when there’s no more internet, no more TV, no more people like me telling you what to think or consider. Just you and your thoughts. To ruminate on. Over and over and over.

Until you… decide.

People, this is an exciting time to be alive.

by

The Winnebago Drove with its Propane Stove

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

“He lost his money in a geyser bank,
Ho ho ho ho ho,
First it floated and then it sank,
Ho ho ho ho ho.”
-Traditional Clayton Family Song, c. 1987 trip to Yellowstone

My family used to write songs in the old folk tradition, through oral telling that was created impromptu and then sung and resung. Sometimes the lyrics would change every time and sometimes they would be solidified and codified into one set of lyrics to be passed on through the ages. Occasionally, as with the epic spoof “Santa Shark”, the lyrics were written down entirely for future generations.

Of course, there were only ever two generations (three people total) and they stand today. I did have grandparents then, but they have moved on and probably never would have appreciated songs like “Hooray for U-Haul Trucks”. That may have been my favorite song of the old travels, a telling anthem for an unstable period in our lives that was all the more exciting to me because I didn’t fully understand the financial implications of our nomadic and volatile lifestyle. And yet I was the one who came up with the only lines of the song:

“Hooray for U-Haul trucks,
They take you away from bad places,
Hooray for U-Haul trucks,
They take you into bad places.”

There were many ironies to this song, not the least of which was that we were using our blue Saab that already had close to 100,000 miles on its record as our own “U-Haul truck” to take us from one bad place (Visalia, CA) to another (Washington, DC). The protocol, of course, was that this song was to be sung whenever passing any sort of brand-name moving truck, and adapt to the one being seen on the roadway. “Ryder trucks”, “Hertz-Penske trucks”, and “Mayflower trucks” were most often referred, though U-Hauls were dominant. If we were lucky, they would be the U-Hauls with exciting illustrations of another state that we would visit, had just passed through, or would some day live in.

It’s the geyser bank song (actually one of two – the other was relatively lyric-less and peppy) that sticks in my head of late, for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is that a Winnebago has decided to spend the last week parked in front of our house, and occasionally in a non-parking-spot down the block on the corner. It perfunctorily moves every 48 hours or so, but it’s clear that life in Berkeley got too expensive for someone, so they decided to “go RVing” in front of the Nation’s by the campus. Parking tickets sure make great rent when compared to an adjustable rate mortgage.

This is particularly poignant for two reasons. One, in a conversation foreshadowing just this kind of reality two months ago, my father and I argued profusely about the legality of just such an RV-type vehicle parking on the streets of Berkeley over even one night without being towed. I predicted that it wouldn’t get towed for ages. Well, Dad (yes he’s blogging again), we’re on day six in the neighborhood and the Winnebago hasn’t gone anywhere (and I’ve only seen one actual ticket). The other poignancy is the titular line of this post, which was another lyric in the somewhat melancholy ode, “He Lost His Money in a Geyser Bank”.

I have spent the entire day writing what will probably be the fastest-written and most completely ad hoc quiz in the history of the Blue Pyramid efforts, tentatively dubbed the Bailout Betrayal Quiz. In it, you’ll get a slightly in-depth look at the 59 Congresspeople who changed their mind between Monday and Friday of last week, plus 5 of our favorite folks who lobbied so hard for the bailout in the first place. I have vacillated greatly on what I want to get out of such a quiz, and how vengeful to make it (especially since I agree with many other stands these people took besides turning their coats on the bailout), and whether I should offer alternatives and promote opponents, many of whom would’ve voted for the bailout even earlier. I am still working out these compromises and the quiz won’t be up till this time tomorrow at the earliest, since I still have 40-some answers to write. But I’ve done nearly everything else that makes up a quiz since about this time yesterday, if you can believe it.

I am sitting here, wired and tired, unshaven and unbathed, overwhelmed and just beginning. I have expended tremendous energy on a project that leaves me ambivalent. Sometimes I think I’m just like the people I’m railing against – taking action because I can, when perhaps inaction would be more sober. Yet at the same time, I can’t just let this moment in history go unmarked. The US is careening, faster than even I imagined, for the Greatest Depression. Everything I ever was concerned about, speculated wildly about, thought may be happening, is beyond true. It’s here, already, and to stay. Everything up till now has just been prelude to what’s upon us.

The decisions we make, going forward, count double. It feels like one of those signs on the highway: “Traffic fines doubled in construction zone.” That’s what we’re in, except it’s a deconstruction zone. Everything’s coming apart and people are grabbing what they can on the way down. Friday’s vote was a public looting of stores that no one was bothering to guard. There will be more and faster and there will never be any bounce or payoff, just more looting.

I am reading Camus’ The Plague this week. I watched “Blindness” on Friday. I can’t imagine two more fitting pieces of media experience for what is coming.

No one can say they weren’t warned. And coming from America, no one can say they don’t deserve it. The world makes remarkably more sense than we give it credit for.

There’s that word, credit. Heh.

“He Lost His Money in a Geyser Bank” was initially the product of a pun, as were so many Clayton family tunes. But on a day that is about to dawn with “real” banks seeming comparably safe to geyser banks, it begs all kinds of questions. Questions whose answers may be in another 64-answer quiz. Or in nothing at all.

What’s your interest?

by

Where Credit is Due

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

I don’t believe in credit.

To crib an old line from Nikki Hay, it’s not that I don’t believe it exists or happens, it’s just that I don’t believe it really should. Or in using it myself.

In my last visit to Chicago this spring, I told Fish and his girlfriend that I didn’t have as much of a problem with capitalism holistically as I did with the credit aspect specifically. They gave me the waterfalling laughs of ridicule that can only come from students of the University of Chicago when they’re about to be more conservative than you: “There wouldn’t be any capitalism without credit!” they trilled, almost in unison.

Apparently, Messrs. Bernanke, Paulson, and Bush agree. No wonder I don’t like credit.

At base, the concept of credit is simple and classically American: something for nothing. “Nothing” might be considered too harsh a judgment – it’s “something”, ranging from a handshake to a promise to a statement of income to collateral to a pound of flesh. But really, at the end of the day, it’s nothing. Suddenly you have money to spend that you didn’t have before, all because someone believes that you can make that money back (and possibly more) before they want their money back.

For some reason, or perhaps several, this has always seemed innately inappropriate to me. And not for any mid-millennium European judgments about “moneychangers” or any other such nefarious historical dogma. After all, the one aspect of the credit world that I have delved into is interest-bearing accounts: savings accounts and certificates of deposit, so I clearly haven’t carried over to objecting to banking altogether. Although maybe I should by the time I complete this analysis.

Maybe it was watching my parents cut up their credit cards and throw the pieces in the fire in Visalia, California during my early childhood, pronouncing vague admonitions that I not get trapped in the same web they were now escaping. That sobering mid-eighties scene no doubt had a major influence on how I approached my early adulthood. Maybe it was watching how quickly my friends in high school could accrue debt at the rate of a soda at a time. Whatever my influences, it was pretty clear to me that I never wanted to have monetary credit by the time that credit card companies flooded my Brandeis campus mailbox with promises of unlimited lines of borrowing, with only my pending degree as collateral.

My objection to credit and debt, conceptually and philosophically, is twofold. And the two halves of the fold may seem to contradict each other, as I think about it, so you’ll have to bear with me…

1. Spending money you don’t have.
Conceptually, this just seems obviously wrong. Even leaving aside the fact that the average American has no idea what they’re doing with money or what it’s good for (and no institutions in our society are designed to teach them otherwise), spending someone else’s money just seems unwise. One of the only reasonably decent arguments for capitalistic elements of a society (such as property ownership) is that people take better care of their own things than they do of communal property. I think this trait could be unlearned pretty easily, but if I grant it in the status quo, the credit/debt aspect of capitalism defeats one of its only defensible attributes. The “owned” property is actually someone else’s, or was bought with free money from someone else. To what extent do you really feel you’ve earned this item and have to take care of it if it’s on borrowed cash? No one’s ever done the study, but I bet property bought in cash lasts twice as long and in better condition than property bought on credit.

Of course, modern American capitalism benefits the most when property is trashed. Then people need to go out and buy more. The sustainable, homespun, hand-grown aspects of property ownership are directly in conflict with the credit mentality. You hear that, global warming nuts? Credit is anti-environmental!

Of course, this should be obvious by now in a society that needs to run on planned obsolescence to sustain its “growth”. Your DVD is obsolete now, it’s time for Blu-Ray! Your screen is just a little too small, there’s a bigger one out. Your computer is just a little too slow, there’s a faster one out. Your car is just a little too fuel inefficient, there’s a slightly more efficient one out. Your phone is just a little too crackly, there’s a more connected one out. Incremental technology is the boon of the credit world, forcing the efficiency-minded to grab the next gadget or advance before they’ve even paid off the last one.

But all these objections are mild compared to…

2. Indebtedness = slavery.
This is the larger problem with credit and the thing that really needs to come home to roost in our society. This is the really insidious aspect of debt, the one that’s really ballooned in the last couple decades, the one that makes me want to stand up and cheer at the possible defeat of the credit lifestyle. This, ultimately, is why I personally could never stomach getting a single credit card, never want to buy a house unless I can do so outright, and have never borrowed money that wasn’t from a close friend (and in an amount less than $20).

When one owes money, one has two choices. One can be conscientious about it, and care about paying it back, or one can pretty much not care. The latter leads to the first phenomenon (above), not taking care of things, not being responsible with borrowed items. This, in turn, leads to the foreclosure world that we’re reeling in the midst of now… borrowing money one couldn’t hope to pay back just to enjoy/trash some stuff for a while and have to give it back. Yes, this is a slightly abrasive oversimplification of the foreclosure mentality of this decade, but it’s close enough.

The second choice, the one taken probably by the preponderance of people, despite American values, is to care quite deeply about paying the money back. To want to not be upside-down for the rest of one’s life. This is the road I’m more familiar with, in part because I’m fortunate enough to have fortunate and motivated friends, most of whose first experience with credit/debt is/was student loans. Often, they take out these loans not just for undergrad, but to get a shiny advanced degree, often in a professional school, especially law school. And the old story goes a little like this:

X: I want to go to law school!
S: Why? You’ll just get dragged down into doing something evil with it.
X: No I won’t! I want to do law school to help people and save the world.
S: [sighs] Okay. If you insist. But be careful, because you’ll be surrounded by offers of evil.
X: Uh oh. I can’t pay for law school. Good thing there are student loans available!
S: Oh dear. I know how this one ends.
[a year passes]
X: Law school is really dull. Thank God I get to do something interesting when this is over.
[two years pass]
X: You would never believe how much money I owe for all this law school. You know, I think I’m going to take a high-paying firm job for a few years to pay it off.
S: But they do evil!
X: But just a little evil. And I won’t even be in the most evil department. And it’s just for a few years.
S: Sure.
[a few years pass]
S: So, going to move on from evil yet?
X: Welllll… I’ve gotten three promotions and now that I’ve paid off my debt, I’m really accustomed to this high standard of living.
S: Um.
X: You know, I’ve been thinking that the best way to save the world might be to make a whole pile of cash and then donate it at the end of my life to things I care about?
S: Yeah? Like Carnegie or Gates?
X: Yeah, exactly. They did lots of good for the world, right?

Your script may vary, and there are a couple exceptions here and there, and I’ve probably upset all my friends in law school (which, really, is like 75% of you). Whatever. You know I worry about this anyway, so no surprises. The point is that with or without me nagging them on their shoulder, this is the general progression that an uncanny number of people go through. And while my crowd usually does this with law school, there are plenty of people doing this with undergraduate degrees or business school degrees (although that’s more obviously a lost cause) or other professional pursuits.

