Why isn’t calling myself a liberal enough for you?
“This was an incredibly new and important idea that people on the front lines of the gay rights movement began to talk about and slowly, but surely, convinced others of the rightness of that position. And when I was ready to say what I said, I said it.”
-Hillary Clinton, in 2014, on why she still didn’t support gay marriage fully, but was coming around. She fully endorsed it in April 2015, after 36 states and just 2 months before the Supreme Court legalized it in all 50 states
“Look, I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.”
-Hillary Clinton, rebuking Black Lives Matter with her theory of “change”
I don’t consider myself a liberal. The term has been corrupted and co-opted by neo-liberalism, a movement really sparked in the US by Bill Clinton. It’s become a term that’s associated with milktoasty right-of-center policies masquerading as the new left. It’s waving the banner of corporatism, of free trade, of incremental change so small and slow that it looks like it’s going backwards. The very few actual Clinton supporters I know (not just begrudging and thankfully dwindling plurality of people who think she’s the only chance for “us” to “win”) tout the idea that her policies are actually very liberal. But liberalism is exactly the problem. Liberalism is about compromise, about (at best) the first six years of the Obama administration, about all eight of the Clinton years that brought us DOMA and NAFTA and bombing campaigns and a bunch of other policies that, before Reagan, we would associate with Republicans.
Hillary Clinton says her heart was changed, incredibly slowly, slower than the state of Iowa, by the gay rights movement. She was just two months ahead of the Supreme Court on this issue, around the time when they were hearing oral arguments, meaning that if Clinton herself were the decisive vote on the Court, the outcome of June’s decision would be in greater peril than it actually was. So much for voting for Hillary to protect the outcome of decisions in the Court.
Hillary Clinton doesn’t believe in changing hearts, though. Maybe because the first quote up top there is garbage. She came out for gay marriage at the last palatable second for a Democrat, largely because she probably still didn’t believe in it. I would contend that Clinton doesn’t believe in changing hearts because she doesn’t have a heart to change. There’s no idealism there. There’s no belief structure. There’s just a series of calculations about how things will be perceived, a mechanistic series of trade-offs en route to what she has seen for a long time as her inevitable just dessert. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is pretty much the exact belief structure of Bushes the younger, both the successful two-term W and the contending-but-probably-sunk-for-now Jeb!
Here’s the problem, though, and this is coming at all those who posted on Facebook after this quote that Hillary “gets things done”. You have to believe in a change before you can fight to make it law. Hearts change before laws change. Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell was not a deeply reasoned meditation on the exact nuances of Constitutional structure. It was a stirring plea from a heart that had been moved. If John Roberts’ dissent sympathized with the heartstrings but stuck to the legal guns, he may have had a point in doing so. “Whatever force that belief may have as a matter of moral philosophy, it has no more basis in the Constitution…” he wrote. He basically conceded that gay marriage was right, but he had found a justification in the “law” for not adopting it. Frankly, even John Roberts’ heart had been changed, but as a strict structuralist, he felt he couldn’t be swayed.
This kind of change is not what Hillary Clinton believes in. And in so doing, she offers a liberalism that guarantees stagnation. She will be even less of a change leader than Obama, who at least has found some will for actual change and chutzpah in his last two years, opening up Cuba and proffering the first sane Iranian policy in the US possibly in history. Yes, he still has his daily kill list and yes, he is still responsible for a terrible law that will make the next forty years of health-care policy even more reactionary than the forty before Obamacare (unless, that is, Trump or Sanders, both of whom believe in single-payer healthcare, get into the White House). But at least he’s found some change we can all believe in at the 11th hour.
The change Hillary believes in is to her bottom line. It’s to the self-serving reputation of the Clinton Dynasty. It’s to the ongoing entitlement of her clan as Democratic Royalty in an era when the Democrats became desperate and started moving further and further right to curry favor with corporate donors. And by resting on the laurels of liberalism, any moderate with a SuperPAC can come in and call themselves a winner to try to carry the banner of a new generation of leftists.
It’s no wonder that Bernie Sanders keeps gaining ground on this candidacy. A huge bloc of the Democratic Party are frustrated left-wingers who felt Obama was disappointingly moderate. You think those people are going to support someone who doesn’t even claim to believe in change? Who thinks Obama compromised too little? Your theory of change can’t be to move Clinton to the left in her rhetoric, because her rhetoric literally doesn’t matter. She doesn’t believe in changing hearts and minds. She believes in herself and doing whatever it takes to win. Fortunately, this year, or next year, so far, that doesn’t seem to be on pace to be a winning strategy.
I focused on closeness through the traditional metrics for such games – extra inning games, one-run games, walk-offs. You may have read that and figured that the variance would even out soon, that the closeness of their contests would “regress to the mean” as they say. You may have believed that the M’s are a fundamentally mediocre team this year, not one destined to barely win or barely lose night after night.
Let’s look at the results since I posted:
Monday, August 3rd: W, one-run game
Tuesday, August 4th: W
Wednesday, August 5th: L, extra innings, walk-off, two-run game
Thursday, August 6th: off day
Friday, August 7th: W, one-run game
Saturday, August 8th: L, extra innings
Sunday, August 9th: W, two-run game
Monday, August 10th: L, one-run game
Tuesday, August 11th: W, extra innings, walk-off, one-run game
For those of you scoring at home, that’s 4 one-run games, 2 two-run games, 3 extra innings contests, and 2 walk-offs. In eight games.
There was one (1) game that didn’t have at least one of those elements of closeness. And yeah, that Mariner eternal optimist in me kinda wants to focus on the 5-3 record during the span and claim progress. After all, we’re only 8 games out of the lead in an increasingly murky AL West. We’re only 7 out of the Wild Card, though we’re admittedly chasing almost everyone (literally everyone except Oakland and Boston) in that race.
The MLB record of 31 extra-innings games in a season (set by the Red Sox in 1943) is probably still safe – the M’s are trailing with a mere 18 at this point with a month and a half (48 games) to go. We’re on pace to finish with 25.5 games in that category, though if we keep up the pace of the last 8 games, we’ll get the record with 36 total. You can say that’s absurdly unsustainable, but I will call your bluff and raise you 23 years of Mariner fandom and the 1995 comeback season.
Keep your teams with leads in their divisions. I’m all-in with a team that, if they fall short, will only have about 40 games to look back on that they almost won, any few of which would have vaulted them to their first playoff trip in a decade and a half. Isn’t that more satisfying than your “winning”?
I promise this isn’t just becoming a Donald Trump blog. Though it would be a way to get more traffic.
Trump is one of two candidates in the race, along with the person I actually support, Bernie Sanders, who is observing the flaws in the current methodology for calculating unemployment. Unfortunately, both Donald and Bernie are focusing on underemployment as a facet of unemployment, which is mixing apples and oranges and undermines the strength of the argument that unemployment, meaning joblessness, is actually 11.52%.
They’ve been popularizing the often-touted “U-6” unemployment figure, which includes both discouraged workers, captured in my Real Unemployment figure month to month on this blog, along with workers who are part-time but would rather be full-time. Don’t get me wrong, these underemployed workers matter and are part of a larger picture of an unhealthy and overrated jobs market. But they are categorically better off than people who have left or never entered the labor force and are thus not only ineligible for part-time work income, but for unemployment benefits of any kind.
Definitions from the BLS website:
Persons marginally attached to the labor force are those who currently are neither working nor looking for work but indicate that they want and are available for a job and have looked for work sometime in the past 12 months. Discouraged workers, a subset of the marginally attached, have given a job-market related reason for not currently looking for work. Persons employed part time for economic reasons are those who want and are available for full-time work but have had to settle for a part-time schedule.
What’s amazing is that this inclusion itself nearly doubles the unemployment rate, from 5.3% to 10.4%. And yet this includes zero people who are actually outside of the labor force. And as we know, the labor force as a percentage of population is at a 38-year low, dating back to a time when it was still somewhat novel for women to be working regularly. That was October 1977, before I was born, when the Seattle Mariners had just completed their first season of existence, during Jimmy Carter’s first year in the White House.
By my calculations, factoring in just the truly unemployed, including those who’ve fled or been barred from the labor force, unemployment in July 2015 was unchanged at 11.52%. The Reporting Gap, measuring those left out by the ignorance of how labor force percentages impact unemployment, was also unchanged at an all-time high of 6.22%.
Here are your charts:
Unemployment, real and reported, from January 2009 through July 2015.
Reporting Gap between real and reported unemployment, January 2009 through July 2015.
If you add the difference between traditional U-3 unemployment and the U-6 figure that Trump and Sanders like back to the real figure of 11.52%, you get 16.62%. This is roughly how, I assume, Trump got the basis for his claim that he made during his announcement speech:
“Our real unemployment is anywhere from 18 to 20 percent. Don’t believe the 5.6. Don’t believe it.”
-Donald Trump, 16 June 2015
So I like where he’s going with that, but I think, like so many things Trump says and does, it’s a little exaggerated and more than a little mixed. Though 16.62% is really not that far from 18-20%, which is more than an alleged fact-checker like Politifact gave him credit for. Of course, Politifact makes irresponsible claims like this:
“For the sake of argument, let’s assume that half the additional increase in people out of the labor force comes from the Baby Boom retirement surge.”
-Politifact’s Louis Jacobson, 16 June 2015
We don’t have to just ballpark for the sake of argument. We can calculate this statistic based on data the BLS collects. And the fact is that Baby Boomers are delaying retirement because of the Great Recession, not fleeing the labor force. The Baby Boomers are responsible for 7.5% of the labor force drainage, as of October 2014, which I think you’ll agree is a bit shy of 50%.
Trump may be crazy and mixing his numbers. But if Trump and Sanders win their respective nominations, maybe the media will finally have to pay attention to the reality of the delusion that goes into reporting our unemployment figures in this country.
This is part of a continuing series on the under-reporting of unemployment in the United States of America.
People like dynamic excitement in elections. This is why I believe Bernie Sanders is more electable than Hillary Clinton. And I could write a whole piece on how that phenomenon is behind Donald Trump’s unexpected and meteoric rise to the top of the Republican polls. It’s fertile ground and there’s a lot there, but honestly, I think it’s a pretty small chunk of the reason that Trump is in the catbird seat for the Republican nomination. I think it avoids why he’s actually such a strong candidate and why, ultimately, he has a very good shot at the nomination and even perhaps the presidency.
People love Trump because he’s honest and sincere. He’s real.
Now you could very easily rebut this by saying there’s not an honest bone in Trump’s body. Many have posited that his whole thing is an act, that he says whatever he thinks will rile people up the most, regardless of his true feelings (if those even exist anymore). His hair is famously fake and surely anyone who goes that length to brag so repeatedly is covering for a mighty insecurity. Truth? Sincerity? Really?
The type of sincerity that Donald Trump offers is one about the political process and the political perspective of his followers and, perhaps, the whole Republican Party. Make no mistake, the Republican Party is almost entirely against immigration. They are fearful of outsiders, of foreign nationals, even (in many instances) of non-whites generally. The whole lineup in Thursday’s debate probably feels that way to an extent, or is at least trying to galvanize people who largely feel that way. So when Trump makes outrageously racist statements about Mexico shipping rapists and murderers north of the border, his statements are not different in kind from those his Republican colleagues would make. They are merely different in degree.
When Trump talks about the bounty of his riches and how he wins in business, he is espousing time-honored Republican (and American) values. Most of the other candidates want to be able to do that, but they have some notion in their head that such claims would be scandalous or indecorous. Similarly, Trumps comments about women reflect a wider ideology at home in much of the Republican Party about the role of women and their rights in society. FoxNews, desperate to assassinate Trump’s candidacy as quickly as possible, tried to zero in on this during the debate and Trump doubled-down. His popularity isn’t suffering, because it’s that kind of perspective that his supporters like. The folks sharing the stage would have similar policies toward women as Trump would. Trump is just going to be upfront about it, and about how he really feels.
Most Republicans (and Americans) want to get ahead of other countries very badly. They’re terrified about China, they’re concerned about our place in the world, they’ve been manipulated (again again again) into thinking war is necessary against [insert hyped Middle Eastern threat here]. Trump just comes out and uses the words folks are using at home to describe these threats and outsiders. It’s the same sentiment that a Bush or a Cruz or a Walker might be trying to get across. But it’s more direct, more biting, and thus more powerful. Because it exposes that Trump has the directness and sincerity to come out and say what’s really behind these political stances, rather than tiptoeing around it. Trump may look like a circus act, but if your alternative is playing with small wooden blocks, crudely shaped like a lion and tiger, wouldn’t you rather just go to the actual circus?
This is what makes it so hard for Trump’s rivals to get an edge on him, how he is hamstringing them all in both an individual debate and the national discussion. To distinguish yourself from Trump, you either have to diverge with him on a policy issue, or you have to sufficiently equivocate so as to seem substantially weaker on it. Neither of these are good strategies. He has cornered all the classic Republican tropes of candidacy in terms of advocacy, while doing so more brashly than others on every front. If you believe in something, you don’t want the person at the top of the ticket quietly mumbling about how it might be a good idea, but there will have to be compromise. You want them boldly embracing it, shouting it from the rooftops, adding bravado! And no one, not even the mighty Ted Cruz (whose territory Trump wholly and masterfully usurped) can out-shout The Donald.
This gets particularly effective when it comes to a subject like money in politics. The shadowy world of the so-called Billionaires Primary and the Koch Brothers and all the masses of cash that Citizens United has helped accelerate into the political process is something most people don’t want to talk about publicly. In an effort to embarrass Trump, FoxNews brought it right to him in the debate. They pointed out that as someone usually on the other side of the money/politicians hookup, he’d supported a bunch of Democratic candidates in the past. The sheer genius of his response has been sorely under-appreciated by the media and most pundits responding to the debate:
MODERATOR: You’ve also donated to several Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton included, Nancy Pelosi. You explained away those donations saying you did that to get business-related favors. And you said recently, quote, “When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.”
TRUMP: You’d better believe it.
MODERATOR: So what specifically did they do?
TRUMP: If I ask them, if I need them, you know, most of the people on this stage I’ve given to, just so you understand, a lot of money.
TWO OTHER CANDIDATES: Not me.
ONE OTHER CANDIDATE: But you’re welcome to give me money if you’d like, Donald.
[More assorted bidding for Donald’s money and discussion of opponents he paid in the past.]
TRUMP: I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people, before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me.
OTHER CANDIDATE: What did you get from Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi?
TRUMP: Well, I’ll tell you what, with Hillary Clinton, I said be at my wedding and she came to my wedding.
Did you see what he did there? Not only did he set up a situation that literally illustrated the nature of his opponents’ groveling for money and the position of power that this put him in, but he simultaneously condemned the system that made it possible while reveling in the advantages he’s gained from it. And because he’s Trump, so brash and forthright, he can get away with that. And then, the kicker, the coup de grace, he turned gifts to Hillary on their head to embarrass her with them. Hillary and all that she represents gladly attended the wedding of Donald Trump and his third wife, something we all cannot really imagine Hillary enjoying, just because Donald asked. That’s the power of his money.
After a moment like that, how could anyone feel great about supporting one of Trump’s Republican rivals over Trump? Because here’s the thing: Trump is pointing out that pretty much whoever you’re voting for (*not Bernie Sanders, obviously), you’re voting for Trump. Even voting for Hillary is voting for Trump! His money gives him so much leverage over all these people that they are so desperate, they will literally grovel for money from the front-runner while they are debating against him.
We all know this corruption exists. We all read (or are at least aware of) dry and well-researched articles about the fact that whatever vestige of democracy we once had has been sold to the plutocrats. By bombastically illustrating it, by living it on the stage, Trump is simultaneously the embodiment of this system and its repudiation, reaping the best of both worlds. He can say to the public “You want power and money controlling your system? Go straight to the source! Cut out the middle-man!” and lampoon the system that makes this influence possible. Because it is, objectively, absurd. But no one is getting out of it.
It remains to be seen whether FoxNews and all the terrified Republican establishment hacks can assemble enough money and bad press to sufficiently tarnish Donald Trump and get him off that stage. But I really really doubt it. They may keep him from the nomination, making that old electability argument that leads to milktoasty losers like Romney and Dole, Kerry and Gore, but even then his bravado could lead him to a devastatingly upheaving third-party candidacy. Whatever the Republican establishment does to try to beat The Donald, they can’t buy him off. Which is what makes him so scary to the political order running this nation and so appealing to the voters who are sick of it.
For most of my life, the prevailing presumption underlying my existence is that I was on a mission to be understood. More even than to be loved (though I of course see them as related), certainly more than to be happy. Simply to be really fathomed, to have someone be able to see into my thoughts and feelings and take up residence. If not comfortably, per se, at least with the notion that this is comprehensible.
I would argue that this is a more universal desire than might be readily agreed to. I have argued, at times, that this is all anyone wants out of life, or what most people most want. I’m not convinced this is the case anymore, in part from growth in (note the irony here) understanding others, and starting to grasp the depth of human diversity and perspective. There really are people, whether it’s deeply authentic or largely shaped by societal structures, who just want to be happy. Or, more often, comfortable. And being understood isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it’s a deeply unsettling experience.
Such an unsettling experience, that was simultaneously disturbing and movingly comforting, was had by me last night. It took place, like so many moving and disturbing experiences, in a movie theater. It was the experience of watching the new film Infinitely Polar Bear.
Folks, if you have even a passing interest in understanding me, if you want to know what it’s like to be the crazy person you know or read as Storey Clayton, this is your chance. Get yourself to a theater.
It’s not perfect. It’s not exactly spot-on in every place. I leaned over to Alex about four times during the screening and said “I’m not this bad, right?” It’s fueled by substances, both alcohol and tobacco and also lithium, none of which I’ve ever partaken in, nor ever plan to. And that makes a huge difference, in the severity and breadth of manifestations of manic depression. The see-sawing nature of addiction and chemical reliance certainly put a more dramatic and tenuous spin on the experience of emotional sine-curves. But good God, by and large, it was like watching a documentary of my emotional reality. Made doubly more mind-blowing by the fact that Mark Ruffalo, an actor whose range and depth I’ve always found disappointing, was bringing it to life so perfectly.
I was also probably more flabbergasted than normal by the fact that this viewing was one of the few in my life where I had the ideal movie-watching experience. I’d seen no previews, read no synopses or reviews, had no Earthly idea of anything about the movie other than its title when the movie began. All I knew is that someone I trusted to know me, at least a bit, had vouched that I would like the movie. So to have the movie really seem to get me, to understand my life and perspective, while I was viewing it this way, was incredibly special. One of the best experiences like this I ever had was seeing Memento in Boston at that vaguely independent theater that always seemed to spell doom for relationships. The immersion that can be achieved by having no idea what experience is coming brings movies the closest to simulating real life that they can. Something about that unpredictability that underlies our existence.
This issue of understanding, by the way, is what has made romantic betrayal such a particularly consternating aspect of my life. There is something about the people who came the closest to understanding, who professed understanding almost endlessly, being those who suddenly shun and disregard, that creates the ultimate devastation. There is this sinking feeling, actually attested to by my ex-wife, that the more one understands, the more inevitable betrayal becomes. That getting that close to the reality, to actually knowing what’s going on, creates repulsion, fear, the need to separate oneself. It is the increasing conviction that being truly understood will create this betrayal that has led me, for the first time in my life, to consider that being understood might not be the goal after all. That maybe we’re here to help each other get by without understanding.
True fact: I have received one (1) new e-mail during the time I’ve been writing this post. It is an invitation to the latest Bring Your Own Story event, wherein the theme of storytelling will be “To Good to Be True”.
I, literally, can’t make this stuff up.
Maybe I should just go hang out with the screenplay writer of Infinitely Polar Bear. Or even Mark Ruffalo, who seemed to capture something that so easily could have been a caricature as a real experienced life. Frankly, most people will probably see it as a caricature. And some of the extremes are things that I may not have actually done, though I’ve probably been close to everything depicted, outside of those scenes involving substances. Which I guess brings us to the only conclusion I can be sure of from all this today: Thank God I never started drinking. Thank you grandparents, thank you Gin Blossoms songs, thank you Sarah Brook and Fish for stopping me when I got off the plane from Liberia. I am convinced today that alcohol alone is the difference between me managing life as a high-functioning manic depressive who can “pass” as “normal” (though of course this blog lives in public largely because I don’t believe in passing) and being worse off than the polar bear stumbling through life on a screen near you.
The movie’s publicity wing seems to be suppressing screenshots of Mark Ruffalo’s character making a scene so they can market the film as a heartwarming triumph over adversity, I guess. This slightly manic scene will have to suffice to capture just a glimpse of the real experience.
The Mariners have played 39 one-run games this year, the most in the American League and third-most in baseball. That represents fully 37% of their season being games decided by the closest possible margin. Today’s game was their 15th extra-inning game, also the most in the AL and tied for the most in baseball. They are 20-19 and 8-7 in these two categories respectively, making such close contests basically toss-ups when the M’s play them, better odds than their .453 winning percentage overall (and way better than, say, their .418 winning percentage in games decided by more than one run). No one in the AL has won more 1-runners and only two teams have lost more (the A’s being notably hapless with a 10-25 1-run mark which will both underscore the near-miss potential of “moneyball” and make Oakland fans resentful of any kind of “how close we could have been” message I give the M’s from this post).
By the standard metrics of excitement per game, of memorably close game, the Mariners are at the top. But what happens when we drill a little bit deeper into the data?
The Mariners have been involved in 12 walk-off games (those ending in the very last at-bat), winning 5 and losing 7. For context, they were 2-6 in such contests all of last season (8 games total of 162, contrasted with 12 this season in just 106 so far). Less than a week into the season, they played four straight one-run games, the first three of which also went into extra innings and the last two of which were walk-off losses. In the middle of last month, they again played four straight one-run contests, with the fifth right after being a wild 11-9 win in which they overcome an 8-6 deficit in the top of the 8th with a pinch-hit grand-slam by Franklin Gutierrez, in easily the most exciting pitch of my Mariner fandom this year. I was jumping around the room and scared our rabbit, who has little appreciation for baseball, and the game’s 20 runs and 26 hits took four hours and felt longer than most extra-inning games, coming down to as close a game as a two-run contest can be. They’ve played 21 2-run games (at a disappointing 7-14 clip) and 13 3-run games (much better at 8-5). While they’ve been outscored by 58 runs total in 106 games, they’ve been outscored by just 4 runs total in the 73 of them that have been decided by 3 runs or less. Meaning the remaining 33 have carried a 54-run deficit, in which their record is 13-20. Three of those have been wrenching double-digit losses. Their largest margin of victory, on the other hand, is 7.
I don’t have enough data in front of me to know how some of this compares to other teams or other seasons, but I’ve spent enough years as a fan to know that most baseball isn’t this close, at least not this consistently. Of course, one of the greatest aspects of baseball is its lack of clock and the fact that no game is ever truly over till the last out is recorded. One’s theoretical chance of coming back to win is always in play until this happens, unlike timed games where victory is often long beyond physical reach before their conclusion. There is no being 25 points down with one minute to play in baseball. You may be down 10 runs with one out to go, but people have come back from that kind of deficit before, which can not be said of insurmountable timed leads in basketball, football, soccer, and hockey.