And I’m not saying we should go back to the time where education was a privilege only of the rich. However, the insidious move that America has seamlessly made to draft the most intelligent and caring of the poor and middle class into indentured servitude to the institutions that keep the poor poor… this I object to.

And while this is the most glaring example of credit’s insidious ability to corrupt and enslave, it’s by no means the only one. Every day, debt and credit keep people from quitting jobs they despise because of obligations they’ve committed to that are over their head. And the society that takes debt and credit for granted, that naturally pushes everyone toward new cars and houses and gadgets they can’t afford, ensures that everyone will continue to be indebted and enslaved, compromising their free time, free will, and the morality and creativity of the pursuits of their life and labor, all to keep the machine that crushes them going.

So, uh, forgive me if I’m rooting with all my might for all of this to fail. Forgive me if I want the bail-out to fail and the dire warnings of the end of credit and thus capitalism to come true. Forgive me if I think a little pain is worth the ultimate outcome of letting go of this mentality where leveraged greed ate itself until there was nothing left to consume.

And in the meantime, whatever they end up deciding, make your own choice. Burn your credit cards. Walk away from the system. Spend only the money you actually have. Own less. Buy less. Opt out. Don’t participate in the institutions that are trying to destroy you. You’ll be happier, humbler, more secure. And you can quit your job when you want.

by

High School Never Ends

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

“Then when you graduate
You take a look around and you say “Hey wait!”
This is the same as where I just came from
I thought it was over, aw that’s just great.

Seen it all before
I want my money back!”
-Bowling for Soup, “High School Never Ends”

Early in our senior year of high school, my friends and I designed a T-shirt as part of the contest to design the official class shirt for the Class of ‘98. We were not the “in” crowd; we were the guys who played chess in the commons. In the style of a popular series of T-shirts of the day, our design submission theme was “Co-Ed Naked Albuquerque Academy: We Have to Pay for It”.

It is thus not surprising, perhaps, that I am just hours from paying $35 for appetizers and access to a cash bar with a collection of my high school classmates.

The T-shirts never got printed. Not because our design didn’t win the contest, but because the Academy wouldn’t allow such a controversial design to carry the noble school’s official sanction. We actually won the contest vote twice – first in a primary landslide, and then in a secondary run-off with the Academy faculty making it very clear that our design was still eligible to win, but would not be printed or sold by the school if it did win. It won anyway, and no one got a class shirt that year because we didn’t want to finance our lark of a design.

I often describe Albuquerque Academy as a school in the middle of the West trying desperately hard to be an elite New England prep school, without the boarding and the uniforms. There is no dearth of ridiculous description of the Academy – we called the cafeteria a “dining hall” and had assigned seating with ten students and a faculty “table head” (to facilitate appropriate mealtime discussion) per table, plus assigned student “waiters” on a half-quarterly rotating basis who brought out the family style meals. We were dominant in every realm of pretension and pomposity, garnering sour looks from any non-Academites who we gulpingly admitted our alma mater to. My time at the Academy was single-handedly responsible for my flat refusal to apply to any Ivy League colleges, weary as I was of wealth, class, and elitism.

And yet my years at the Academy were predominantly fabulous. I made most of my most enduring lifelong friends there. I learned how to debate. I wrote and read and even felt academically challenged once in a while. I started dating. I became a vegetarian, started growing my hair out, became outspoken and dramatic. I spent five years there, a personal record by more than double at a single school to that point. I attended until the end of the prescribed term, a first in fifteen years of attending educational institutions.

There were horrors there too. One in particular comes to mind, but there were others. The antagonism that only adolescents can offer other human beings. Unmotivated teachers whose only offered challenge was to see how much one could get away with on their watch. Ultimate frisbee.

Tonight, I revisit ten years of history, or really sixteen since that day in August 1993 when I was one of two new kids in an eighth-grade class pushing 150 students. My parents, full of hope that I had finally found an academic home, exchanged looks of grave concern as I broke out into open weeping in the restaurant where we dined after they picked me up. Sobbing in the aftermath, I wasn’t sure that I could face returning for even a second day to this foreboding brick wall of insular classism.

I wish I could tell that near-hyperventilating young man about the ten-year reunion he would voluntarily attend 193 months thereafter.

The question seems to have arisen of late as to why I am going. My parents took it for granted that I would go; most others assumed just as strongly that I would not. Far too much of my willingness to attend hinged on the prisoner’s-dilemma reservation tracking website and how a few particular battleships navigated the seas of Yes, Maybe, and No. An early perception that many of my old crew, my lifelong friends, would be attending was erased after I had locked in a ticket. In the end, there were too many people I wanted to see to pass up the chance. It was really as simple as that.

Then, with some of my friends dropping out in every direction, Emily and I saw the film “American Teen”. While not the most brilliant movie of any kind, it captured most viscerally and profoundly the essence of being high-school aged in America in my generation. While I admittedly didn’t recognize the abundant text-messaging from my own days, everything else was the same. The raw emotional force of each day, each interaction, each second of life, unmatched before or since, is so well portrayed in this movie that it actually makes one feel 17 upon exit. When one comes to one’s senses, the only remaining feeling is a crisp, pristine relief that one is not only not 17, but never has to live through being so again in this lifetime.

Thus, I’m still riding out the excitement of that movie, of a handful of people about whom I am genuinely interested and curious (yes, both), of a few long-term friends who it will be good to see in our old hometown outside of winter. I feel certain that I will have changed less than almost anyone. I still think of myself as approximately 20… and now I even look like I did back then (perhaps with longer hair). I’m sure at least one person will call me out for having stayed in the United States despite promising my junior year history class that I would leave in disgust shortly after graduating college. I’m sure at least one person will ask me where the old ‘51 Buick is. I’m sure at least one person will fail to believe that I still don’t drink, do drugs, or eat meat.

I’ll see you out there soon. I’ll be the one in the Mariners jacket.

by

But I Can Feel, I Can Feel: A Counting Crows Show on the Verge of Everything

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Just Add Photo, Pre-Trip Posts, Tags: , , , ,

It must be observed that this has been a week beyond the average.

To attempt to capture it all in some sort of laundry list seems to trivialize it (as, indeed, the very nature of the phrase “laundry list” captures). Besides, I sort of gave a preview in this post just 12 days ago. To think of a time when I was “searching for direction” seems almost laughable now in the face of directions very much found (chosen?) by the collective perspective.

If nothing else, the turmoil and heightened activity is certainly well captured by my recent prolificity in this very format of communication. It is surely oversimplification to say that when one is writing more, it is a reflection of more events worth living through – but no doubt the volatility in my own mind (or perhaps “mind at large” as my Dad would put it) has manifest in an outpouring of understanding. Like I said, I need to process everything and I get there too.

I imagine Adam Duritz to be somewhat like myself. This is quite an understatement – I have spent much of my life believing Adam to be somehow a kindred spirit, and no doubt a fostering of this perspective through highly empathetic lyrics is at the core of Counting Crows’ success over the years. I was not even the first person to describe a CC show as a “religious experience” to myself – I had heard many others say this was so before I even particularly new many Crows songs. And yet the discovery of the truth of the statement was in no way contrived or unduly advertised when I saw them for the first time in New York in 1999. I dubbed it “the perfect show” and am still unsure if it’s ever been eclipsed.

Trying to describe a Counting Crows show to the uninitiated (or those who, heaven forbid, don’t like or know the band) is a little like Plato struggling with the forms. Yes, we’re still talking about chairs and rooms and people, but you’ve never really seen any of these things in your life until you’ve been to a CC concert. I realize that I’m sounding hyperbolic to the point of undermining what I’m trying to express, but really. For emotional sponges like me, a CC show is like an oxygen tank for asthmatics. Suddenly, for the first time, there’s enough of everything I need.

Last night’s show was no exception to any of these rules, though there are a few cautionary notes. It was both a summer show and a double-headliner, both slight drawbacks from maximal emotional flood. They’re on tour with Maroon 5 of all people, a band that is perhaps the least like them of anyone they’ve ever toured with and seems to combine vapid, repetitive sound with lyrics that sound like a kindergartener regurgitating the most average pop songs they’ve ever heard in staccato. It occurred to me early in the show that they selected this matchup to heighten the contrast between the opener and closing act to pack an even tighter, more profound emotional punch.

But the summer shows (yes, it’s September, but it was an outdoor concert with summer-type billing) tend to be shorter, slightly less focused, and a little more crowd-pleasing. It’s important to stress that these are all questions of degree – the lamest Crows show ever is still probably the best concert experience you’ll ever have this side of Simon & Garfunkel.

But it’s worth noting because I feel that even Adam got in too deep too quickly in last night’s show and had to back off a little bit. Which both heightened and flattened the effect of the message, making me wonder if there isn’t something even larger and less grapplable going on that we’re just scratching the surface of.

The stage featured an almost pyramidal array of stair-steps toward the drums, keyboards, and then a massive fake-brick wall peppered with a large screen and several smaller ones. The most striking component of the set-up, though the clustered sodium lights were notable, was a huge clock in the center of the wall, set to 11:00. It’s the eleventh hour, and Adam’s letting you know. Already, the chills were underway.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Adam in such a mess as a show began as last night. Emily leaned in and remarked something to this effect, implying he was somehow intoxicated, but it looked much more to me like he was grappling with some kind of emotional chasm that was entirely unchartered. He couldn’t get some words out through teary bleary overwhelm. He changed everything about every song, peppering the opening “Round Here” with plaintive cries of hope against hope. The only thing familiar were strands of “Have You Seen Me Lately?” intermingled with new riffs into the song, made all the more stunning when the second song of the act was the original “Have You Seen Me Lately?”.

But before I even knew that was happening, the screen filled with upraised arm silhouettes clawing for some sort of solace or retribution, all aiming at 11:00 on the wall. It was the most viscerally moving and distressing thing I’ve ever seen at a concert in my life. This was on display for the whole final third of a “Round Here” rendition that must have taken ten minutes. I was openly weeping, not even knowing how to take this and being altogether sure that I was not ready for the depth and breadth of the show I was about to witness.

It was thus at once disappointing and relieving that the rest of the concert never reached the tremors of that level of expression. It’s exceedingly rare for a CC show to peak on the first song, but it felt like peering over the abyss, building up as though to jump, and then thinking better of it and dancing on the edge instead. Enough Maroon 5 fans were walking out as the show went on anyway that we have ended up with a concert for a thousand people had he pushed it. And that’s not what summer shows are about, no matter how close they fall to October.

While the show had many obvious and more surficial themes, including a concerted effort to include every song with any sort of reference to California (there are many), key threads of desperation and hope against hope in the face of overwhelming odds seemed to carry throughout. You could argue that these themes are constants for Duritz and company (company probably including me), and you might be right, but it doesn’t make it any less relevant. Those may be the themes of the last decade or so, after all, and the coming few years. If indeed we have years to come.

Early on, it formulated in my mind that the show felt a bit like Adam’s suicide note. And then again, perhaps just a love note. Isn’t every suicide note a love note? And of course, I’m sure I mostly just have suicide on the brain in the wake of David Foster Wallace’s recent action. Then again, it’s worth noting some stark similarities between DFW (born in 1962) and AD (born in 1964). After all, they look like they have something in common:

I’m not the only one that sees a resemblance, right? Then again, for that matter:

Perhaps I’m pushing things a bit far, but this is how CC gets its fans to relate to what’s going on. The intro to the show featured a tribute to the late Isaac Hayes and I was practically expecting something similar for DFW at the show’s end. But DFW didn’t make music, and for all I know Adam Duritz didn’t even read him.