The end result of all this is that while the Mariners languish 10 games below .500 and 12 games out of first place, they feel like they’re in it. Every game is going to go the full nine, maybe the full eleven or twelve, and it seems that, punctuated by a couple embarrassing blowout losses, just about every game is going to be a nail-biter, ending in tragedy or triumph, and often a string of alternating tragedies and triumphs as we match the other team run for run. It is this exactitude, this playing to precisely the level of the other team whether it’s in hitting or pitching or both, that is so confounding about the 2015 Mariners, and simultaneously makes them so entertaining to watch. They did things like winning exactly every other game during the first 12 days in July, going 6-6 without ever doing the same thing in back-to-back contests. After that, they didn’t compile more than a 2-game streak in either direction till a rare sweep loss to Arizona in which only one game was a 1-runner. It was also an extra-inning game, the night after an extra-inning one-run walk-off.
How can you not want to watch this, even if it mostly ends the same way the last 13 seasons of Mariners baseball have, outside the playoffs?
Part of this, of course, is augmented by an irrationality that I think is almost unique to Mariners fans who were avid in the 1995 season. After our first playoff year ever as a franchise (after an 0-18 start in seasonal attempts) came from an unthinkable comeback in the standings, down 11.5 games on August 24th and coming all the way back to force a one-game playoff for the Division title with the Angels, every Mariners deficit seems possible to overcome. The spirit of Refuse to Lose has never left Mariners fans, so we can look at a 12-game deficit in early August and say “meh”. It’s utterly nuts, to make every season into 1995 in our imaginings, a year when the Mariners went 25-11 in their last 36 games, then won a one-game playoff 9-1, then came back from 0-2 in the ALDS to win 3-2. But for me, for I suspect most long-term Mariners fans, we see the glint of ’95 in every shortfall. We are the worst kind of incorrigible optimists, able to make hope out of the feeblest of circumstances. Excitement like that found in each game this year sure doesn’t help.
I have often pondered the role of sports in our lives, as irrational and control-ceding and time-wasting as they can be. But one of the things they add to our lives, for those of us who let ourselves truly care about the teams and their outcomes, is a level of drama, thrill, and uncertainty that is rarely found in the other routines of our modern existences. When it is found, it is often all too real, the drama of a near-miss car accident or the uncertainty of the fate of a loved one. Sports, like amusement parks, offer people a chance to safely let themselves experience these ups and downs, to get emotional over things that are not, ultimately, life and death. And while every sports fan will tell you that what they most want for their team is a championship, there’s something to be said for the excitement along the way. A championship is just a moment, but nail-biting see-sawing one-run games are a little version of that kind of moment, over and over again. Tune in tomorrow night for more lead changes, blown saves, 9th inning homers, and an outcome as unpredictable as life itself.
Americans are obsessed with having voted for the person who happened to win. It’s bizarre, and I’ve discussed it before, and it’s a large part of what never gets fixed about politics in this country and why we re-elect 99.9% of incumbents (rough estimate) and have a deadlocked system of two parties that are virtually indistinguishable in actual policy. But whatever. I’ll accept that as given since it seems like reality and I can’t fight it every time.
What I want to observe in this post is how bad people are at predicting electability, even when trying to chase that dragon. Because it’s pretty well documented, especially in the recent history of the Democratic Party. And, of course, it directly relates to 2016.
You know who the two most obvious electable nominees of the Democratic Party have been in my lifetime? Al Gore and John Kerry.
Who, if you’ve forgotten and are scoring at home, share zero years of lifetime Presidency, combined.
There was never any earnest, real excitement around these candidates. There was never verve or enthusiasm. But there was a strong sense that they were winners. These people were established! They were going places because, uh, people have heard of them? And stuff? And familiarity must breed some sort of excitement in November? Right?
Now, yes, I realize that Gore may have technically won the 2000 election, though we’ll never really know for sure. But you know what he didn’t win? His home state. What a winner!
Meanwhile, there have been two extremely successful two-term Presidents who have served as scions of the modern Democratic Party. They were also most commonly criticized throughout the primary process as one deathly word: “unelectable”.
You know these folks. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Part of why they were so unelectable is that you didn’t know these folks that well even two years before the election. Oh yes, Obama gave that stirring keynote at the Democratic Convention in 2004 that showed just how totally awful John Kerry really was as a candidate, but even then people smiled for the State Senator and told him that maybe in 2016 he’d have enough party credibility and establishment under his belt that he could consider running in the primaries. Clinton was a non-stop liability throughout the primary season. He had affairs and controversy following him all over the campaign trail. Meanwhile, in 2008, Obama was every bit the outsider that Bernie Sanders is today, against the presumed obvious nominee that Hillary Clinton was then, as she is now.
A funny thing happened on the way to the Convention. Excitement.
You see, it’s actually enthusiasm and energy that drive elections. This is what Americans, especially over-thinking political Americans, always seem to forget in analyzing electability. Barney Frank has certainly forgotten this, though he and all his Democratic establishment cronies are absolutely terrified of Bernie Sanders taking the Democratic Party back in the direction of its actual principles, before drone strikes and the TPP and workfare. His recent post in Politico is getting a ton of traction in my Facebook feed, mostly from debaters who seem to like the political gamesmanship of elections far more than the clash of principles. And Frank himself transparently bends over backwards to claim there’s basically no difference between Sanders and Hillary, despite Sanders shouting from the rooftops about income inequality, the slaughter of oppressed peoples at home and abroad, the minimum wage, and billionaires, while Hillary quietly defers and goes back to platitudes and equivocation.
Let me ask you a question. Are you excited about Hillary Clinton? Do you know anyone who is excited about Hillary Clinton?
And allow me to clarify. I didn’t ask if you were excited about the theory of four more years of a Democratic President, or about Supreme Court nominations, or about not-Republicans, or any other red herring issues that Hillary supporters have trotted out. And I didn’t ask about the abstract of a woman President since, after all, I know exactly what you would think if it were Sarah Palin vs. Barack Obama now, or back in 2012, so that’s not your real voting issue or what drives your enthusiasm, even if you have put aside the fact that her initial political experience and qualification was First Lady.
Are you energized? Are you inspired?
There may be a few of you who answered yes, I guess, though I think you’re lying to yourself. Unless you’re reading this, Chelsea. You’re probably pretty pumped.
But the crowds and the rallies and the buzz are telling the story. The excitement, the only real excitement on either side of the fence, is for Bernie Sanders. Oh sure, Trump is getting a lot of attention, but not a lot of enthusiasm. It’s mostly controversy. After all, he had to pay people to attend his candidacy announcement and pretend excitement. Trump is great theater, but he doesn’t have the energy. No one else on the Republican side is really getting people jazzed. Bush and Rubio and Walker all seem to have a bit of a following, but it’s with the same kind of verve of the most ardent Hillary supporter, which is to say a tentative shruggy kind of “well, I guess he’s…. electable?”
Energy wins elections. Obama. Bill Clinton. Reagan. In the modern media era, it’s this visionary excitement that drives voters to the polls. Not a resigned half-compromised “Well, let’s go with the establishment candidate because they have name recognition.”
Hillary does have name-recognition, along with strong and intractable unfavorability ratings from a majority of the electorate. People who like to talk about Bernie’s unattractiveness to Republicans forget that Hillary was the target of merciless attacks from the Republicans for most of the ’90s, far more hated than her husband, and was probably the biggest driving force behind the 1994 midterm Republican landslide. Those people haven’t forgotten how they feel about Hillary, no matter how many wars she’s promised to fight.
Meanwhile, Sanders has that kind of alternative appeal that could peel a lot of the fringe wings of the Republican Party away, just as a Ron Paul candidacy would have peeled a lot of fringe Democrats had he ever been nominated. If you see a Bernie Sanders general election against some big Republican Party hack, someone like a Jeb Bush or a Scott Walker, his authenticity and creativity are going to run circles of excitement around the trotting out of another established insider. Just as Hillary, the ultimate insider, seems slippery, dishonest, and unappealing to the average voter.
The only way Bernie Sanders can lose this primary contest coming up is if Democrats vote with their fear instead of their heart. Choose Kerry over Dean, choose Gore by default, choose tired unexciting establishment cronies to carry the banner instead of someone with fresh ideas that actually galvanize. You may think that your primary issue is electability, but I think you need to think again.
Three obviously electable Democratic establishment campaigns… that lose.
Sandra Bland, right, with the incident that precipitated her death, left. You know her name because and only because someone filmed the incident.
The thought occurred to me yesterday that had the events of Freedom Summer happened this summer, they would have ended with the police just gunning everybody down. I don’t think that’s quite actually true, because of the nature of numbers and publicity and death and the fact that Freedom Summer had enough white people involved that it would make such slaughter hard to pull off. But I think it’s a fitting thought experiment to launch further reflection on what is happening in this country with civil rights and the police and the kind of near-daily crisis that the African-American population is facing in this nation.
Then, of course, I realized, that this summer is new for only one reason, or the last two summers since we’re now about a year after Ferguson. It’s not that the behavior by the police is new, or the racism has intensified, or that the killings are up. It’s that people are talking about it and paying attention. That’s all that’s changed.
The incarceration rates of African-Americans are truly shocking in this country, the dominant number behind a nation that has used prison as a first-response mechanism to any threat, real or imagined. It is easier to lock up people who disagree with you than to improve their lives, work with them, bridge the divide between your perspectives, or try to build society. We aren’t just failing at nation-building abroad, we’re doing a woeful job with it in every impoverished neighborhood and traditionally disenfranchised group here at home. In large part because top-down nation-building by white imperlialists has always been a broken model. The nations of the developing world that were once colonies were built and established to forever be colonies, perpetual slave states to be milked by foreign powers, their people exploited, but now with their own “independent” flag. It’s hard to trace a problem or a shortfall in developing countries that can’t be directly attributed to this phenomenon.
Similarly, the ghettos, slums, and poor neighborhoods of the US function as colonies, churning out new victims for an American police state, free labor to head to the prisons, and just enough resistance to fuel an oppositional dynamic that can be used to justify crackdowns to the rest of the populous. All while providing enough criminally cheap labor to keep the pyramid of American capitalism churning, allowing people to think working three dead-end jobs at once is “opportunity”, giving just enough hope to the downtrodden that they don’t examine the whole system and tip it over.
So what’s different now? What’s changed this summer, last summer, the last year that the reverberations of this system and all its carnage are finally subjects that the President and those who wish to be the next one (okay, one or two of them) are actually talking about it?
It’s the end of privacy.
The only difference between the publicity of the last year and the silence of all the years that came before is the role of cameras and social media. The reason you know the name Sandra Bland, the reason you feel outraged by what happened to Eric Garner, the reason you can even conceive of a world in which police will violently attack Black teens at a pool party, is because you’ve seen them on your screen. You’ve seen the evidence. It’s not that police are suddenly attacking, incarcerating, and slaughtering Blacks for selling loose cigarettes, failing to use their turn signal, playing in the pool, walking down the street, or not immediately complying with outrageous demands. These things are not unprecedented. They are the long-running status quo of life in this country. You’re hearing about it because you’re seeing it. It’s getting taped and shared and spread and people have a very hard time ignoring an outrage they’ve actually witnessed, at least comparatively to one laden with rumor, uncertainty, and the presumption of authoritarian credibility.
As always, the issue with privacy’s death is its symmetricality. Asymmetrical publicity is 1984. It’s authoritarian and terrifying and every Millenial and Xer and probably most every Boomer has been raised to fear it more than any other system. If the government and those in power have all the cameras, all the investigators, and all the means of dissemination, then privacy is very important. It’s to be guarded and protected. That’s the dynamic which most societies have operated under for centuries.
But our current world offers us symmetrical publicity. The ubiquity of cameras, the near-universal participation in web-based social networks, these are actually the tools of liberation. This concept seemed obvious when the Arab Spring was underway and the complacent advocates of American Exceptionalism thought it was obvious that those “backwards and oppressed” Arab nations were thowing off the yoke of their oppressors. It’s less obvious to that perspective when our own oppressed start rising and resisting here at home. But it is no less true. The advent and ascendance of technology that wantonly disregards privacy as a value is a burgeoning tool of liberation and accountability. It is holding the long-broken mirror up to our authorities and showing how far we’ve gone down a rabbit-hole of oppression, racism, and terror.
It’s why people like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are so important. It’s why WikiLeaks and anonymous hackers are meting out more justice than all the non-Supreme courts of America combined. It’s why a world in which everyone wears a camera, everyone is constantly surveilled, if it’s symmetrical and universal and includes those in power, is not terrifying. It may be our only hope.
The only thing preventing a neo-revolution, full-scale riots in the streets, a total demand that we change the practices of our systems, is the fact that we don’t yet have footage behind the prison walls. We don’t have a publicly available tape of what happened to Freddie Gray or Sandra Bland behind those still-closed doors. If you knew what happened, if that video were viral, we’d be living in a much different country this morning.
Privacy is a moral issue. Privacy is complicity with the traditional status quo, one of racism, oppression, violence, subjugation. Privacy gives power to the powerful and strips it from the powerless. Privacy is the shield by which those who would commit abuses and atrocities believe they can do so with impunity.
Living in public, openly, is the mechanism of justice, of comeuppance, of accountability. Yes, it has to be universal. It has to be applied equally to those in power. It has to, for this to ultimately work, go into the prisons, into the police cars, into the torture chambers and basements and Guantanamo and sites too covert to mention or even know about. But the best disinfectant to society, any society, especially a police state, is sunlight.
Whatever benefits you think you derive from privacy, do they justify complicity with what’s happening this summer, every summer, on the streets of America? Do they justify a system that allows racist cops to hind behind their badge and get away with murder? Do they justify a system that views Black lives as expendable and unimportant? Does your right to cling to your secrets outweigh the rights of others to live?
We’ve all done things we’re not proud of. All participated in the systems that create and manage this oppression. Until we’re all willing to examine that ourselves, let others examine it publicly, and commit to that kind of scrutiny, we’re never going to get better enough to keep this from happening. Publicity is freedom. Privacy is death.
There’s a lot going on. There always is. Despite the efforts of various media outlets, phone applications, and the narrative brain to confine your existence to a narrow set of coherent and perfectly tailored activities/perceptions, reality is a cacophony of wills battling for your attention and interest. I can’t consolidate today. But I feel compelled to document. My thoughts are scattered and they’re cloudy… and like clouds, the thoughts can blow away. The Internet, as long as electricity works, is some sort of vault with which we can offer solidity to the clouds. That’s even how it’s described.
–Barack Obama is suddenly the President he said he was going to be, at least a bit, in a lot of different fields. This is both exciting and sad. I have been one of the more anti-Obama leftists out there, frustrated as anyone about his drone strikes and his corporatist policies and his total ignoring of the plight of anyone who looks like him or the environment or poverty. And yet, every other day, there’s a news story about Obama suddenly talking about the prison-industrial complex, or opening an embassy in Cuba, or openly celebrating gay marriage. The 2008 Candidate, who disappeared for six or seven years, is suddenly back on the scene. It doesn’t take a political scientist to understand that it’s not having to win any more elections that is the direct cause of this change of (return to?) heart. I’m not sure anything could more concretely underline what’s wrong with the American electoral system than that someone feels they have to sell out for six years in order to sneak in a few good policies at the end. I still hold out hope that he’s going to commute every death sentence in the nation on January 19, 2017.
–I have moved three times in the last twelve months. This one is mostly just sad, or exhausting and frustrating. All three were summer moves, in New Orleans, though the first one started in Jersey, where it wasn’t much less humid than here. Okay, it was a bit less humid. Every time I move, I say I’m going to get rid of all my stuff. I never do. I hate how American I am, deep down, in many ways. I can only say that moving frequently is good for me, so I don’t build up too much complacency about my acquisitions.
–Returning to Berkeley was not as hard as I feared. I expressed a lot of trepidation about flying back to Berkeley, by myself, to spend a few days. The context of the trip was of course magical, but I still expected to feel a lot of angst and sadness. There was really very little. The place is still incredibly haunted, but I was more heartwarmed by seeing all the old great restaurants and little quirks that make Berkeley what it is. This was all only augmented by happening to start reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius right before the trip, which I feel like is nearly impossible to follow without a deep understanding of the Bay Area. It’s easy to forget that there are places where people unironically embed poetry into the sidewalk, where a meditation center is available as an AirBNB, where a guy like Ben Brandzel could be raised in context. Remembering that is nice.
–Being without the Internet is both immensely frustrating and kind of good. This new apartment is great in a lot of ways, including that we get to have our rabbit, Brownie (quickly becoming a Facebook mini-celebrity) and that it’s walking distance to all the great stuff on Magazine Street. But it’s expensive, something we justified in part by the claim that Internet is included. This claim was greatly exaggerated, at least so far. Internet works about 30% of the time and will go out for days on end. I am not great at standing up to landlords, though we’ve been grousing a bit. But in the meantime, I’ve both gone without writing posts I was really excited about and read more than I would have otherwise. I guess it makes it about a push. The Internet, like so many things, is a tool that takes on a life of its own if you let it. It’s just a tool. It’s just a tool. How you use a tool is what determines its value.
–I mostly eat when other people are around. It’s not that I completely starve when I’m alone, but I can regulate my food intake much better when there aren’t social pressures to eat with someone. Alex has been back in Jersey for a couple weeks and I find that my eating patterns have settled back to a more comfortable minimalism for me. Given that I gained 50 pounds between 2010 and 2015, I prefer the self-regulation level, which has brought 10-15 pounds off that high-water mark. I’m not looking for 2010 weights, which were depressively skeletal, but I also have no business being 170 pounds.
–I’m not sure any news story has made me happier in years than Ashley Madison getting hacked. It’s hard to think of a business more pernicious or predatory of human emotions, nor people who more thoroughly deserve the searing light of publicity. I hope it all gets published in a wiki-style searchable index.
–Walking in the rain in New Orleans in the summer is no big deal. I remember the one year I lived in DC, suddenly rain was not a hard deterrent to being outside. New Orleans is the first place where the rain has been sufficiently warm to replicate that experience. It was highly unintuitive to start out on a walk two nights ago into a burgeoning thunderstorm, but I felt reassured and ready. And I wasn’t disappointed. Remarkably, tons of people were out in the rain, equally unhurried. Yet another way this is a seriously liberating place to live.
–Patience is an incredibly easy lesson to forget, but it’s at the center of everything. This is a lesson I had to learn and forget, learn and forget, learn and forget when playing poker semi-professionally. And it’s still at he heart of poker, and every competitive game out there. The fun and even more forgettable thing about patience is that it actually can slow time down, which makes you feel like you’re living longer. This is mostly just a note-to-self that I’m sharing with everybody. Yoga and meditation are kind of the embodiment of patience, that unhurried slowing of intention and desire and replacing it with the ticking of each second, slowly. Time is extremely perceptual. Everything in Western society pushes us to rush through things, push for a future that may never come, go go go go go at a busy and overwhelmed pace. This is a life-destructive, time-destructive force. As much as we can layer our lives with the opposite, with patience, with milking a second’s worth of time out of every second, the more whole we will tend to feel.
I have a lot more thoughts, all of which at one point could possibly have merited a whole post on their own. But this format, a little more like the days of Introspection, is fitting for now. And now I have to go get ready to have a day at work.
Life hack: thinking about death makes you feel more alive. Remembering that so many are dead makes you appreciate not being there yet. It is not a coincidence that New Orleans is both one of the most stunningly vibrant cities in the world and has above-ground graves everywhere.
I don’t know when we decided that someone’s moral worth, both individually and collectively, depended entirely on their ability to manipulate financial arrangements. But I think we should probably go back and un-decide that, posthaste.
Unfortunately, recent steps to increase corporate power and control, to vault the corporation (the only type of entity I like less than the nation-state) above the nation-state for preeminent domain over how people conduct their lives, are all but locked in. A done deal, you might say, if you were inclined toward the business end of things. Increasingly, there is no other end of things to be inclined toward.
Obviously, I’m talking in part about Greece. After talking a big game and getting everyone excited for a couple days that Greece was actually going to reject the fascism of finance to make people’s lives miserable and potentially unlivable, Tsipras backed down and Greece swallowed a deal that pays obeisance to the corporate gods of privatization and burdening the poor. Remember how we discussed that those who are successful have all the power to determine what success even is? When the wealthy or those with disproportionate pieces of the pie get to write the contracts (spoiler alert: they always write the contracts), then the poor end up paying. Every bailout and austerity measure disproportionately hits the poor, in taxes, in lack of a safety net, in the corrosion of basic civil society that comes from mortgaging the very notion of civil society and putting it up for fire-sale to a private entity.
There is also this high-minded moral condemnation that comes with all this, a heavy-handed rhetoric of “you deserve this” and “you lived beyond your means then, so suck it up now”. This presumes that more than a handful of people in Greece were responsible for the irresponsibilities of the initial accrual of debt. It’s like blaming the people who took bad mortgages in 2008 for the housing bubble/crisis. When you live in a society that worships home-ownership and tells you you’re worthless till you’ve hit that milestone, of course you’re going to take the loan when it’s offered. After all, it’s the bank’s job to know whether it’s a reasonable deal or not. Similarly, the average Greek citizen bearing the bulk of both direct and indirect costs of the new measures punishing them for their “misdeeds” had absolutely no role in decision-making for the circumstances that led them here. They may have enjoyed the theoretical benefits of a prosperous bubble, but could no more have stopped it and made Greece behave “responsibly” than they could have overthrown the government in Germany.
This notion that people are responsible for all actions of not only their governments, but their banks is frightening and irrational. I recognize that in the theory of conservation of finance, someone “has to pay” or be held responsible. And I guess the Greeks are geographically closer to the Greek bankers and former regimes than, say, the Swedes. But any notion that the connection is much stronger than that is pretty flimsy. Power and decision-making are what tip the scales in this arena, and the average Greek citizen had close to zero. The strongly-defended reaction of Germany and the Eurozone is a little like jailing the whole city of Baltimore because they “allowed” a murder to take place in their city limits. “Well,” the indignant authorities respond to cries of injustice “if you didn’t want this punishment, you should have elected people who would make sure no murder could possibly take place!” Airtight logic, no?
If you feel like we’ve seen this movie before, it’s because we have. Most poignantly in the 1920’s in Germany, which I guess helps explain the hypocritical fervor with which that country’s representatives now enact vengeance on the Greeks (see also freed slaves coming to Liberia and subjugating the local population and the whole Israel/Palestine debacle). The government running Germany and charged with paying impossible bills had nothing to do with the government that had decided to fight World War I, and indeed had far less responsibility for the war’s destruction than, say, the other European governments. And the people of Germany had far less power over the Kaiser’s decision set than anyone. But the whole nation’s people got blamed and penance was extracted, all with heavy-handed moralizing about the superiority of other European peoples. Now I guess I believe in a sliver of culpability for being willing to fight the war, albeit under coerced circumstances, and I suppose I feel there’s a comparable amount of culpability for cooperating with capitalist institutions at all (yep, I’m not absolved here, though I personally don’t believe in taking on debt). But that level of culpability is more like an asterisk than a warrant for an indeterminately long prison sentence. Someone said yesterday that 50 years is the “optimistic” timeline for payoff, that one of these unimaginable bills would come monthly for a half-century. Now, sure, I guess they just negotiated that down to forty years or something, but Jesus. Are we even thinking about these things, or are we just letting the invisible hand pin our arms behind our backs?