Still, the thread of self-destruction was prevalent in the show and it was hard not to see it as a possible farewell. The unbelievable stripped-bare vulnerability of “Colorblind”, the dramatic trauma of “Cowboys”, the mostly seemingly ad-libbed earnest regret of “Miami”. Every song seemed to have some tie-in to the entire question of deciding whether to exist, though once one starts looking for something in a CC set, it’s hard not to find it. By the time the “feathered by the moonlight” line from “A Murder of One” was folded into “A Long December”, I was just about ready to lose it again.

And then, a sudden retraction, almost as though he was scared of what he was saying to himself, let alone the fans. “Come Around” closed the set, after a brief explanation that the song was about coming back to cities on tour, no matter what else was going on. A song, for the first time, about constancy and a lack of change. And then, after the briefest encore departure in history and only one more song, just four words, each a sentence, loudly into the microphone: “We. Will. Be. Back.”

There was the briefest of hopes that he meant tonight as he walked off stage, but the first strands of “California Dreamin'” over the stereo indicated that he was making a promise for the future. Or maybe trying to convince himself. It’s a weird thing to say to your hometown crowd when half the show chatter was about staying at home with the parents and doing laundry, seeing old familiar places, how much he loves Berkeley, which he sees as the town where he grew up. It’s the kind of thing you say to Pittsburgh or Cleveland or the Philippines when you’re not from there, when those places are remote and perhaps vaguely undesirable, but you’re convincing people to tough it out and wait for you.

And maybe he just means that about the planet. It would certainly be understandable, if so. It’s not an easy place to be, sometimes, and not looking much easier. Me, I have reason for personal hope right now. I haven’t even begun to engage the 10-year reunion homecoming implications of this weekend’s trip for which I depart tonight. I almost wrote a post called “High School Never Ends” a month ago and it still needs to be declared. I joked with Fish about offering live updates on the blog after each interaction with classmates.

But I think, for now, I’d rather feel things in the moment. Live each second as it comes, no matter how packed and overwhelming. There is anticipation, excitement, dread. Reason to believe there’s no idea what to expect. I am ready, I am ready, I am ready, I am fine.

Round Here
Have You Seen Me Lately?
Los Angeles
Richard Manuel is Dead
Colorblind
Ghost Train
Cowboys
Miami
Washington Square
A Long December
Come Around

Rain King (with Augustana, Mr. Jones alt)

by

Suicide in the Sort of Present: Thoughts on the Passing of David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

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

David Foster Wallace was whirled into my life by my eighth girlfriend (if she can quite be called that), the one I’ve lovingly dubbed “Try Before You Buy” in the nomenclature of retrospect. It was my sophomore year in college, an absolute disaster of an annum if I’ve ever lived one, but one that birthed a good deal of long-term positivity despite its torments. It was the age in which Introspection was born and Steve-o and I won three straight tournaments and I was trying to fall for this crazy smoker who dervished words together at will and chopped off all her beautiful hair the week before we started dating.

The nickname comes from the fact that she introduced me to the concept of dating multiple people at once as a deliberate medium-term approach to life (as opposed to a brief but unfortunate transition, or the infamous “overlap” phenomenon). This has apparently become a standard way of being in contemporary America for those unmarried in their mid-twenties and above, but I sure wasn’t ready for it at 20 in the year 2000. I don’t think she was either, frankly, but like so many people she felt that circumstances were dictating her fate and it was time for her to learn about open relationships. This didn’t require her telling each of us about the other without revealing identities, having us discover each other’s identity almost immediately, and making it clear when she was spending time with one or the other of us to the other, though. But she did that.

As those of you familiar with the story (or who’ve read the earliest entries of Introspection) know, she broke up with the other guy to be with me exclusively after some weeks of torturous sharing. And then the guy, during the breakup conversation, told her some mangled misinterpreted third-hand half-truths about me that caused her to freak out and break up with me too (enter the Even-Number Principle). A tornado of misinterpretation and bad blood emerged, briefly costing me my friendship with Mesco (long since repaired), and leading to a couple months where the girl and I IM’ed for multiple hours a night, every night, but I wasn’t permitted to see her in person till the last week of school.

It’s probably not surprising that this sounds like the plot of a David Foster Wallace short story, both because the girl revered the man as her favorite author and because her head was such a constant wondrous jumble of verbiage that her life had no choice but to follow suit. I admired her spinning blender of verbosity, perhaps as her most shining attribute. As I came to read Wallace, initially at her behest and later of my own interest, I came to see the source and even understand my past a little better.

I think I first started reading Girl With Curious Hair after she and I were no longer together, but were arguably more emotionally attached via constant IM contact than we had been during our relationship. (She was one of the few people in my life with whom I had meaningful and/or extensive IM conversations.) Actually, it may not have even been till the next year, when I was working at Goldfarb Library and had ample free time to read books of my interest since I sure wasn’t reading my unpurchased textbooks. My reading tends to form as a sort of queue and it takes a while for me to get to hot recommendations. As I’m remembering this, it might not’ve been till my senior year, since I wasn’t at the desk the first semester of junior year. This recollection is rapidly losing traction.

Regardless of when it was, I recall being struck by the fearlessness of Wallace’s writing, how he seemed a perfect parallel on paper to my way of being in the world. He legitimately didn’t seem to care whether anyone read a given story or not, much less whether they enjoyed it or wanted to keep reading. He wrote exactly what he was going to write, in exactly the language he chose, regardless of accessibility or interest level. This struck me as a remarkable trait in a writer and just as admirable as I find it in human interaction. Above all, it was honest experimentation. It was like witnessing a writing test zone, with all the similar risks of getting shelled by live fire.

Everything that had ever occurred to me to try or to one day aspire to try, Wallace seemed to be up for the challenge. Writing entirely in dialogue or second person or with words that start only with vowels. I don’t think he did any of these things per se, maybe not in any of his works, but he was exactly the kind of author who would do them. And there seemed to be a breadth of forethought and intelligence behind such efforts that was often breathtaking and certainly worth reading.

After getting through Girl With Curious Hair, I think some vague bitterness about the girl or the fact that none of his other collections at the time were of short stories dissuaded me from going on a DFW kick. But the stories therein haunted me for a long time and certain scenes still came to mind out of nowhere, with a visceral reality that was oft overwhelming. His story about LBJ (“Lyndon”), particularly, seemed so unbelievably real as to be a historical account transcribed.

Thus a few years later, when bored and depressed at a PIRG party, my eye was particularly caught by the word “stories” next to “David Foster Wallace” on a book cover. And so I picked up Oblivion, tearing through much of the first story before leaving the party. Isaac Bloom, the book’s owner and a friend, tried to insist several times that I take the book home, but I refused when finding out that he hadn’t yet read it himself. I would pick up a copy at some point, I assured him.

And then, late last year, came the torrent. I read it all, sometimes reading DFW books back-to-back or nearly so, which I tend to try to avoid. I hauled Infinite Jest to India over the protests of all my traveling companions, who insisted that such a move was surely asking for trouble. I pointed out that I was far too invested in the book to quit now (over halfway through), and besides it was easier than taking the equivalent number of books needed to replace the lengthy tome. I finished the book on a train in the middle of India and while I wasn’t all that impressed with the ending (most DFW books seem to die rather than end), it was a momentous, moving night.

I’ve still yet to read his two nonfiction works, but I completed all of DFW’s fiction early this summer. I was especially impressed by Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, especially dark and the most seemingly relevant to the events that transpired to end Wallace’s life. For one, the jaw-droppingly brilliant micro-short story “Suicide as a Sort of Present” immediately merited inclusion among my favorite short stories of all time, coming in at #10. The thread stories of the titular brief interviews are almost universally stunning. And a line that struck me as powerful and bizarre at the time, read in a memorable bleary fog of plane-switching downtime in the Phoenix airport, has taken on a whole new meaning. Addressed to someone trying to relate to himself, he wrote: “You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer.”

It shouldn’t take much explaining to demonstrate why this line impacted me so. I mean, David Foster Wallace was not just any fiction writer, he was a fiction writer who could literally get anything published to the reading and adoration of the masses. The story from which that line was taken (“Octet”) is perhaps the greatest proof of this fact, an absurdly rambly meta-meta-meta-fiction piece that pulverizes the comprehensible limits of any sort of fourth wall with the audience. It is immensely entertaining, but perhaps only because I aspire to be a groundbreaking fiction writer myself. Aspire. Desire. Want. Would love to. Would in no way, ever, consider the condition “unfortunate”.

And so we arrive at the heart of the matter, it would seem. In the face of the success, the adulation, the reverential readers and students and literary crowd, in the face of having feasibly decades of writing opportunity ahead, as discretionarily unmitigated in time constraints as he would possibly want to be (yes, I focus on this as the blockade against writing success since this is what hampers me almost entirely at the moment), he chooses to walk away. And not just from the shining light of it all, like J.D. Salinger, but from the potential to even write for oneself and burn the results. To take the ability and hard-earned position to influence others, the profound compulsion to make them think and think hard… and crumple it up irreparably.

It would be easy to have my next line be something about the unforgivable nature of this act. The truth is, of course, that I could never fail to forgive someone their suicide. I am hardly prone to forgiveness in any capacity, but I am prone to suicidalism and as such find it to be infinitely understandable. Unfortunate and perhaps mired in an extreme lack of ultimate creativity, but understandable all the way. And while I happen to be on the upside of my lifelong battle with suicidal ideation, I am hardly naïve enough to conceive that I would never be on the down-swinging pendulum while simultaneously a successful, acknowledged, and influential writer of fiction. Especially if somehow I felt that the essential angst of the era were laden in being misunderstood or unable to continue to create at the level to which I had become accustomed or even expected.

But we are not given the details of Wallace’s suicide. Surely a hanging seems rather dull for such an expansive and explosive creator. I had to read it three times before I even believed that aspect. It’s almost enough to make one wonder if he really did do it himself, a la the old Elliott Smith rumors from back in the day. Talk about two people who have something to say to each other at the next water cooler. No doubt they would hate each other in person despite having begrudging admiration and ultimate high respect, not to mention so very much in common.

Perhaps there will be books on it in the future, perhaps a note published. The media seems all to eager to conceal details of a suicide, likely equal parts respect for family and some sort of extremely passive campaign against any alleged glorification of the act. We can be told how many times the murdered were shot, but those who chose to stage their own departure and arrange the details are denied the spreading of that statement. Of course, it must mostly be those closest to the suicide who aid in the concealment – we would surely never learn if his final note, discovered by his wife, blamed her for all his troubles. The resentment and horrifying insult of loving a suicide must ultimately take over in the immediate wake.

And so we are left to imagine the details, to fill in our own perspectives and wonder how we relate, how there but for the grace of God go we. It is not a planned, constructed, or well thought-out suicide that I fear for myself so much as an impulsive one. My incredibly unstable moods and widest imaginable range of highs and lows make me caution myself at approaching trains and over high ledges, but I have no concern at something so elaborate as a noose. By the time I had put that much thought into it, I would have realized I still had one more thing to try to write or express, or that I could spend a whole life doing nothing but playing video games or poker until I got sick of that and wanted to be more productive again, or that I could just disappear and start over. All of these things, of course, unless I did something which I regretted to the point of being unable to live with it. Which is why I spend so much of my time and effort trying to make sure that doesn’t happen.

David, I don’t know the details of your life (maybe I should read your nonfiction, huh?) nor what brought you to this point. But I’m disappointed. Not in you or with you or even by you, but by the fact that there won’t be anything (or much) left to read from you. It was good. I would have done some of it differently, but generally very good. I hope you can find a way of communicating more urgent messages next time around.

by

Ducking Behind Pillars

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

I’m not exactly the world’s most social person. This is a bit of an understatement.