Don’t worry, kids. Nothing bad happened with that consistently humiliated and subjugated population in Germany in the ’20s. They were fine.
Corporate dehumanization and the expectation that everyone keeps up with the rules, learns them perfectly, and makes all the “right” decisions, mixes particularly badly with recent advances in technology. We’re talking oil and water, pills and alcohol, fireworks and forests kind of mixing here. My parents have been going through a series of micro-disasters stemming from this combination lately, including their newish car’s computer rebelling on them through sensors that almost cause accidents and my Dad getting locked out of his GMail for nearly a week because they (apparently?) thought his Albuquerque IP address was the source of Chinese hackers. When Alex got a new phone on our joint cell-phone account, my phone’s voicemail password suddenly stopped working and, when I got back in, I was told several “unauthorized attempts” had been made from my phone. This despite the fact that when my previous version of this phone had been stolen, they were perfectly happy to charge me for the unauthorized data bill that the thief had racked up.
The problem is that the computer always knows best who is who and what that means. It doesn’t seem to matter if you have the password that you’ve always had or the secret code, the algorithm will decide whether you’re real or not. There have been a lot of trippy neo-Frankenstein type movies made about this scenario, but it is a real-life and chilling set of circumstances that are developing. When my Dad offered to take his IDs into Google, they wouldn’t entertain the idea. There was no way to prove to GMail that he was who he always had been, except to input an attached cell-phone number to the account that had never been tied to the account. The computer assumed he had a cell-phone and that this phone was more intricate proof of his identity than anything human he could provide or prove.
In that same post linked above, I displayed a YouTube video of a scientist questioning ten tenets of scientific orthodoxy, including the idea that people are just machines. The prevailing belief system of those in power at this juncture is that we are all just machines and should become more machine-like in our behaviors, our “thinking” (air-quotes theirs). It’s the underlying premise not only of modern science, but also of economics. People are pre-programmed rational actors who deserve punishment and even being taken offline for deviating from the mechanistic behaviors of accumulating wealth, delivering productivity, and making smart financial decisions.
This would all almost be a reasonable way of ordering things if what smart financial decisions were stayed constant, sane, and fair. The heavy-handed moralizers of The Economy claim that finance is a lesson that can be learned, internalized, and applied to situations in a consistent manner and that everyone has equal access to the education to know the rules, learn the game, and play. Even if money were entirely equalized, though, this wouldn’t be true. Because the real winners in contemporary finance are those who manipulate the situation to their advantage. There’s nothing objective about the accumulation of wealth and power. It depends largely on not only your ability to swindle those who know less than you (in this one arena) out of their money, but even more on convincing the government to give you free money. Those that have succeeded in the last ten years in business did so primarily by convincing a vulnerable government to give them near-endless supplies of free cash, in the form of bailouts or interest-free lending. And the main way those people convinced said entities to float them is with, well, money. So the game is just to start with an unequally distributed good, then spread that good from those who happen to have it to those charged with making the decisions and, voila! Entrenchment at the top, paid for by those who never had power, influence, or money to begin with. Stupid people! They should have figured out a way to steal their own money in a way financial rules have arbitrarily deemed acceptable!
Among other things, this system is intensely immoral. Charging the uninformed, the downtrodden, the long tail of societies for the recklessness of their society’s hegemons while simultaneously rewarding other society’s hegemons for happening to outwit them… Really? This is the way we want to structure a global operation? And for what benefit? So we continue to drown an unwell planet in more terminally unnecessary plastic widgets? So we continue to cancerously grow our species until it chokes out all other life that had the misfortune of being born on Earth? If you’re going to celebrate the alleged lifting of people from poverty that you attribute to capitalism, you also have to revel in the creation of poverty it ensures every day, starting with the functional enslavement of Greece.
And then, hopefully, you ask where poverty came from in the first place. Poverty is not the natural order of things that capitalism saved us from. Poverty was invented by imperialists and robber barons, people who thought they could trick and swindle whole countries out from under the feet of people who’d always lived there. You may think we’ve come a long way from feudalism, but at least feudalism allowed people at the bottom to work their own land and save some of the food. People were not wholly owned subsidiaries of whatever wealthy decision-maker swindled them away from the other wealthy decision-maker.
There are other ways to structure a society, that give humanity back to the humans and recognize that cancerous amoral/immoral growth for the sake of enriching whoever has the reins today is not the objective of our existence. Or should not be. I know, I said “should”. I know science and economics tell you morality doesn’t exist. That appears to be the whole problem.
“There was an exodus of birds in the trees
because they didn’t know we were only pretending.
And the people all looked up and looked pleased
and the birds flew around like the whole world was ending.
And I, I don’t think war is noble
and I don’t like to think love is like war.”
-Ani DiFranco, “Independence Day”
I’m going back to Berkeley on the 4th of July. I’d already be on the plane right now, but it was delayed, which is a bit of a surprise given how few people choose to fly on this day. Berkeley, of course, is the origin of my “4th of July Hat”, so named for the day I bought it. The hat is featured in this picture:
When I tell people how cold the Bay Area is, especially in the summer, they don’t believe me. I talk about this hat. It’s not just that I’m a chronically cold person who chose to wear this hat on 4th of July (the day perhaps most associated with heat on the entire calendar) in Berkeley. It’s that street vendors were selling this hat on 4th of July in Berkeley. Meaning they had to believe that other people, other more normal and warmer people, would also be interested in making such an acquisition. And they were.
Of course, that picture was taken in on December 23rd in Albuquerque, a few years later, a place where it sometimes snows. Like the snowflakes on the hat. It never snows in Berkeley. That would make the cold worthwhile.
Despite my bellyaching (I blame the delayed flight), I love everything else about the Bay Area except the weather. I love the people, I love the places, I love the restaurants, I love the… oh. There are also the memories. I love a lot of the memories. And I hate a lot of them too. There’s really just nothing to be done about that.
I just watched “500 Days of Summer” twice in the last 72 hours. I think it might be the perfect movie. I saw it at least thrice in theaters when it came out and I’ve seen it a couple times since. The movie is many things, including a brilliant depiction of miscommunication and misunderstanding and how that can emerge and evolve, but it is mostly a distilled and exquisite rendering of how love impacts the human brain and how completely devastating that experience can be. And perhaps even more perfect is its depiction of memory, how it can lie and cheat and illustrate and illuminate. I almost watched it again this morning. I can’t get enough.
It is, I guess, a weird time to focus on such a heartbreaking film when I’m on my way to the wedding of a dear friend. But such dwelling also coincides, of course, with only my second return to the Bay Area since the demise of my marriage that spent 6 of its 7 (pre-separation) years there (curse you, New Jersey!). As much as anything, visiting the Bay Area is like going to the grave of my married life and waiting for the ghosts to come rising from the earth. Good times.
The other movie it makes me think of is “Inside Out”, which may be battling “500 Days of Summer” for the top spot in my heart this month. [Be you warned, for here be spoilers!] How a core full of happy yellow memories, powering a whole field of identity can be stripped of its meaning, soured blue and sucked away to lead to collapse and ruin. Yes, the ultimate lesson is that efforts to make yourself happy when you’re not amount to bullying and that sadness is the conduit to compassion and listening and ultimately, hope (or at least a richly complex emotional life). But the metaphor of how quickly those yellow memories go blue, never to be reclaimed, spoke to me perhaps louder than anything else in the film.
There was going to be a tie-in to the USA here, its annual Orgy of Jingoism, why I choose to fly rather than get pressured to watch fireworks meant to simulate the murderous destruction of other nation’s people. I remember some Bay Area 4th when I was too upset by the whole thing to see straight, it was a Big Blue House year, me moping around Oakland and not wanting to go anywhere while Fish and Emily tried to boost my spirits. Or maybe I’m getting it tangled with the summer of 2002 in my mind, a year before the wedding, back in Waltham, when I decided to skip out on Emily and … I want to say Nikki and maybe Ariel? … and just came back and played video games with Russ because I couldn’t handle the disconnect between everyone’s buoyant patriotism and my angry sadness. They probably both happened, though the little blue-red orb of the latter incident is becoming clearer in my mind as I write this. Blue and red, of course. The days flip around, the memories shoot through the chutes, and I am no closer to knowing how to sit with this than I ever have been.
It is a happy time, a happy trip. So many of the orbs that remain yellow from this time involve the people I’m going to see. Brandzy, of course, and friends from Glide, and a town that almost claimed my college years, that I fell in love with during my first real flirtation of my lifetime, then gave a good seven years almost a decade later. The gobstopper of emotions, as I’ve always said. The swirly swirl of rainbow colors, all together. Rainbows. I still remember that meal at the awful Turkish place in 2004 with Brandzy and I, and of course ErinPHull.org and Emily, the day they started marrying everyone, the brief time before injunctions and stoppages and then Prop 8 came to delay it all for a while. That brief, heady time before this ultimate fulfillment.
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
-Justice Anthony Kennedy, Obergefell v. Hodges
Maybe we’d all be better off if, at the outset of it all, some loud and authoritative voice said to us: “But you should know upfront, this is not a love story.”
Or maybe I’m just on the downslope of the roller coaster. I’m sure I’ll be up again soon, possibly in accordance and angle with the plane I’m about to board.
The problem with writing is that it’s all done by writers.
But seriously, it’s an innate flaw to the medium. Though not a unique one, this flaw carries its own particular proclivities and issues stemming from the viewpoints of writers. They have a tendency to care about words. They have a tendency to care very deeply about being a writer and all that perception entails. They are inordinately interested in writers and writing. And other writers and their writing. And various detailed minutiae of the writing process, including how to use it to extract the very best writing.
Not everyone who reads is a writer. Arguably, most people aren’t. And thus we have this conundrum wherein what is most interesting to the writer is not necessarily what interests the reader. But, by definition, writing must be done by writers. Unless, of course, it is done by Snookie. There are, I guess, non-writers who write. But even if they do it very badly, they will eventually become writers. By the sheer process and fact of having done enough writing, one is, like it or not, a writer. And thus the problems entailed above ensue.
This isn’t a unique problem because it is inherent to almost any field of produced media, let alone field of study and perhaps creative or thoughtful pursuit writ large. It is most visible (my opinion) in the realm of movies, where the vast majority (99.5%+) of moviegoers are not filmmakers, but they are subjected, via tautological monopoly, to the whims of filmmakers if they wish to witness films. It seems, probably, least problematic in the art of photography, perhaps ironically vis a vis what happens once that lens starts moving. But there is something quiet and observant enough about the process of photography that we seem to be subjected to relatively few illustrations of cameras, lenses, photographers, and whatever it is that particular interests those behind the (still) camera.
I am speaking somewhat glibly and perhaps not entirely sincerely with all these “subjected to”s. After all, I consider myself a writer. And I sure as hell am subjecting you to what interests me as a writer, which is, if anything today, meta-writing. Or possibly, God help us, meta-meta-writing, since I seem to be writing about the nature of writing about writing, at least at this moment.
But I think there’s something fundamental here, that transcends even the creative arts. Nearly any field or group or category inevitably becomes self-referential and, in America at least, self-aggrandizing. It is in the interests of an insular group, be they a team of researchers or a team of debaters or a team of basketball players, to congratulate themselves disproportionately, to overemphasize the value of their accomplishments and struggles. In some of these arenas, say basketball, there is a small country worth of reporters, fans, and businesspeople all too willing to reinforce this kind of insular self-emphasis. Less so in college debate, perhaps, but the reduced number is counter-weighted by the verbosity and eloquence, in that order. But all of the debating is still done by debaters, and therein lies the rub.
This has application to things that matter very much indeed, as you might have already predicted would be the ultimate direction of this post. I think it’s something we’ve put our finger on, collectively as a society (I nearly said “as a collective society” to be more direct about phrasing before realizing that’s a very misleading representation of the United States at present – we are no such thing), but haven’t quite grasped, let alone articulated. Specifically with regard to politicians. The problem with politics is that it’s all done by politicians. Which sounds almost trite in its 1990s mock-discovery, ignoring the quarter-century since of cascading candidates who want to paint themselves as outsiders. But really. There are things that matter to the kind of people who would seek office that don’t matter to everyone else. There are assumptions that they make and priorities they presume that are not held by the 99.5%+ of us who are, roughly, “the governed”. There’s a little bit of “power corrupts” in here, but it’s more than that. It’s that every profession becomes an echo-chamber. And pretty soon all you can hear are the voices, quite loud, of politicians.
This applies to science, too. I was going to do a separate post about this Ted Talk video that I ran across, somehow recommended for me on YouTube as though the Internet really is learning things about people other than to try selling them the product they searched for yesterday. I’ll link it below, even though it interrupts the train of thought, because it’s someone who knows a lot more about science than I do saying what I’ve always said about science, which is that in the twenty-first century, it’s adopted a hierarchical and unyielding religious orthodoxy that would make most faiths blush. We have fallen so in love with our technological innovations and (albeit doom-creating) mastery of the planet that we cannot question any of the fundamental assumptions underlying the founding beliefs and doctrines of those who put us on this path. Anyway, I think this is enlightening, if not entirely in keeping with the theme. And no doubt many of you will find it laughable and/or offensive. But at least stick it out till the stuff with the constants:
As those of you defending the scientists will no doubt say, possibly for the first time in a list of prior professions/pursuits that you may consider to be empty, airy, and/or blustery, but the scientists are the only ones qualified to do science. You can’t just bring in a writer to do chemistry! And more importantly, as observed before, if that writer did enough chemistry to properly be seen as doing chemistry they would, inevitably, become a chemist. Because part of the learning process requires enough contact with and tutelage by the elders of the field that it is basically impossible to learn enough about the field to not become a part of its echo-chambery flaws.
There’s a place this all gets way more insidious than politics, though. A thing I’ve thought for a long time and have almost been afraid to bring up for its implications about my own slight successes in whatever field they’ve been in (okay, mostly debate). And this thing may be at the core of what is really wrong in this country and maybe all the countries. And I mean really, truly, deeply powerfully wrong, like the root. Like the hard core taproot of what is wrong.
Are you ready?
The problem with success is it’s all had by the successful.
Yes, this applies to wealth, and that’s a big chunk of it, but the myopia of the rich for problems of the poor are pretty well documented and discussed. What I’m saying actually goes way beyond that, though it’s worth observing how wealth and poverty interplay with these things the whole way down. Because finances are not the only way one can achieve success. One can receive acclaim, fame, the respect of one’s peers, awards, even self-fulfillment. And once one is recognized for this success, in whatever form those achievements take, one joins the ranks of the successful and all that implies. One transforms into someone who is repeatedly getting praised for their success, given credit for that success, and asked how they did it as a model to others. And this creates several knee-jerk reactions, all of which I posit may be total myths.
1. The belief that you are the reason for your success. No matter what role luck, timing, or the help of others may have played, the successful (at least in this country) are inundated with the narrative that “you did it!”
2. The belief that this success is actually what success is supposed to look like. This one is tricky and complicated, because it can sound very quickly like we’re not talking about anything. Easiest example I can think of is Presidents who do nothing with their term or make the country much worse, but still get re-elected. They have achieved “success” as defined by their surroundings and context (political party, supporters, voters), but this is a lousy definition of the notion.
3. The belief that anyone could reach this success. This one seems like it should be in high tension with #1, but empirically these myths persist in unison all the time. We revere the winners for being extraordinary, for doing the impossible, and yet simultaneously take copious notes for how we can precisely emulate them. It is the great drumbeat of hope, aspiration, and even the worship we lavish upon those at the top. They just worked harder. They wanted it more. They put in the extra time it took to be better.
Our society is so full of these responses to success that it’s hard to even picture a world without them. I mean, what would it even look like to not revere success? Or to not then apply it to others as a model with the belief that they can get there if they learn the lessons of that success? Questioning this is pure blasphemy, and not just for capitalists. For teachers. For coaches. For anyone. I mean, how else are you supposed to even tell someone to try if it’s not through the lens of how Michael Jordan worked to recover from getting cut from his high school basketball team? (He grew a lot.)
Even Outliers, the Malcolm Gladwell book that is supposed to break down the grand myths of the genius and talent of the most successful people, goes back to a sheer formula of time and opportunity to maximize time. Ten-thousand hours, kid. That’s it. This number has been so often repeated as a mantra that it’s just taken as a proven fact at this point. Play as much as the Beatles, code as much as Bill Gates, and you will become the Beatles or Bill Gates.
I fear we’re at another quandary, though, that getting around this is about as easy as having people who write really good stuff who aren’t writers, or people who can do science well who aren’t scientists. It seems definitional to the pursuit that someone has to pursue it long enough and seriously enough for it to become a part of their identity, or at least for them to sufficiently identify with being that thing that they can adopt its core principles. Even if those core principles include things that undermine the nature of the best development of the thing itself.
The best we can do, probably, is step outside ourselves and try to shed our perspective a little. My mantra in young adulthood was that “truth is vision without perspective” and it still holds true (!) today. And by “without perspective”, I mean “all perspective”. For by having 100% of the possible perspectives, one loses what we mean by “perspective” as an aspect of where one is standing in relation to the object being perceived.
Imagine a tennis ball. The truth about the tennis ball can only be grasped when one simultaneously sees it from all possible vantages. Up, down, left, right, but also inside at every molecular distance. It is, of course, impossible (for humans) and very difficult to picture, for it is a jumbled and confusing collection of seemingly contradictory information. Especially since our image of a tennis ball is a round fuzzy green ball, but much of the truth about it is the hollow inside that we basically never see. There is the old saw about the three blind men and the elephant, but the reality is that everything is the elephant and we are all blind. We are prisoners to our perspective. But we have the power of abstract thought to allow us to step outside it, or at least to try.
That’s all we can do. To write as though we are not writers, to make movies as though we are not filmmakers, to debate as though we are not debaters. Traditionally, when people can actually do these things, they are often called groundbreaking, revolutionaries, even visionaries. And then the real challenge is to wear that success as though we are not successful so that we may, possibly, make a way forward for a world where most people are not deemed to be successful at all in what was never really a fair contest to begin with.
The reality-bending nature of the reported unemployment figure in the United States hit a new high watermark, with the BLS today reporting that unemployment was at 5.3% when it actually spiked to 11.52%. They reported a decline of 0.2 points when it actually climbed 0.24 points. And while I am amazed and pleased that the media is at least starting to talk about labor-force participation rates when they report these statistics, no one in the mainstream is putting it in real figures that play ball with the types of figures that people expect to hear.
Unemployment in this country is actually over 11.5%. The gap between the reported figure and the real figure is a whopping 6.22%, an all-time high, or fully 117% of the reported rate! The last time the unemployment rate was reported to be over 6.2% was in May 2014. That’s a figure that currently represents the number of people who are left out of the labor force because of the Great Recession. Which they tell us ended years ago.
This month does reverse some recent positive trends that were happening in the actual unemployment situation. Unemployment in May 2015 hit an almost seven-year low of 11.28%. Yes, folks, for seven years, the unemployment rate has been been over 11.25%, or 1.25 points higher than the peak reported figure. If you’re wondering why this doesn’t feel like a recovery outside of the gambling halls of Wall Street, that’s why. But unemployment has been below 12% for over a year now and was steadily trickling downward until June.
Here are your charts:
It’s great that people are finally talking about why the reported unemployment rate went down or up and that it’s all about the labor-force participation. But once we realize that the labor-force participation rate is actually having a far greater impact on the unemployment rate than the reported unemployment rate itself and start talking in real terms about what the figure comparatively is to a healthy economy, then we’ll really be in business. Heh. Or, y’know, we’ll realize that the nature of work and business has fundamentally changed and it’s completely out-of-touch to talk about “full unemployment” (actually discussed on NPR last week!), perhaps ever again.
This is part of a continuing series on the under-reporting of unemployment in the United States of America.
“My understanding is, is you’ve got some of the same organizers now going back into these communities to try to clean up in the aftermath of a handful of criminals and thugs who tore up the place.”
-Barack Obama, on the Baltimore unrest, 28 April 2015
“Every nation has to either be with us, or against us.”
-Hillary Clinton, 13 September 2001
Many were shocked in the last week to hear African-American leaders, from the White House to the streets of Baltimore, utilize the word “thugs”. The word has become sort of a proxy slur in recent years, a way people have of painting people they fear with the same broad brush, whether those people pose any sort of danger or threat or not. It’s a little like using “terrorists” to describe anyone on the international scene with whom one disagrees, though “thugs” is often more liberally applied to an entire race since the n-word has really fallen too far out of fashion.
How can people of that same race being victimized by the use of the word thugs in this context be using it themselves? What sort of self-denial is this? Wasn’t the whole hope of having a Black mayor in Baltimore, a Black President in DC, to change the cultural landscape so things like this would never be heard?
The problem, unfortunately, seems to be the opposite. Ask any radical African-American activist how they feel about the Obama Presidency. (Or, frankly, any radical activist full-stop). Despite some glimmers of a leftist that have peeked out in the outset of the back half of his lame-duck term, Obama remains a staunch moderate to a fault, calmly pausing between words to ensure he doesn’t come off as rash, angry, or frustrated, or even someone who could be confused with having a particular interest in the fate of minorities nationwide. When he has spoken up for minorities, they’ve often been other minority groups than his own, appointing a Hispanic to the Supreme Court and sticking his neck out for an executive order on extremely mild immigration clemency. He has gone out of his way to never take an action that could be confused for doing things differently because of his race.
This is understandable, if unfortunate. Obama rightly understands that he’s been under an extremely focused microscope and that many lingering racists would attempt to find anything in his Presidency possible to justify never electing another Black President. He has no interest in being the last Black President, so it’s vital to him to be seen as functionally no different than any other President. The only problem is that many many people who voted for him, who made his election possible, kind of wanted him to be a Black President. Or to at least have enough perspective from his upbringing to do more than speak of it anecdotally, interlaced with words like “thugs.” That maybe he would carve out some time away from the drone-strike kill-list to take on the disproportionate allocation of prisons, the death penalty, police oppression, or poverty on people who grew up looking like him.
This gets to the very core of whether identity matters or means anything in our society. Yes, there is something cool about Barack Obama’s ability to be elected as an African American man (technically he’s more Multiracial, but whatever, racial constructs are stupid) in this country. I didn’t vote for him because of his commitment to continue the war in Afghanistan, but even I trembled a bit watching him speak in Chicago in 2008. But if his Presidency is dictated by a fear of speaking out on issues pertinent to his community, does it matter? I mean, other than a technical self-congratulatory American footnote, are we any better off for having elected a Black President who is terrified to do anything about the problems disproportionately facing the Black community? If the best he can offer as a legacy is not screwing up so badly that people write off Black candidates in the future and then maybe that next Black President does something about injustice and inequality in 2032, is that really the change we can believe in?
Which brings me to the question of Hillary Clinton. Back in the day, there was a belief that electing women would make a difference because women might be different, on balance, in some way in their policies. Women might be disproportionately likely to listen, to compromise, to seek a peaceful solution to problems that men would, on average, want to pull out the big guns for. While the last 20 years have brought scores of women leaders in nations across the globe, the vast majority of them have gotten elected by demonstrating themselves to be even tougher than their male counterparts. Think fast! Who comes to mind as national leaders for women? Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel, I’m betting. Two staunchly conservative, hard-line, tough women. And Hillary Clinton is cut from the same mold.