Much has been made lately at my place of work of the classic old Myers-Briggs personality tests and their typologies. I have to smile wryly when people ask if I know anything about personality tests. But in those, as can be imagined, my needle is sort of buried in the “I” (Introvert) as opposed to the “E” (Extrovert). Still struggling with why Thinking and Feeling are considered distinct, but boy am I buried in the I.

There’s another letter, though, that probably plays just as much into this particular anecdote, which is “J”. Judging. As opposed to “P”, Perceiving. This burial of the needle toward one side is far less extreme than the old I/E dichotomy, but there’s a whole lot of J goin’ on. And the IJ combination creates not only a lack of prioritization toward the social, but a good deal of dismissal of those one isn’t interested in.

Which leads me to ducking behind pillars. I did it today, and it almost shocked me when I realized that my quick-walk high-tailing it out of the Powell Street melee was, in fact, the proverbial ducking behind a pillar after all. And boy did I need to duck, since I was wearing a blatant Brandeis sweatshirt, making any possible confusion regarding identity impossibly moot. It was not till I boarded the train that I realized the person in question was ducking behind pillars in my presence as far back as when we shared the same school. Mutually assured ducking.

For the unfamiliar, the ducking behind pillar question is a not-too-distant metaphor for indicating people one would rather avoid talking to than ever interact with again in one’s life. I don’t think this is nearly the harsh judgment to levy on past participants in one’s life that most people seem to. The etymology is relatively obvious: who would you, if seeing someone across a room that happened to have a conveniently placed pillar between you, duck behind said pillar to avoid speaking with? For whatever reason.

This exercise emerged from a conversation between Fish and I about this question regarding our high school class. I once estimated, outlandishly according to Fish, that I would duck behind a pillar to avoid roughly 75% of our class of 1998 peers. A later name-by-name analysis we conducted revealed 75% to be a conservative estimate – the actual number was closer to 85%. (Editor’s note: I am still considering attending my 10-year high school reunion this September.)

But before any drastic conclusions are reached about what this implies and how much I must have hated high school and my classmates, I should note my particular reasons for ducking behind pillars. Often it’s simply to avoid the type of conversation that emerges from chance bumpings-into. The person may be completely neutral, or even slightly positive, in general and/or in one’s memory. But the nature of making obligatory small talk, separated by years or even decades from any real contact with said person, is often aggravating enough to turn a good person into a bad interaction. One that leaves one with slightly tainted memories of said individual, souring what otherwise wouldn’t have been given much thought.

It’s often much the same interaction as one has on IM conversations, which is why I haven’t logged into IM (with a couple of weird purpose-specific exceptions) since college. “Hi.” “Hey.” “How’s it going?” “Not bad and you.” “Fine fine.” “Good.” “So… whatchya up to?” “Not much, y’know. Same old same old. You?” “Yup, about the same.” Repeat, repeat, repeat.

And you’d think a distance of years would change this pattern. But it really doesn’t. Often, it exacerbates it. How to even begin to explain the last 8 years of one’s life? One can’t, and doesn’t attempt. Or how to even begin to explain how dull and predictable the last 8 years have been? One can, and doesn’t want to. It’s all the same fucking day, man. (Editor’s note: Janice Joplin)

And yet I’m Facebook-friends with some of these people. Nothing to say, nothing to catch up on, no good times to relive. Just wampeters and granfalloons. (Editor’s note: Kurt Vonnegut) Grand wastes of everyone’s time.

It must be stressed here that I am just as much a waste of their time as they are of mine. This is not some egotistical elevation of my time, energy, or efforts over others’. They should duck behind pillars if they see me first too. I prioritize my time only in as much as I personally make judgments about other people that they, in turn, should be making (Editor’s note: my opinion) about the people they have nothing to say to. If everyone did this (Editor’s note: Immanuel Kant), we’d all be free of those awkward, neck-scratching conversations and be all the more reassured that those speaking to us were really truly interested in what we had to say. (Editor’s note: …or, I suppose, really insecure. Or attention-starved. But mostly interested.)

And about that reunion. Our reunion hosts have made the somewhat dubious decision to have RSVP’s made public in real-time on a website. Presumably this is to create some sort of critical mass and move momentum toward more and more people participating because they just have to see so-and-so and they’ll definitely be there! Of course, I really think the impact is much more to the contrary. Something about having to actually face those names in monochrome on a computer screen. Curiosity can’t get the best of awkwardness in an era where one can just Google anyone with a distinctive name to see what they’re up to. And considering that at least two people who I’d push a pillar on top of rather than have to speak to (Editor’s note: not really) have RSVP’ed in the Yes column, it’s looking like my decision is more and more made up.

Strangers reading this blog are just never going to e-mail me after this post, huh?

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Epilogue

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

Yesterday, I worked a half-hour later than normal because suddenly things happened right at the end of the day that it seemed best to attend to then and there. Then I went to eat at Chipotle after work, mostly because I was hungry, but also because of new and slightly silly influences laden in the whole nature of yesterday.

So these factors combined to put me on the steps up from the platform of Downtown Berkeley BART about 45 minutes later than normal – at 6:30 instead of 5:45.

Racing up the steps, I heard a voice from one of them, a cautious and inquisitive “Storey…?” And one pretty much can’t mistake that for someone calling to somebody else. I turned around to see an older, taller impersonation of one of my old Seneca kids. Smiling at me and saying hello.

Now I have long envisioned meeting Seneca kids later in life – all grown up or at least much older. And most of the time, the picture involves me losing a number of teeth or worse. Most of these visions are in the context of nightmares – not a week ago I was back on the halls of a Seneca house, somehow training someone else and dealing with one of those bedtime blowout disasters that made us all love the place so dearly. But with all the same kids from ’05, but now three years older and still living in a house designed for those younger than they were at the time. Good times.

But here was not only a kid who had been there back in ’05, but one who had specifically antagonized me more than other staff. Actually a favorite of many of the staff, truth be told, but one who always just had it in for me. Granted, he was one of the least violent and troublesome youth and had actually even been placed before I left. But there was none of the torment or targeting, none of the sour glares I recalled from nearly two years in the house with him. Instead, he smiled and asked me where I worked now. I happened to be dressed up, so it was all too clear I wasn’t still at Seneca. And I guess he was still in the loop over there somehow anyway.

We talked for 2 or 3 minutes; nothing major, nothing earth-shattering. It was a little awkward, but a good comfortable kind of awkward that denotes that you both understand the other is authentically happy to see you, that the awkwardness is space and time and nothing innate. We shook hands at the end, and I told him he’d done well. He has. He’s graduating from 8th grade (he proudly noted that “I stayed in school!”), he’s stayed out of the system, he seemed like a “normal” kid, just sitting with friends on the steps of a BART station, waiting on a train.

While still working at Seneca, there seemed to be a network of information about people. One worked so intensely and closely with kids, so personally, and then they were often whisked away to places unseen, never to return for so much as a visit. Yet still, managers would talk to other centers and people would get grapevine updates. But upon leaving Seneca, one’s connection to information dried up. I mean, I’m sure if I’d stayed close with a bunch of people still working there, it might’ve been different, but in all likelihood, they still wouldn’t have been folks in the know. There’s no way of knowing the rest of the story. How did that person grow up? Did that turn out okay? Did they stay or go?

So it’s nice to get a postscript here and there. To come face to face with the past and have it smile back. To think that maybe, just maybe, something turned out okay in this world.

By the time his train roared into the station, I was gone.

by

My Life with Food

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

Food and I have never been friends.

Food is like that friend one has when one doesn’t have a car, who one doesn’t really like or enjoy spending time with, but they have a car! So you hang out with them and get to go places and do things, but putting up with that person is a real pain in the rear and even makes you question, at times, if going places is all that important after all.

(I never had that friend in real life, by the way. The only people I remember regularly relying on for such were my parents, Fish, and Schneider, and I really like all these people a lot.)

The point is that food and I have a long and often tortuous history. Most of my childhood arguments with my parents were about food (at least those that weren’t about haircuts). I didn’t like it – really, any of it – and while I didn’t enjoy feeling hungry, I often preferred the sensation to what was being passed off as “food” at any given meal. A whole lexicon of dealbreakers on food developed, usually summarized into “green things” by my parents, which referred to most any type of parsleyish seasoning in otherwise almost tolerable edibles. I actually liked a lot of the big “green things” that people refer to with that phrase, such as broccoli, celery, or green beans, but if it was microscopic and green, there was no chance. I really could taste these things (or more often feel them – texture was a big deal) and they really did ruin food. My parents were skeptical that anyone could really detect such things and I think often assumed it was psychological. On these grounds, they tried to leverage my love of the color green into an affinity for “green things”. No dice.

And as one can imagine, I spent my childhood being ridiculously thin. There were many jokes about my profile being invisible and I was always able to squeeze through inhumanly tight spaces (though I did get stuck in a window in the Science Center for a really bad 45 minutes in high school). And always I was told to stretch my stomach, to eat until I could feel the stretching.

But as I have aged, as my father predicted, my hatred for many foods has softened. In large part, it’s just been a process of attrition – I was so often told to try things and so often told to eat as much as possible to “stretch my stomach” that I eventually found more and more foods palatable. I am still the pickiest eater any of my friends know, but the range of things I’ll eat positively dwarfs what I’d consume fifteen years ago and I was only recently able to get away from the idea that I have to eat till I am in physical pain to “stretch” my stomach. After all, I’ve suddenly been putting on weight. And while I’m still on the low end of normal in the much-vaunted BMI (body mass index), I’ve been increasingly troubled by the facts that my gut sticks out and that my thighs now touch each other.

This is a tricky issue to talk about, because people are extremely sensitive about weight and many of them have been pretty much straight-up angry with me when I bring up that I’m starting to worry about mine. I don’t really know what to say about this, except to really try to expound on exactly how much of a non-issue this has not only been for me in the past, but I always assumed it would be in the future. Yes, it was probably silly to assume that I would spend the entire rest of my life effortlessly rail-thin and always able to eat as much as possible of whatever junk I wanted. But at the same time, the same people who told me that this was silly also told me it would be impossible to do this at any time. And yet that was a full quarter-century of my experience – no matter what I ate or how “bad” it was, I never put on weight and never had health problems associated with what I ate. And while we can learn from what others tell us if it resonates with our experience, it’s very hard to do so when others’ advice not only contradicts but actually rules out one’s actual experience.

But the impossible dream expired after about twenty-five years, and suddenly I began to slowly realize that what I was eating actually impacted my body. This had literally never happened before… there had been no relationship between intake and output. I would eat massively or fast and stay exactly stagnant in weight, appearance, and feeling. But suddenly about a year or two ago, I was fluctuating like everybody else.

It’s taken about 18-24 months for me to make some sort of peace with this and realize that I should be proactive in correcting this or face suddenly having to take warnings about obesity seriously. I hasten to add that it’s not that I’m obese now (or even close) or in jeopardy of becoming obese tomorrow (or even the next day). It’s that I have realized, after two years of being mortal in the arena of food, that I will no longer blithely be able to consider myself immune to the concept of obesity for the rest of my life unless I change my habits now.

This is a bit of a struggle, because I really don’t like much food and I really can’t stand planning around the concept of food. Scheduled meal times don’t work for me – I’m usually either full or starving and there’s very little turn-around time between these two states. So I eat when I’m starving and don’t when I’m full. I tend to eat one or two foods over and over and over again until I get sick of it and then move on to the next food. And I basically only eat out, a product of both the starving/full quick-change dichotomy (little time and energy for the protracted food preparation process) and in order to incentivize myself in actually trying to eat instead of just riding out the hunger and winding up with a migraine or something. If eating has a fun component beyond the drudgery of having to consume food, I’m more likely to do it.