Look, women can be tough. Women can and should be whatever they want to be. The problem is that, to find political success in the modern Western world, women have to be tough. Clinton and her counterparts are terrified of being painted with traditional female stereotypes, being labeled as weak and conflict-avoiding and passive, so they contrast themselves with militaristic vision and aggression. The result is something like the Falklands War, one of the most pointless bloodbaths of the 1980s (and that’s saying something), where Thatcher had to establish herself as willing to go to war when provoked just so people wouldn’t think the reason she didn’t was because of her chromosomes. One of the key reasons I don’t support Hillary is she’s made it abundantly clear that she would eagerly find a war to start just to establish that the first woman President in the United States isn’t afraid of starting a war. It’s like those Geico ads – “When you’re the President, you start a war. It’s what you do.” And she sure as hell isn’t going to break that trend and have people think it’s because she’s not a man.
It’s hard enough for people to imagine electing a woman President in this country, which is kind of a stupefying fact. That reality will fade as my generation continues to cross the 35-year-old line, just like gay marriage has turned on its head, marijuana legalization will be right behind it, and hopefully (please God) some socioeconomic justice will come behind that. We’ve done a good job ensuring that our grandchildren will all consider us rabidly myopic bigots. But if the only slots for women are in the Thatcher/Merkel/Clinton vein of tough-as-nails ready-to-drop-bombs hell-or-high-water genre, are we really making space for diversity in our electorate?
Here’s the problem with Obama avoiding talking about his community and Clinton refusing to be seen as softer on anything: they become totally indistinguishable from the traditional angry old white man model of politics. So if we’re getting technical diversity of identity, I guess that’s some technical version of progress. But when all those people are in every way other than appearance indistinguishable from the traditional make-up and approach of angry old white men, is it worth it? Is it meaningful change?
Which brings us to the supreme irony of the 2016 election coming up. His name is Bernie Sanders. He is the oldest and whitest candidate (though admittedly perhaps not the manliest). And he is the only person in the race for either major party taking a different approach to US policy than the traditional I-am-the-hammer, the-world-is-my-nail approach to American hegemony. Even Rand Paul, son of Ron, is out there carrying the rhetoric of the War on Terror and surveillance without end. And it takes an old white man to bring us real Socialism, the kind of policies that insensate Republicans have somehow confused for the center-right Presidency of Barack Obama.
Defenders of Obama and Hillary might easily say that only an old white man could be a Socialist in today’s political landscape. That a minority or a woman bringing that kind of rhetoric an perspective would do a disservice to their entire class. But I think this is bunk for two reasons.
1. Racists and sexists and naysayers will always find ammunition for their warped perspective. Barack Obama’s Presidency, at least before this year, has probably mapped out just to the right of GW Bush’s (other than perhaps Supreme Court appointments). He has extended the War on Terror, initiated violent interventions in countless countries, ramped up government secrecy while punishing those who speak out against it, refused to take meaningful steps on environmental protection, and backed Wall Street and big corporations at every opportunity. And yet the naysayers and racists have branded him a Muslim, a Socialist, a Kenyan national, and a provocateur. Since before he was elected, I have been saying that my ideal President is the Republican caricature of Obama. That’s who I think this country really needs, but he is totally distinct from the actual Obama in every way. Obama has taken every pain to be as moderate and uninteresting as possible and is still hated by people who don’t like his identity. That was always going to happen. He might as well have tried to do some good first.
2. If we elect people of traditionally under-represented class, but the only slots for them are for people who are indistinguishable in policy from traditional angry old white men, are we actually diversifying? Is this frankly any different than demanding that a minority or woman “pass” as a white man? If they have to conform to the dominant cultural standard to be liked, is that truly cultural diversity? And if the standard they set demands that future Blacks or women or people who are different must conform rigidly to the old white male paradigm, how are we progressing past that paradigm? And isn’t it the paradigm that matters? If we have a Black man still oppressing Blacks, is it meaningful that we elected a Black President? If a woman sets the precedent that the first female President only got to power by being the wife of a popular President, are we really standing up for women and their right to be equal to men?
Maybe I’m the wrong person to speak about these issues as a white man. I’m sure there are some who would think so and believe this to be a trite undermining of the accomplishments of Obama and Hillary to overcome the incredible obstacles they’ve faced. My fear, as someone who hates the established order of American politics as they’ve unfolded since 9/11, who hates the traditional patriarchal approach to war and poverty and politics, is that our obsession with the identity of a person has actually set back diversifying or changing policies. The patriarchy can still use a woman to establish patriarchal policies. And we should not be falling all over ourselves to celebrate electing people who look different if that difference is only an appearance.
It was trendy there for a few weeks of Internet time to write snide little stories on how American news events would be reported on by American news if they weren’t American news events at all. How would Ferguson look to the American media if Ferguson were taking place in Iran? People would giggle. But I’m not sure we’ve taken it sufficiently to heart. I’m not sure we’ve realized how deeply profound this exercise is. Because the bias, your bias, is on the side of law and order of the authorities in the United States. Deep down, you believe, at least a little bit, that these authorities and their enforcement arms derive fundamentally from the consent of the governed and the consistency of the Constitution while, deep down, every other place’s order derives from something at least a little bit fishy or corrupt or questionable.
Sure, I shouldn’t say everyone. There’s a few of you out there, perhaps public defenders or those who have run directly afoul of our judicial system, maybe of our police force in one city or another, who might be so skeptical of our own hierarchy for maintaining order that you trust most other systems and peoples more. But by and large, it’s very difficult to grow up in this nation without assuming that the order of things here is to keep everyone safe and happy, while the order of everywhere else is at least a little bit selfish or misguided.
This is crazy thinking, people. Myopia of the first order.
Even if you believe, deeply and truly, in the American experiment in its best form, the notion that it is an unending train of progress and success is facially ludicrous. This nation codified slavery, genocide, and discrimination of nearly every kind imaginable. This history is not over, with the right of same-sex couples to marry still being a hotly debated question rather than an obvious no-afterthoughts protection. And then there is the right of people to be safe and protected by their government, rather than prejudicially being labeled its enemy by virtue of the color of their skin. A right not to be profiled, not to be assumed to be dangerous regardless of one’s true intent or capability.
I am not here to condemn all police officers, nor to accuse every person in the country of being a racist. But if you don’t see something systemic about the way African-American men are treated in this society by so-called law enforcement entities, then you’re simply not paying attention. And the litmus test for that is if it were happening anywhere else. If Iran or China or Syria were rounding up one kind of people at that kind of rate and routinely slaughtering them unarmed and unthreatened, we would label it persecution of a minority group. We would call Baltimore a justified freedom-fighting movement. We would likely label efforts to retribute against such a movement the first steps toward ethnic cleansing.
I am a pacifist. I abhor violence of all kinds and shapes by all sides. I, frankly, don’t believe in freedom-fighting movements when fighting is the operative word. So I’m not here to justify the exceptional violent actions of the few in Baltimore. But I do think it’s vital to contextualize the reality of a group forced to live in fear, continually watching innocent men turned to martyrs while the mainstream establishment refuses to pay attention. The reason that Black Lives Matter became a slogan is that it really seems to so many that they don’t. For agency after agency after agency to approach the killing of Black men like an administrative hiccup to be explained, obfuscated, and shuffled away without fear of censure or even oversight from higher governmental authorities is to tacitly endorse, as a system, the indifference that enables these killings to become so commonplace. It is somewhat unsurprising that a nation that refused to launch even a cursory investigation into the financial instruments that nearly triggered a global economic collapse also stands uninterested in auditing its racial practices in terms of law enforcement. But admitting you have a problem is the first step. Flatly standing behind denial just makes you look laughable in any objective view.
Unfortunately, America is the land of the unobjective view. Look, we all like the home team. We all root irrationally for the team that’s nearby, whose players are familiar and relatable and that one grew up just down the street from me! It’s human nature to be a bit provincial. But you don’t hear Norwegians capping every campaign stump speech passionately evoking the God-given fact that Norway is the greatest country that was, is, and will be. That kind of commitment to self-aggrandizement was a hallmark of the monarchies this American idea was intended to replace, replete with all the ego and greed that monarchies bred. How can we read about severed spinal columns that go “unexplained”, about yet another plastic water gun or set of keys mistaken for a firearm, and continue to stand by this notion that we are infinitely better than any other country, any other system, any other people trying to improve the way things work in their society?
If you love America, you love its changes. You love its desire to improve itself. The people rising up in Baltimore are trying to remind you that this country has only become better though resistance, through the people who are willing to defy authority to expose its injustices. Movies like “Selma” remind us that our current heroes were branded as unpopular troublemakers only a generation ago. And while it’s sad to admit that the very same struggle back then is still a major obstacle to progress now, believing anything else is to fold up two very large American flags and stuff them in your ears and take a third and drape it threefold before your eyes. This nation has been systemically oppressing the same people for centuries. It’s only going to stop if we admit that’s what’s going on, that’s what’s been going on, and we need more than cosmetic changes or the condemnation of a few case studies to truly fix it.
This country was founded on the principle of rising up against unjust authority for what you believe. The cause was vastly less justified than the cause of oppressed African Americans at any point in our history – it mostly amounted to whining about taxes. To fail to embrace the legitimacy of this cause is un-American. Far more un-American than believing that this country is still a work in progress, still has a long way to go, and still may never be the best country of all-time.
Harrison “HWhitty” Whitman and I on the first day of APDA Nationals 2002 at UMBC. We’d just won Rutgers the weekend before, qualling him for Nationals. I had braids in my hair for my last Nationals ever, something I’d always wanted to do.
It’s like Christmas Eve for me tonight. Or, more fittingly, since Christmas Eve is really my holiday, it’s like Christmas Eve Eve. The night of the 23rd, when the roof lumis are done and all the rest are waiting in their neat little rows in the garage anticipating the soreness and joy of light that will follow the next night. Except tomorrow is not the night for luminarias, but the first day of the American Parliamentary Debate Association‘s National Championships. Almost as fun, almost as exhausting, always as memorable.
I’m quite proud to have the distinction of having attended more APDA Nationals than any other person. I guess I don’t technically officially know this to be the case, but I know enough APDA history to realize that no one else could be close. Tomorrow will mark my arrival at my 13th Nationals, at the 35th convening of the prestigious title tournament. The first Nationals was held when I was a year old and I didn’t attend till I was 19, in 1999, but dinos (ex-debaters) barely came back for more than a year or two then. Indeed, my own coach went to at least 9 Nationals, maybe ten, with 5 as a coach, and possibly was the record-holder until I probably broke it a couple years back. Institutional memory is traditionally thin on the circuit, as with almost all college pursuits that are not sports with their bevy of outside observers and journalists and scouts.
I competed at Nationals for the four years I was eligible as a debater, 1999-2002, though I didn’t qualify as a fully seeded competitor my freshman year, falling a ballot short of the necessary final round in the last weekend of the year. I didn’t break till my junior year, after an abysmal run with my 5th TOTY partner Steve Rabin in my sophomore season, capping a semester we’d won three straight tournaments during with bitter disappointment. Zirkin and I made it to semifinals, finishing third, felled by our rivals Fletcher and Luftglass from Yale who I’d beaten on Gov in huge semifinals twice earlier that year, burning our two top cases in the process. We were simply a case short of where we needed to be, pulled out an old first-rounder, and got trounced. I would use this as an admonishment to Rutgers kids for five years of coaching that you always need one more case. Fourteen years later, I still feel regret.
Which is silly, because being third at Nationals after winning the North American Championship that year is awesome. And I really can’t look back on my career as a debater and feel anything but grateful. But sometimes I still do.