I guess you’re wondering at this point how I’m gaining weight when my gut instincts are so adversarial to food. I’ve been wondering too, somewhat incredulously, and this has really kept me from truly facing the issues I’m dealing with regarding food until the last few weeks.

I guess it’s a little like the habits one picks up when one’s single. At first, when one hasn’t ever dealt with a real romantic situation, let alone love, one doesn’t really have any bad habits around the gender of one’s attraction. They’re just people and one may be interested, but has a certain amount of innocence in such interactions; one is ready to be surprised by love.

But once one has had a serious relationship fail, one picks up all kinds of bad habits that become increasingly hard to unlearn. One starts seeing every member of the attractive gender as being a possible interest and gets increasingly focused on this as a daily expenditure of time. It’s almost impossible, no matter how much one may want to, to ever return to that first-love innocence of one’s youth and shed all of the trolling outlook on life one had to learn when one was first bitterly single.

Similarly, I’ve spent so much of my time learning bad habits about food. Not just the stomach stretching thing, but also to associate eating as something to increase and encourage in myself, and sometimes even to seek out more weighty foods in order to not be quite so thin. And now that I’m not only not rail-thin, but am actually over the weight I would consider ideal, it’s trouble. Returning to one’s gut intuition is not as easy as one thinks after spending so much time learning something different.

So now I have to make a plan and rules to get myself back where I want to be. I’ve decided that 130-135 is a reasonable place to be; a place where my gut and thighs would sufficiently recede but people wouldn’t stutter in horror about me just getting off the boat from Somalia. This is even “BMI”-approved… 130 would put me at a BMI of 18.7, when the border between normal and underweight is 18.5. How perfect is that?

After topping out at 150, I had some work to do. Although thanks to help from my India trip, which I guess was pretty active (because I felt like I was eating constantly), I haven’t been back up quite that high. Though my first few weeks after India, plus splurging on my trip to Chicago cemented the undoing of much of India’s good work. I basically started this plan at 147.

The plan has been pretty simple, and underway for about 3-4 full weeks, with the brief interruption from Chicago. I have a list of foods that I’m allowed to eat when I’m hungry. In general, these foods have been pulled from a narrow list of foods that disproportionately make one feel fuller than their calorie count would indicate. There are all sorts of articles and indexes on the web about this – satiety indexes and such. It was a revelation to me that calories have extremely little to do with how full one actually feels after eating. Much like money has absolutely nothing to do with the amount of work one does. In both cases, sometimes they coincide, but more often they don’t.

There was another angle to this food thing – I’ve had some recurrent acne and have attributed it after much research to a possible Vitamin A deficiency. I have since probably discredited this hypothesis, but it’s why carrots, which (like pancakes) make one hungrier than one was before eating them, are on this list.

The List:
-Bran Cereal
-Carrots
-Honeydew Melon
-Potatoes (boiled)

Plus, I get one totally free meal a day, where I can eat whatever, wherever. It goes without saying that I’m not to go hog-wild at such meals and eat a double-meal or something, but my low threshold of fullness helps automatically keep this in check.

It wasn’t until the last couple days that this exhaustive list of four foods for all eating outside of one meal/day was starting to wear on me. Thus I have added two brand-new foods!:
-Celery
-Lentils

This diet has knocked me down to 140, though there seems to be some push-back at this line. My nadir was 139, which was pretty exciting, since I could really see a dramatic difference in the distribution of that weight differential. I’ve stabilized in the 139-141 range, but seem to need some sort of prolonged or new move to get below that.

Then there’ll be a larger issue of what it takes to maintain the 130-135 range and whether it requires upkeep of these habits or a slight shift to something different.

After several weeks, I’ve established that this regimen is healthy, effective, and sustainable. It makes me appreciate the one meal out a day more and not have to worry as much about what I’m going to do to fulfill hunger when hunger arises. The foods on the list are simple to maintain, and basically all of them can be eaten raw and stored easily. No preparation time, no real thinking time, just getting eating over as fast as possible – the way it was always meant to be.

Meantime, I can watch my nephew Paul V grow up and see him be exactly like me (through 7 years of life, he’s nearly identical in his relationship with food). Maybe I can warn him about what happens at 26 before it’s too late for him and he has to resort to a plan to maintain what I grew up thinking would always be automatic.

Maybe he’ll just have to find out on his own.

by

Saturday in the Park

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

Been nearly two days in Chicago with a day to go. Have seen a full game in Wrigley Field (Cubs 3, Pirates 2), seen both of the previously unseen campuses I passed up as possible collegiate choices, and managed to smash up my wedding ring finger into a purple pulp. You didn’t think this town was gonna let me off easy, did you?

This post will likely be short, in large part because typing with nine fingers is a task I’ve never had to learn. Rather than being 10% slower, it really seems about 98% slower given how long it takes for me to decide which finger to sub in for the S finger. Luckily, this finger is only responsible for three letters (and two of them are w and x), but unluckily s is pretty common. I don’t know if the finger’s broken or not, but I’m leaning towards not at this point given that it’s pretty much stopped hurting. Last night when I willingly took two painkiller pills, was talked into a third, and never refused ice, the signs were pointing to badness.

The method of the smashing was picking up a bowling ball. Just nanoseconds before lifting, I was wrapping my left hand around the ball as support and the old-school see-saw ball-returner shot a ball into the row at breakneck (or break-finger) speed. The entire stopping point of the chain-reaction impact was my hand, primarily focused on one finger with peripheral contact on the two neighbors. Sandwiched between a 14 and a 12, this did not lead to warm fuzzy feelings. Somehow, in about 20 years of bowling, this had never once happened to me. And it really bugged me because it was entirely preventable. And because it hurt.

This is hardly the focal point of the trip, though, and shouldn’t be where I put so much emphasis. The trip has been about an old friend and his new friends. Fish has been the consummate host, as always, and given me a glimpse of both Chicago and alternate pasts that I have turned away from. His group is what I remember of groups assembled at schools – smart, funny, interested, and interesting. Everything about school except for school was always great. If everyone could self-select and come together for such things in the interest of some sort of club or life commitment (or even society?), things would be really cooking. But sadly school seems to be the only thing deemed worthy of bringing like-mindeds together from such distant places in a socially comfortable setting. And thus my path is barred, by my own volition.

Nevertheless, it’s good to see a friend doing well, to immerse in his world, and to talk through all the things it seems go unsaid these days. Examining one’s own life is often so difficult without the full-length mirror that is someone who has known you across a multitude of years and situations.

Debate and discussion. The caterpillar story. A coat forgotten and regained. Misty walks on paths not taken. Cheez-its and carrots, coffee and Cheerios. Once more unto the grocery store. Everything’s different and nothing’s changed. Everything’s perfect and Fish is god. Ow.

It is still too early to be too late.

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Where Were You in Chicago?

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

Oh, Chicago.

It’s been eight full years since my last visit to the Windy City (outside of one of the worst airport stopovers in modern history). The city of my almost absolutely ideal weather (could stand to be a little drier in the summer, but otherwise perfect) and almost absolutely horrible everything else. Past visits to Chicago have been almost universally bad, marked by high turmoil and tension, argument, and almost unending apprehension. Something about the length of time spent seems to correspond to the extent of the badness, or at least the fallout. The one decent visit was in late ’97, where my Dad and I flew to a debate tournament in Florida via Chicago, with a few hour layover. We didn’t really have time to check out either of the city’s colleges I’d applied to and they put massive amounts of milk in my coffee without asking and it was bitterly cold and we were both a little grumpy toward the end. But nobody got hurt.

And that was by far the best visit. Maybe it’s no wonder that I didn’t give much consideration to either of those colleges when I’d gotten in.

But still to come was the last visit, eight years ago and change, which still stands out as one of the worst trips of all-time. It didn’t help that I’d been anticipating the trip with a wildly inexplicable sense of foreboding that proved as prophetic (though not as seriously so) as I’d feared. I was going into a Model UN conference that I’d been guilted into attending, nearing complete exhaustion with the politics and format of collegiate Model UN. This trip, which proved to be my last lifetime MUN conference, cemented my feelings while just seeming to waste my time. From the 20th day of Introspection ever: “Never been so bored in a MUN committee in my life. That’s 6 years of effort there.”

The trip was not without upside. Chicago is not only a place of bad feeling for me, but of incredibly intense feeling. The severity of emotional spurring gives it a vague potential that I would be more inclined to pursue if the downside tendencies of my state in the city didn’t just scare me. I spent the first night of the trip wandering around the city by myself, lost in reverie that culminated in me literally yelling at myself as March was about to cross over into April…

Sometimes I think I should walk around with a tape recorder. Walking back from that convenience store, I swear I figured everything out. Well, not everything, but more than I’ve had a handle on for a long time. Talking out loud works so much better, especially in cold night air. If I could maintain that focus for days on end, life would almost feel easy. Instead, I end up blinding myself to clarity & getting crowded by my frustrations. I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve, I wear it on my tongue. & I don’t consider that a problem, if only I could express myself as well to others as I can to myself. Seems like they’d be easier to convince anyway.

After the conference concluded, there were then plane delays trying to get out of the city and it felt like that place just had me in its clutches. Note to self: Plane delays where one has incredibly impatience and anxiety about getting out in time are usually a warning sign. Proceed with caution. Or, as I told myself at the time (day 21 of Introspection): “I’ve got to learn to start trusting my instincts. I might hate my intuition, but it’s always right.”

In my memory, I think I’d folded the two days that followed my return into nothing, or transplanted them as being prior to the trip. But that’s only how it seemed in retrospect, because the trip was so awful and everything crashed to pieces 48 hours after my return. But those were a pivotal 48 hours. A very good 48 hours. Until Ben Brandzel caught me reveling in the downstairs portion of the Usdan cafeteria and uttered the worst joke I’ve ever heard in my life:

“So, has she told you about her book yet?”

Though I felt like he’d just winded me with a sucker punch, I refused to be fazed at the time. In less than 36 hours, though, it was all over. With less warning but as much seeming foreknowledge, I had been felled by this comment just as Lisha’s “Doomsday” Prophecy of ’93 had unwittingly unraveled that situation. Of course the comment had nothing to do with anything, but it sure made it feel like the events had more to do with fate than anything I could control.

I went into freefall. A good bit of this is discussed in my recent post about April. There’s no need to hash out more details and I really should wrap this up anyway. In the swirl of retrospect, the trip and everything that followed were inextricably bound with each other and a sense of powerful, living destiny.

Was there destiny? I don’t really believe in destiny, but it’s hard to argue with what transpired. The wake of the events of March and April 2000 convinced me to start “The Streak” and I never missed an APDA debate weekend thereafter. I decided that I might as well continue with my resolution at the advent of the millennium that I would devote myself to the one thing that was going well in college. The relationship that ended in such a crushing fashion turned out to feel more and more like a dodged bullet than a sincere loss. All of these things led directly to fuel everything that happened in the next two years: staying at Brandeis, debate success, and Emily.

This time around, I don’t feel any sense of foreboding at all. It’s almost uncanny how calm I feel despite the history, despite it being April. Another rejection of destiny, perhaps, or just an openness to change. It’s certain that even the slightest inkling of bad feeling would get blown up in my perception given the context, so it’s really all good. I can’t wait to see Fish, meet his new girlfriend and other friends, see Wrigley, give this city a fourth or fifth or sixth chance.

Forty years after “something very extraordinary died there, which was America,” I’ll be heading back toward the city named for wild leeks once again. My baseball streak is at 3 games, after a beautiful complete game by Felix Hernandez last night. I have a busy day at work, made somewhat more challenging by a mild migraine. I’m getting on a vessel of one of the plane companies that has still managed to stay solvent. Life is mixed, but life is good.

We’ve come too far to leave it all behind.

by

Hitler’s Bake Sale

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

Had some profoundly vivid dreams last night, after a good long while of vagueness and reprieve from the dreamworld. It’s no surprise, given that I slept for a significant amount of time for the first time in recent memory. Probably the first night over 6.5 hours in weeks. And that, not surprisingly, was due to a major migraine, also the first in quite a while. And that, in turn, was due to insufficient coffee intake in the morning because I was running late.

The world, in short, makes sense.

But dreams themselves do not often make sense, as was the case last night. Or at least they cover the bizarre and fanciful, even when they might be able to be linked or traced to larger themes of relevance. In the first dream, earlier in the night, I was somehow trying to juggle seven or eight part-time jobs. Most of them were jobs I wouldn’t consider in real life – sales jobs and store reception – as well as a couple jobs that resembled actual work I’ve done, such as library positions. And it was all somehow mixed with me leaving Glide or cutting down hours and keeping my options open. Somehow in the dream, showing up to any one of these jobs once a week would clinch the employer’s interest in me in carrying over for the next week or month or so. But it was very difficult to track the schedule of all of these disparate jobs, which ended up boiling down into feeling like any number of school schedule stress dreams. These are a common theme in my dream repertoire, wherein I don’t know when and where my classes are, and I’m usually on the verge of being automatically failed if I miss any more classes. These can be high school or college and fill a truly disproportionate amount of my dreamlife. And compared to a lot of my nightmares, especially more historically, they’re not so bad at all.

The second dream felt better moment-to-moment at the time, but was holistically much more disturbing in retrospect. In this one, I was apparently a baker of all manner of pastries and breads. And the world was about to go to war. It was definitely 2008, and all of my bakery’s machinery reflected this fact. But most of the combatants were historical figures, mostly circa World War II. Each of the combatants came to visit my bakery and arrange indefinably large shipments of my goods to their soldiers who were about to be fighting in this war. The impracticality of shipping huge quantities of perishable food across the world to troops in conflict seemed not to faze anyone, let alone really occur to them (though it was in the back of my mind). Two themes needled me in the back of my mind profoundly – one that I was selling to soldiers, who would clearly be committing violence that I disagree with. The other was that I was unabashedly (though not openly to any given buyer) selling to both sides of the war, to soon-to-be-declared enemies. It was clear that Japan and Germany were going to be opposing each other in the war, and shortly after the anonymous Japanese diplomat left, in walked Hitler.

Hitler was not only the first actual personage I could recognize and name in the dream, but he entered the full-color world and mainframe of the dream in a sepia-tone. He was fully illustrated and visible, but he was completely sepia-tone, as though stepping from a faded newsreel and into my 2008 full-color life. He was officious but not unfriendly and ordered a million cinnamon rolls and a million items that I called muffins. He insisted that they weren’t muffins, however, and began to argue. I suggested that they might be a little more akin to biscuits, if he preferred that word. He said clearly that they were “bread” as though this word had just occurred to him. I conceded that they were a type of bread, but this was unsatisfactory to him. At this point, he began to extrapolate on how long the war would last and that if I played my cards right, there would be orders of far more than just a million cinnamon rolls and a million pieces of bread, but that could all be jeopardized by me insisting on calling bread a biscuit or a muffin. Okay, Mr. Hitler.

At this point, it was clearly disturbing me greatly that I was doing business with Hitler, but at the same time, I didn’t really see a great distinction between this and selling to other armies and other combatants. Indeed, the fact that I was selling perishable items to them and to both sides of the conflict gave me a small secret satisfaction that I was somehow thwarting their efforts and diverting money away from weaponry and into my ability to do some good. Beating swords into rotten bread, and in turn perhaps into plowshares.

The dream ended shortly thereafter – I signed to the deal after convincing Hitler to buy two million cinnamon rolls to go with the original order of “bread”. He went on his way and I distinctly remember a little bell ringing over the top of the glass door as he exited the building. The smell of fresh baked bread filled my nostrils as I sighed heavily and wondered what I was doing with my life.

Is there a message for me in all this? Clearly the compromises and the deferring of my time expenditure I’m making now in no way compare to signing pastry deals with Hitler. But was my subconscious trying to use some extreme illustration to wake me up? I clearly am starting to feel a good deal of guilt about my use of time, somewhere. Especially given that so many of my dreams tend to revolve on me doing unthinkable things in my dreams and wrestling with myself about why I don’t feel enough remorse to stop. The classic among these is, of course, eating meat – I’ve had thousands of dreams in the last 11 years where I eat meat and feel awful, and lately mostly disappointed, with myself. Generally there’s something in these dreams about realizing that I haven’t actually been a vegetarian for the last 11 years, yet haven’t realized it till just now. Waking up to reality is always reassuring in these situations, though it often takes some time to recall that the dream-bacon wasn’t real.

Waking up this morning was less reassuring. Again, I stress that I have no misgivings about my actual job or work or use of time on an absolute scale. It’s only on a relative scale, that in comparison to writing full-time, that I have questions or doubts. Especially since that was going to be the plan for a while, before the latest promotion swooped in and convinced me to stay.

Dreams derive most often, they say, from one’s own hopes and fears. (In my case, pretty much universally fears.) I can’t rule out that there are sometimes larger messages or warnings in dreams, but even they may be from one’s own internal sense of impending doom or difficulty. And clearly this issue has been bothering me lately. The only thing that really shakes me, deep down, is what was happening exactly three years ago around this time. The same misgivings, the same warnings were creeping in all around. And those proved dangerously unheeded. I pledged to not make the same mistake again. And while personal safety was clearly more abundant an issue at Seneca, making the stakes higher, I have a quality backup plan here and now, which I didn’t then. Call it a draw, I guess, which doesn’t make me feel much better.

Muffin?

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April 8ths this Decade

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

For some reason, April 8th has been a date that has stuck out in my mind like a sore thumb. I’ve never quite had a great handle on why this is the case. There are certain inherent numeric properties to the day that make it naturally interesting, but it’s way more than that. I’ve worked on a lot of theories in the last decade about specific days and time being charged in some ways, at least as much as places are. And after all, time is a place in the universe because of planetary orbits. Some of this should be review, and I don’t have a ton of time to write this post this morning.

I’m trying to recall if there was some super-significant April 8th in my childhood. I sort of feel there must’ve been. Although I paid less attention to this sort of stuff then and managed to not even put together the incredible slumpiness of April/May until pretty late in the game. Life is nothing if not persistent.

8 April 2000: In the wake of the Try Before You Buy disaster, I head to New York City for one of my two losing records (both 2-3) in my APDA career, at CCNY Pro-Ams. I was an emotional wreck, as captured by this Introspection line: “Most of the tournament on Friday, it seemed people couldn’t determine if my eyes were watering from my cold or if I’d been crying. I was among those people.” To put the cap on the day, miscommunication led to me spending hours in the Broome Street lobby, listening to music that seemed to be narrating to me why I would always be alone.

8 April 2001: Another day of waiting, this time in a bus-stop for the next girlfriend at the time. The relationship’s final blow would prove to be my very blog, perhaps for posts like this (which was from April 9th, but reflecting on how the 8th had felt): “Ah, doubt. Bane of existence. It creeps in, like April malaise, tugging at possibilities in an eerie & unsettling fashion. I wish I could bannish my own musings & sit patiently with contentedness but it never seems to quite satisfy. Why am I reminded of a long-ago argument with Schneider when he jestingly told Fish & I that we keep buying new shoes – the WE lacked the loyalty to stick with something. & I just put in new laces to an old pair, too – literally.” The whole weekend meandered in self-doubt and I remembered pointing back to certain conclusions drawn that weekend that would ultimately lead to the temporary (and then permanent) end my last unsuccessful relationship.

8 April 2002: A pretty bright April 8th, wherein I compiled what then set a record for traffic at the Blue Pyramid, the May Madness of APDA project about a hypothetical design for the Nationals tournament. APDA became captivated by the idea heading into a momentous Nationals weekend where many things went tumultuously poorly, but I proposed to Emily.

8 April 2003: “The 8th of April always seems to be a BIG day. More on this later.” Ironically one of the least significant April 8ths, but the Iraq War was brand new and dominating my view of reality. Everything seemed momentous and charged at a time that looked like the breaking point for a short war. So it goes. Shortly thereafter, I posted another May Madness and returned to Boston for the first time since graduating to judge at ‘Deis Nats.

8 April 2004: In the midst of working at Seneca and contemplating my annual April malaise, I become focused on the problems with antidepressants and how they tend to make people’s lives worse. Shortly thereafter, I become mired in some aspects of my own past: “In transferring some files from old computer to new, I discovered my archive of saved AOL-IM conversations of yore. Just browsing them was painful. In reviewing a couple of conversations, it occurred to me how many times a pleasant conversation turned to something hostile just because of how poorly emotions are conveyed via AOL-IM. I’ve had bouts with thinking about returning to the world of away messages & little dings, but these archives set me back on course every time.”

8 April 2005: The only line from this day is a mix of awareness of this post’s theme and more chilling prophecy, showing just how thorough my warning was for the events that would unfold in May: “I remember when the 8th of April just stuck out in my mind as a pivotal day of sorts. I feel things swirling as being pivotal, but today just seemed mired in the same old mud. At least I’m talking it out, looking for conclusions, trying to find a viable escape…” The moral of the story, at least as much as anything, is to quit bad jobs before they quit you.

8 April 2006: A surprise return to judge at Nationals (shortly after a 3rd May Madness posting) results in an intense colliding of worlds. Late in the day, a sixth round bubble proves to be the best round I’ve ever seen in my life… “Best round I’ve ever judged. I wish I had been able to tape that sixth round, so I could hand a copy of that tape to anyone who thinks the circuit has declined. The circuit is always great, & always has great rounds & speakers at the top level. & they even kept to time! A truly euphoric round.” The next day would yield some disappointing break rounds, but be followed by one of the all-time greatest ‘Deis team dinners.

8 April 2007: Mesco & Afsheen’s wedding reception crosses over midnight into this day and proves to be a fantastic time. Their reception is really just pizza, foosball, and hanging out in a hotel lounge, which is both emblematic of them and something that everyone would’ve chosen over most any other kind of reception. Our whirlwind trip to Atlanta wraps up and dumps us back on the doorstep of reality, shortly before the emotionally observed passing of Kurt Vonnegut.

Looking at them threaded together like that, it seems that the significance of April 8th is as much in my head as it is in reality. There are good ones and bad ones, significant ones and mild regular days. It’s good to check one’s samples like this sometimes. What I can tell you is that the feeling of apprehensive significance is always there, always the same. I can’t tell you why, especially looking through the above, but I search my feelings and I know it to be true.

by

I Got Your April Right Here

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

A first day – no joke. A joke in the bathroom. A dental visit. A decision: no anesthesia. A walk home. A phone call, somewhere between banter and the most important decisions of our lives. A poker game, where a lesson was actually learned. A Mariners game, where all season was lived in a day, or in two tumultuous sine curve innings. A heart-stopping phone call for all the wrong reasons. A joke that just doesn’t work because of history, of context, of life itself.

I could write all the details, flesh it out, spell it out in flesh (a pounding heart in the wake of feeling the Earth slip out from under one for no good reason) and blood (spilling onto the towel from prodded gums). But there’s no need, or no cause – today felt like a day that hearkened for blippy Introspection-style reflection. And some day I’ll read and remember and another dawn of another April will come across from the distance of years or months or weeks or days. And I’ll be just there. Inside it all again. April the first. April is the cruelest month. April come she will.

And has.

by

Chaos (Theory?)

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Tags: , , ,

Authorities revealed Tuesday that a man carrying a loaded shotgun was arrested in January near the U.S. Capitol, and explosives left in his truck nearby went undetected for three weeks.
CNN/AP, 26 March 2008

If we all comprehended all that goes into the decisions that impact our lives, we might never be able to sit still again. Let alone sleep. Two people are anticipating such a decision that I’m supposed to be making… it’s entirely out of their hands. It’s one of those many seeming coinflip decisions we make in life. Eventually I’ll find a way to make it a rationally reasoned decision, but I wouldn’t count on others to do the same in my shoes. This one’s for a job as I end a less than 2-month stint of not being a supervisor anymore. How many college admissions decisions, or college matriculation decisions, or moves, or debate judgments, or responses to date requests, came down to the same kind of coinflip? And who here would say they haven’t been deeply affected by one of those kinds of decisions?

I try to remember everything.
Try to remember so you don’t disappear.
-Counting Crows, “Sundays”

Maybe life’s not so hard to predict. We all have free will, but we all tend to make these ridiculously logical decisions. Maybe that’s the only reason that the coinflips feel so dangerous or scary. It’s where our free will really has to ride a gut feeling, or take a chance, or do something out of the comfort zone. Maybe where it lets itself be influenced by some larger benevolent wave. My Dad might call it “mind at large”. Others would go with destiny or fate. Everyone above would agree God’s gotta have something to do with it. Just about. But who has the faith that their contributed portion of the cacophony of wills is always allocated to benevolence? And wouldn’t resting on that faith somehow violate the bargain and undo the magic? Magic. Maybe that’s another word for it.

This is a list of what I should’ve been, but I’m not.
-Counting Crows, “Cowboys”

I used to make tapes, back in late high school and throughout college. I clung to a dying technological medium in large part because I liked the rhythms of 60- and 90-minute intervals, and especially loved having two opposing sides of something. No one was really ever able to record their own vinyl records, and CD’s don’t have sides. The tape was the perfect homemade medium. I made two tapes that come to mind this week… “Poetry in Stagnation” and “Chaos Theory”. The last of these had sides called “Butterfly Wings” and “Consequences” and was probably my most artistically made mix. The latest Counting Crows album, “Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings”, is clearly written with sides in mind. It’s a bit of a concept album with each half of that phrase parsed into its own side. The CD cover is a vinyl album, just in case we missed the point. Like all new albums (these days at least), it sounds godawful the first time one listens to it. The second time through, I’m not sure I’ve heard anything more relevant in my life. Nothing will ever measure up to “This Desert Life”, the album that started my traditions with Counting Crows releases, perhaps the only album that sounded perfect the first time through too. I’ve always felt a special kinship with Adam Duritz (really, what CC fan doesn’t?), but you can hear in this one that maybe it’s gone too far. Maybe he pushed his own opportunities too long and wonders how much of this ends up being his own doing. There comes a time when it’s time to stop blaming the cacophony of wills and start examining one’s own coinflips.

It’s okay, I’m angry,
but you’ll never understand…
And I can’t see why you want to talk to me
when your vision of America is crystalline and clean.
-Counting Crows, “When I Dream of Michelangelo”

Despite all the coinflips, the cacophony, the difficult decisions, there often come times when one can attune oneself to the universe (God, mind at large, fate, destiny, magic) sufficiently where such things no longer seem scary. One still has to play by the rules, to agonize and try. To make the best decision possible for the best reasons possible. As Brandzy would say, to do the right thing for the right reasons. But this attunement, this awareness, this getting in sync seems to take the edge off the decisions. It takes the really vicious teeth out, leaving them more smile and less bared fangs. Some mornings, maybe even a morning like this, it’s not enough for reassurance. Is that the Cheshire cat I’m seeing? What does finding your place look like?

Would you eat a Honduran melon without fear of salmonella contamination?
-CNN’s QuickVote poll for 26 March 2008

Walking out the door to go to Chipotle, checking the mail on the way, and getting a certificate for free tacos therein. The unending awareness that terrorism would be unstoppable and is thus, by its absence, demonstrated to be nonexistent. A friend’s ability to achieve what one has always wanted, while one is doing what said friend is most interested in for his own achievement. Full moons and eclipses. Butterflies flapping their wings. Earthquakes. Timing timing timing.

Life makes its own excitement.

by

What’s in a Year?

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

Wait near the end of September.
Wait for some stars to show.
Try so hard not to remember
what all empty playgrounds know:
that sympathy is cruel.
Reluctant jester or
simpering fool.
But six feet off the highway,
our bare legs stung with wheat,
we’ll dig a hole and bury
all we could not defeat,
and say that we’ll stay for one more year.

Bend to tie a shoelace,
or bend against your fear,
and say that you’ll stay for one more year.
-The Weakerthans, “Fallow”

~

It’s getting cold in California
I guess I’ll be leaving soon
Daylight fading
Come and waste another year
All the the anger and the eloquence
are bleeding into fear
Moonlight creeping
around the corners of our lawn
When we see the early signs
that daylight’s fading
We leave just before it’s gone

She said “everybody loves you,”
she says, “everybody cares”
But all the things
I keep inside myself
they vanish in the air
-Counting Crows, “Daylight Fading”

My friend Stina tells me that 28 is way different than 27. That you can never go back again. That no one younger nor older than 27 could really understand a 27-year-old. She was only joking a little.

A co-worker of mine says that 28- and 29-year-olds go through a lot of significant changes. That one sees a lot of life changes of significance and note cropping up right around that age. He referenced some astrology, some experience, some theory. He wasn’t joking at all.

This stuff – what is going on now (whatever it is) – is no joke.

I’m studying poverty at my workplace. More and more, the question of poverty seems to be coming down to a much larger issue of freedom. You could call it control… you could call it “empowerment” (whatever that means)… you could call it confidence. What it really means is freedom. The ability to not be trapped, to not have tunnel vision. To not, as a rider on the subway some two weeks ago was, be “dreaming of zero” financially. To not spend twenty minutes telling a friend how great it would be to just get back to zero and have nothing hanging over your head.

To have nothing hanging over your head. Nothing.

For some of you (most? all?) this probably seems ridiculous. That’s not a definition of escaping poverty so much as escaping life, right? Life is an endless chain of things hanging over your head… we’re all living in a timeless flow of weights and measures. One obligation is just a way of getting to the next and so forth. Or maybe you only see it this way when you stop to think about it… the rest of the time, it’s just living. Meal to meal, chore to chore, time in the seat to time in the seat. You gotta eat, you gotta excrete, and you gotta find a way to pay for that and everything in between.

For the poor and homeless in San Francisco, there’s really no other way to look at it. There aren’t alternatives when one doesn’t have the means. And that’s really the issue – getting people like that back to freedom. Some level or capacity of being able to get rid of the tunneling obligations that crowd our life into long narrow stretches of darkness.

The rest of us, who aren’t poor and homeless, frankly have no excuse. These chains and walls are of our own creation. This tunnel was built up, layer by layer, by our own spiteful hands. The only ones that can tear it down again.

I am reminded of a day senior year in high school, perhaps exactly ten years ago today (who knows?), when I ran screaming through the halls that everyone has the key and they just don’t know how to use it. It’s there, waiting, and we just never grab hold and stick it in the door. But we all have it. Breathless and wild-eyed, I related this revelation to a series of friends. I probably hadn’t slept in a couple days and was clearly in one of my more manic stages. They rolled their eyes, they chuckled about me, at me. “Tell me about this key,” said one as I recall.

It is not dissimilar. Ten years ago. Good God. And for what? What have I done?

It wasn’t the same revelation then, not exactly. It was more about the fact (then) that life leaves us clues all along the way. That we can decipher the messages in our day-to-day existence and string them together like so much code to construct a blueprint of all the answers we ever wanted. Confirmation. Direction. Hope. It’s a key embedded in little pieces of every moment and we just have to wake up and pay attention to watch it fly together in our hand. And then have the guts to stick it in the door.

I had been warned, I realized, at that specific moment. And I had thrust aside chunks of key while trying to throw myself bodily into the locked door. These ideas and others assembled to form many theories of my theology, one of the first times I might’ve coined to myself that awareness is never enough – it must always be wonder.

So it’s a different key, a different brand of freedom that I’m looking at here and now. It’s rooted in the same realities (how many realities are there, anyway?), but carries a distinct tenor and pitch. Take a machete to the things hanging over one’s head. Get away from time in the seat. Shed, shed, shed. This is careening, screaming from the bulwark of my mental fortress.

But what’s in a year? What harm could a year do? Just one more year, needling away, begging for fulfillment.

Is there ever “just another year”? How much time in the seat has been procured with such a false promise? Tomorrow never comes, so do we ever reach the conclusion of that ‘nother annum? Conclusions are always reached eventually, but rarely on our terms and almost universally too soon. There’s no more “just another year” ’round that time either.

Since all this is about time in the seat, it’s worth noting that life is a lot like a college class. In the end, one doesn’t remember most of what was learned. The details blend together and fade, even if one attended every session and studied religiously. What remains, at best, are the core concepts, some key ideas. The big headlines of what one accomplished. And moments. Some really great (or awful) moments of speaking in class, or listening, or laughing. Having something click.

Life is much the same way. We mostly have time in the seat, the drudgery of countless brushings of teeth and eating of food and opening the mailbox. Thousands of hours of work. Thousands of hours of commuting. Thousands of hours of video games or TV or playing ball.

In the end, whatever’s left to remember comes down to the highlights, the accomplishments, the really worthwhile stuff that was done. Thresholds, good and bad. And moments. Little crystallized moments. It’s a lot like what you might remember from childhood now, only more heavily edited.

So doesn’t it make sense to prioritize those highlights over the rest of the drudge?

Somewhat contradictorily, however, I believe that we will all experience a full life-in-review session shortly after death. A spiritual adviser (an angel, if you prefer) will grab a metaphorical seat next to us on a metaphorical couch and enjoin us to a years-long viewing of our life on a metaphorical television. Our Town meets TiVo. It’ll be about as grueling to experience as Our Town, but not optional or selective. And as engrossing as TiVo, in the end. But with no fast-forward, only rewind and pause.

If we all lived with that in mind, how much time would we spend on the rote and the routine? How many “just another year”s would we sign on for? I bet there’d be a lot more spontaneity, a bit more self-awareness, a whole bunch more thought and examination. Just imagine, pretend you believe my theory for a moment. “I’m going to have to watch every single moment of this again, in real time.” Not just analyze and consider and discuss, but freaking watch. I will see this all again. No matter how sick I am of this workplace/school/seat/neighborhood, I will have, exactly, this much time here again, even if I leave this second forever.

What would you change if you knew this to be the case?

It’s one of those Pascalian/Platonic things that I think it might be worth believing even if it’s complete bunk. Internalize it, believe it, live it. I could say “search your feelings; you know it to be true”… but it might not wash for you. Try living one day with that awareness.

Maybe you’ll find it oppressive. Maybe it’ll be another thing hanging over your head. But maybe… maybe not. Maybe it’s just the kick in the pants you need.

I write this all, expound on it, because I need a kick in the pants. I need a kick in the pants. I need to figure all this out. Oh yes, I have my reasons, but so does everybody. At the end of the day, one can believe their own reasons, but really for no more than “just another year”. Really. No more. And maybe not even that. Because, well, see above.

I spent a lot of my life convinced I was going to be a high-school teacher. Talk about your time in the seat. But I was sure that this was where I could do some good, be inspiring, devote my life to change and all. Of course I always really wanted to be a writer, but writers seem to need day jobs, at least for a little while. Day job considerations have never much competed with writing in any real sense – when one knows one’s calling, the rest is just getting by. Fulfilling obligations. You know the drill.

So the priorities for a day job always looked to be (A) not doing harm, (B) doing good, (C) not being suicidally bored. Hooray. What’s not to like about high-school teacher?

It hit me my senior year in college (something about senior years, eh?) that this would be a disaster. I was disillusioned with school, completely dissatisfied with academic experiences. I had spent the bulk of college doing the absolute minimum to keep my scholarship, trying to float by while I debated, spent time with people, and waited for the rest of my life to catch up with me. Grades had been a game for years and the whole institution was looking like a poorly-designed game by the end of it. I couldn’t wait to get out and get into a world that seemed more real.

And it hit me all at once, just like some narrative revelation: the ultimate futility of what I was hoping to accomplish as a high-school teacher. The best thing, the best thing I could ever offer to a student would be the following:
1. Inspire them and raise them out of a difficult background.
2. Convince them to take studying very seriously and embrace academics.
3. Help them get into a good college, where
4. They could have the same revelations about academics that I just did.

Thanks, teach.

Oh sure, there might be some real and tangible benefits along the way and I’m not here meaning to condemn the work of high-school teachers. But the soul-crushing philosophical circularity of that reality, much less of calling that circularity some kind of inspiration or joy, was overwhelming. It was hard to breathe. Out went the gameplan for high-school teacher. The rest, as they say, is history.

Almost six years of history. Trying to become seven… “just another year”. You could call it the JAY theory. Get out your blue crayons and your ornithology books, kids. Or at least your Toronto uniforms.

It’s looking like a blue JAY.

by

The Wheels on the Bus Fall Off and Off

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

Did you feel that?

Monday was sort of cruising along and everything was going pretty swimmingly. Then morning became afternoon and soon, the day hit a wall like so many bugs catching up to a speeding automobile windshield. Wham. And that’s the ballgame.

I’ve been mulling a post about a unique and uniquely productive Sunday, in which Em and I ventured into the city of my work (San Francisco) and took in the “church” “Celebration” at the place of my work (Glide) and then a play by Em’s favorite playwright (Athol Fugard) with the music of a mutually respected artist (Tracy Chapman). It was good. The celebrating and play-watching were not perfect and there were disconnects, but it was a solid Sunday with the brimming of hope and promise and a little bit more energy, focus, togetherness.

Wham.

I write a lot about feelings and moods and the emotional reality that underlies what appears to be going on. I think a lot of people roll their eyes at this stuff. For those people, I guess I also write about hard facts, like politics or baseball or what I did on my summer vacation. But rarely, oh rarely, is it what’s really going on. Most of the time, what’s really going on is what people can’t know or nail down as fact. It’s the inkling in the back of one’s mind, the ebb and flow of ability to focus and relate, to feel and be felt. The undercurrent that’s always at the edge of consciousness, beckoning to a deeper sense of understanding. But oh, it’s real. More real than the clutter we fill our lives with or the time we spend in various seats (school, work, obligation).

All one has to seek is confirmation. Just articulate what you’re feeling, yield to the emotional authenticity and the reality of it all, and you’ll understand that you’re not alone. You’re not the only one thinking and feeling. You may be more ready to let people know (or less), more willing to embrace (or less), but it’s there for everyone. To deny it is like denying the sun just because there are cloudy days and night.

And I’m telling you, folks, the wheels fell off about 2 PM Pacific. Clunk. Clunk.

I heard Cecil Williams preach on Sunday, apparently a rare treat these days in his advancing years. I joked with Emily afterwards that he was telling me to quit my job (at his organization), embracing a message of truth and freedom that seemed to be beckoning me pell-mell to yield entirely to creative urges, to take the leap of faith to full-time writing at the expense of the comforts and hindrances of a day job. It was all in there. Sure, it was also about substance abuse and living on the street and shedding materialism, but it was about my story too. Whether it’s popcorn or people who threaten us, our time is fixed here and no one gets to stay later than they get to. Not even you.

I used to run a debate case about knowing the date of one’s death, if given the omniscient and presupposed choice. It was opp-choice and it was perhaps my favorite case to just plain old debate. Every round was different, every pick was thoughtful, almost every round advanced my understanding of what it was to live on the planet. And like many cases people run, it seemed entirely one-sided to me personally. I could make the right arguments for every side, but I think anyone who wouldn’t choose, right now, at this second, to find out the precise date of their death, is completely crazy.

Get busy living or get busy dying. And one helps determine the other and how it’s best spent.

Of course, the old argument goes that one should prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Don’t squander everything for today, but live as though you could die tomorrow and feel okay about it. Maybe not good, but certainly okay.

I’m a long way from that, as (I’d guess) are you. And the more we have afternoons like this one, the more it feels it matters.

This is the only life you’ll be living here. Take a good long look.

by

It’s Always Tuesday

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

It’s 4:30 A.M. on a Tuesday
It doesn’t get much worse than this
In beds in little rooms
in buildings in the middle
of these lives
which are completely meaningless
-Counting Crows, “Perfect Blue Buildings”

I have 20 minutes to write this post and I feel like I could take the rest of my life. There’s a lot of pressure on today… not in my world so much as the world. Which in itself is a misnomer, because there are always more worlds, always more lives. Go to India, learn that we are not doing this thing once only for a one-shot deal. Everyone should be mighty thankful for that, because we’ve screwed this shot up pretty mightily. The humbling weight of history is almost all the gives me hope these days. No wonder I’ve been surrounding myself with the past and citing historical context for everything and watching movies about 1980 or 1536.

Americans always vote on Tuesdays. This decision was made in the antebellum years of the United States, with the winds of war looming on the horizon. A move was needed to unify the country, now and forever. Or maybe it was just more practical to pick a day forever. We’ve been living with it ever since.

Tuesday was named for Tyr, the Viking god of war, the equivalent of Mars, the Roman god for whom March was named. We are the Vikings, we are the Romans, we are at war, and we are not paying attention to history. We still believe in Empire and a God of War. And we honor this symbolism with making our most important, or illusory, decisions.

Maybe if we had been voting on Wednesdays all along, we wouldn’t be in this mess. It’s a little naive to think that, given the restrictions put all seven days on who we are able to pick from in the first place. But maybe it’s more naive to think that if you pour this kind of collective energy and symbolism into a specific day, it doesn’t stick at some point. It’s the first War Day in the Month of War. And this will, by all accounts, seal our fate for the next 4-8 years.

Maybe on 9/11, the US should’ve done something useful and declared war on Tuesday instead of terrorism. Declaring war on War, which is the same as war on terror, but perhaps we could actually defeat Tuesday. We know exactly where Tuesday is hiding. We probably have even less understanding of its motives, but at least we don’t have to blow up three countries to get rid of it. Congress already blew Daylight Saving Time into a day-eating monster; it can take out Tuesday just as swiftly.

And instead of renaming, we could just eliminate it completely and have a 4-day work-week, a 32-hour stint that can sustain the same levels of employment for the next three years that we have now. I’d happily donate my 8 hours so that we don’t have a full-scale Depression in the coming days and have to start an even bigger war, perhaps a final one, to try to dig out of it. Are you in?

I don’t really think anyone’s going to win today. The chorus of people with deafening cynicism about Obama is getting louder. Why hasn’t he taken controversial stands, outlined plans or policies? Why does he vote awfully meekly for someone with such vocal courage? I can continue to hope for upside and pray that he’s been sandbagging all along… that the first 100 days would feel like revolution from within. I can’t rule it out yet. But there seems a futility about this whole exercise. If he really weren’t in someone’s pocket, wouldn’t they just get rid of him? Would we really get to keep someone that’s up to the challenge?

But go, vote, hope. I will board my train and get a seat because so many people would prefer to stand in the middle of the train than sit at the front or back. I’ve been trying to discern a motive for this behavior (short of believing that Americans are obsessed with sitting) that makes sense. Why someone would rather stand up for half an hour around others standing just to be in the middle of the train. But I guess it’s explicable… a flight to the middle, toward the average, toward American ideals of pointless effort and uncontroversial conformity. One’s just that much closer to the exit, perhaps, ready to bail as soon as the wind turns. Even if there are twice as many people in one’s way.

Tyr dies in the end, along with all the other Norse gods in the Vikings’ own mythology. Chaos wins, takes over, runs amok over all those seemingly the most powerful and dominant in the universe. Eventually, some far off date after the devastation, there are the small glimmers of the budding of a new world. A big, painful jab at the reset button on a computer that takes quite a while to boot up.

Anyone got a version of Disk Defragmenter that works on this one?

by

The Noon Gun

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

I grew up with stories of “When Daddy was a little boy…”, tales of my father’s childhood lived across adventures from Nevada to DC to Afghanistan to Korea. The preferred setting for these narratives had to be the streets of Kabul, and no Kabul story was complete without some sort of reference to the Noon Gun.

The Noon Gun was a cannon that was (still is?) fired each day at noon, perhaps the atomic clock of its era, to help the residents of Kabul track their temporal progress through the hours. To the uninitiated, it must have caused quite a start to hear the cacophonous blast of gunpowder, an unheralded harbinger of the decades to come in Afghanistan. And there were reassurances and snickers from those who knew, or those who perhaps were just complacent in their noontide reminder.

I was walking to pick up a burrito just now, exploring a new route to a new Mexican (but not New Mexican) place gracing my slightly new location at my slightly new job. And it sounded, a howling wail tolling the end of the world, up, down, up, hold, down. “Take cover, take flight, take heed.” But then when do I go to lunch? And was I at work just yesterday?

It’s San Francisco’s own noon gun, of course, which sounds only on Tuesdays and precisely at noon. It’s a city-wide test of the Emergency Broadcast System, in case of question-marks, so that everyone can know to head for the hills as soon as question-marks happen. You fill in your own blanks, because no one’s really quite clear what it would be. And that fuels the effectiveness… anything can happen, everything is threatening.

But somehow, at the early onset of Tuesday afternoon, it sounds more like a cry for help. Of course it’s only on Tuesdays – when else could it be? And noon, the dawn of the difficult period, the advent of the slow decline into nothingness that is afternoon. Somehow the Tuesday Noon Siren calls out like an affirmation of one’s internal feelings rather than a particular call to action or safety. Why wouldn’t a forlorn, urgent wailing call out at just this particular moment?

But it’s really trying to warn us, like “Vantage Point”, a movie that should probably be protested and picketed when it comes down to it, that the Danger is Out There. “Vantage Point”, a waste of a dear couple hours over this already less-than-precious-weekend, offers an intricate plot that is fiction to its very core. Yes, there are Presidential conspiracies of body-doubles and the fact that no matter how many people came together to kill someone, they will be labeled as a “lone gunman”. But the picture of a terrorist threat, that for the pure power of violence seems to rail against nearly the whole world, that is collected, coordinated, and wants to fight some mysterious war for the sake of never ending it, is the height of American projection. The United States may stand unilaterally for bold, violent action and rogue “heroics”, thus fearing its own image more than any reality out there. But at least if one attacks a mirror with full force, one only gets bloodied by broken glass.

I’m not saying that nothing will change, nothing will happen, and certainly not that nothing will appear to happen. But jumping and running from the mirror is a little distracting when we should be realizing it’s what’s being reflected that should scare us.

And boom.

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