The less said about my senior Nationals the better, in some ways, though there were things that were amazing about it as well. I have the most pictures of it, too, nostalgia seeming so present already in the moment, it feeling like one of those times when time slows down, stops, almost reverses. My recollections of that tournament in particular are sharp and vivid like a predictable movie on a screen in front of me. The joys and the pains, some of the greatest of both I’ve, to this day, ever felt. And I was profoundly aware of how important that weekend would be to my memory, a rare and valuable thing to go into an event with. Time was so slow those three days. I still remember every round. My mind goes there often, reinforced by a life with debaters offering the opportunity to tell more stories of Nats of yore.
Myself and Andy “Drew” Tirrell, arriving on campus for my last (sort of) round ever, Nationals Quarterfinals.
Then there were years of judging and tabbing. I was in the tab room for the Nats my alma mater hosted the year after I graduated, at Brandeis in 2003. Then I missed two years in a row, my longest hiatus from the event. I came back to judge in 2006 and saw a bubble round that I’ve long called the best round I ever judged (and certainly received the highest scores) with Stanford’s Baer and Chan defeating Yale’s Schneller and Bone. I tab directed the 2007 Nationals at Vassar, the first ever dino-run tab room with multiple schools represented, an experiment that quickly became the league standard after that trial. Then I missed two more again before returning for five years as a coach, including tab directing again at West Point in 2011. Indeed, tomorrow will break a streak of being in the tab room for Nats every four years that dates back to 2003.
Of course, possibly nothing will trump last year. The 2014 Nationals Finals run by Sean and Quinn for Rutgers was just the kind of thing that you can’t make up, though people do in movies all the time. Of course, we would have won it all in a movie. But it doesn’t matter, it didn’t matter. The redemption after a year that was so trying in so many ways, the disastrously depressing banquet when we all were almost sure we’d missed the break, the elation of getting in, and then the utter triumph of winning octos and then quarters and then dethroning back-to-back defending champions Harvard on a 4-1 decision. Of getting the Gov in a National Final. Of getting to go out, to step away from coaching, on top. I honestly may have been more tempted to stay, to give it one more year, had we just been knocked out in quarters. But you can’t fight the narratives your life is giving you sometimes.
A very giddy and relieved Rutgers team at the Nationals 2014 banquet at UPenn after Sean and Quinn had broken as the 13-seed.
All the same, I hope we get it this year. The whole she-bang. You have to. There isn’t a single person going who isn’t thinking, somewhere in the back of their mind, about hoisting the trophy and being National Champions. That’s the nature of Championships. You dream big. You see yourself up there. You imagine the steps to get it. And everyone but one team, two people and their supporters, are crushed by the end.
This will be one of those weird years where, technically, I don’t have a role, other than judging and bringing the history. Rutgers has a new coach now, officially, though I certainly plan to do some coaching as well. I’m not in the tab room. I’m long past the days of competing in tournaments that count. I’m there to savor the experience.
There are so many nuances to a Nationals tournament that have long made it my favorite single experience, that keep me sure that I’ll come back for more when this year’s trophy is hoisted and stowed away in a van for a journey home to wherever it’s going. I adore Senior Speeches. Despite the bitter memories of my own, I find Senior Speeches, the little farewell gifts of seniors to the circuit, to be moving and touching and funny and they always, without fail, renew my faith in the event of debate and in APDA as a whole. I feel honored that I’ve heard so many of them and eagerly anticipate this year’s batch.
There’s the expectations and the surprises. Every year, a hallowed team with a realistic chance of winning it all fails to break. Whether it’s the pressure, the preparation, the bounces of it being just one tournament for all the marbles, events always conspire against at least one team that everyone had near the top of their bracket. And almost as often, most every year and especially so lately, an unexpected team or two come out of nowhere to contend for the Championship. My very first Nationals in 1999 were won by a team that no one had on their radar, that no one would have put in their break, defeating TOTY in the Final round. The last two years have featured plucky underdogs taking a low seed and an under-rated season to a 2nd place finish. Semifinals traditionally has at least one team that barely made it in. My junior year, our semifinal was the #2 vs. the #3 seed. The other side of the bracket was the #9 vs. the #13, in the first year that Nationals had broken past 8 teams in at least 3 years.
There’s the reputation bump to those unexpected teams, though, the ones that aren’t seniors. The next year, that same #9 and #13 seed met in Finals at Nationals. They were the only two teams to beat Tirrell and I, the Champions in round 5 and the runners-up in quarters.
There’s the predictable rhythm of the tournament, one that has held true for all 12 Nats I’ve yet attended. The first night, two rounds, is sluggish and ominous, like a distant thunderstorm edging up to the horizon. Teams often come out of the gate heavy. It’s slow for a two-round night when we’re used to three. First round match-ups are surprisingly easy for the top teams, usually, lulling you into a sense of security. (Usually. Our 5th TOTY sophomore year, we hit the best free seed at the tourney first round, a team that had been to four or five semifinals and would have qualled twice over under the modern-day system.) Then the second round matchups are often brutal, reminding you that this is the title tournament after all, and you’d better start bringing it.
Day two is the second-longest day of debate that exists, trumped only by day two of North Americans in the tight-link era (an extra hour per round for the adjudication staff to fight over the motion for the next round). It is always interminable. Always. People look up after round 5 and feel that another day must have passed already. The day drags in a mess of anticipation and waiting and idle wiredness. If you’re lucky, truly lucky, you hit a Zen state where you can just take the day as it comes and drink in the opportunity to speak and do what you love. I think I hit that state my senior year, somehow, feeling so at peace with our decision to run a wide-open case in the bubble against an MIT team that remains the only team I know of to be mis-tabbed out of the Nationals break. Usually, though, you escape rounds rather than winning them. Even the rounds you crush, you just breathe a huge relieved sigh for having gotten them. Every moment feels like an elimination round, even sitting around in GA, feeling like you could fall asleep and miss something or be ninjaed in the back by a competitor. It’s grueling. And then the banquet is impossible, hours and hours of being unable to taste your food or keep it down as you wait for results. Softened only by senior speeches.
Day three, whether you’re in it or not, is lightning quick. It’s such a stark contrast from day two that it’s breathtaking. If you’re in it, you don’t have time to think or process or take stock of the day, it’s just hear the announcement and run to prep for the next round and hope that you’ve done enough prep work in the week(s) leading up that you don’t really need to think right now. You just react. This principle governed how smooth the Rutgers ’14 run was as well as the hard demise of the Brandeis ’01 run. The bracket just resolves and every time you look up, it’s only 8, 4, 2 teams left with a chance at the whole enchilada. Seniors and geniuses are suddenly sitting on the sidelines, and maybe you’re one of them, too stunned to realize that the dream is over, maybe for this year, maybe forever.
I can’t believe this shit isn’t on ESPN by now. I just feel incredibly lucky to be a part of it again, to feel at home in this hallowed league, to have the sense of perspective to appreciate it and not apologize for how much I love it. It’s a truly great tournament and I’ll see you there tomorrow.
It rained all day yesterday, and not just a little Oregonian drizzle or consistent pitter-patter, but an all-consuming, floodgate-opening deluge for hours on end. The sky cracked periodically with flashes and booms and the streets filled and eddied and we huddled against our office computers and ordered food in and watched the cars struggle against the torrents outside.
Rain feels different in New Orleans and it has nothing to do with the actual sensation of getting soaked here as opposed to somewhere else. Though it certainly is warmer than in most climes, reminiscent of the humid summer rains of Washington DC that felt more like the showers I refused to take in 1987 than the harsh reprimand of rain in the West. No, the rain is different here for psychological reasons, for the memories that drift up and spin like leaves in the downpour-induced lake. You can’t drive by the little roadside waterway that people call a bayou here (I guess technically correct, though it’s weird to look at a “bayou” that isn’t teeming with gators and covered with Spanish moss – and reminds me more of an Albuquerque ditch that moved up in the world) competing against its soft flimsy banks, threatening to spill water into the roads, without remembering a time you weren’t even here, ten years gone, when all flood broke loose and almost refused to ever relinquish the city back to terrestrial habitation.
More rain is predicted for today, taking us through 24 hours of a flood watch, then periodically the rest of the week. Alex tells me that lots of people don’t bother coming to school when it rains – the city is surprisingly allergic to airborne water for a place that routinely gets so much of it. Maybe it’s that already-becoming-familiar New Orleans sensation of only doing what you want when you want to. Maybe it’s PTSD. Maybe every time water collects and pools and runs down the roadways, it’s just not worth even going outside to look, to feel, to remember.
There is another side to this gloomy reminiscence, to this rainy remembrance. Rain in quantities this high becomes almost like snow, that kind of sweeping overwhelm, nature’s little reminder of who is in charge around here after all. Covering all the blemishes and holes in the roads, replacing it with a smooth but roiling surface that impedes the progress of human events and will. Cars so quickly become useless in the face of such weather and the thoughtful among us who can table our frustration for a moment are reminded of the fragility of our machinery, the vulnerability of our accomplished but dominoed technological framework. Human building, human industry, human population and expansion is all a negotiation with the planet, not a dictation of terms, no matter how powerful or unsinkable we feel. Those who paid the price for this in Katrina were surely our meekest to begin with, and thus least deserving, but the holistic lesson for the species is a harbinger of warnings we simply need to heed. We may borrow the Earth from our children, but we pay rent to the sphere below on a daily basis, serving at the pleasure of forces we have long imagined the hubris to crush and bend.
Water may be the most powerful force in the known world. Its will to move, to seek, to gather and flow could power the imaginings of ten thousand civilizations. By offering no resistance, it absorbs all the energy of what’s around it, reaching all the way to the moon for strength, impervious to efforts to tame and control it except in the smallest quantities. And yet we depend on it to exist, to subsist, to maintain, let alone grow. Like fire, we adore it at levels that we can contain, but the line between containment and being dominated is thin and flexible.
The lesson of water is that resistance is not always what is strongest. Much like the yoga classes I’ve been soaking up like so much hydration, water shows us that bending beats breaking every time, that making the best of the surroundings that are given and pooling that energy leads to the most powerful outcomes. No matter how strong we think we are, there are forces beyond our control. And accepting those forces, working with them, bending to the current and letting it flow, this is the only way to avoid the worst of our pains.
Which is not to say that we should just flow with the injustice, violence, betrayal, and torment of the world around us, any more than we should just ride out a hurricane and hope the waters don’t get us. But we must do the best with what we are given and not pretend that we can manufacture something more. It is in recognition of the shortfalls of our power than we can find strength and work with our environment as it is. Reach your hand out, feel the rain, let it swirl around your feet as it gathers. Tip your head back, embrace the rising storm.
I’m not much of a spring person myself, having a penchant for difficult times in April and May. I was always with TS Eliot on the whole April question and I probably offer the quote about cruelty each time we get this far around the sun in one form or another. But all that rebirth and Easter spirit, all those flowers and ripening trees, it all culminates in the burst of energetic joy that is the reopening of baseball season. And no matter how trying an April you’re having, you have to love that.
One of my favorite past posts is about the promise of a new debate tournament, a new weekend, the new possibilities unfolding from a weekly reset of contests in which any given one could be won outright. I wrote it in September 2010, at a time when I was hurting deeply and found little faith in any new beginning that did not emanate directly from the chance of my team winning a debate tournament. For the second time in my life, I dug myself out by digging deeply into debate and the hope of having one concrete thing that I unassailably still enjoyed. September is the spring of the debate season, but April is the spring of reality as well as baseball.
Last year ended catastrophically for my beloved Mariners, with the whole year coming down to game 162, the first time in over a decade that the last contest of the season mattered. The M’s won, but so did the A’s, and that wound up being all that mattered. To make matters more heartbreaking, the Wild Card game winners, the Kansas City Royals, charged on to the World Series, a feat still not reached by nearly 40 years of prior M’s squads. Say what you will about the travails of yearning since 1908, Cubs fans, but at least you have a championship to remember. (Okay, “remember” is probably not the right word unless you’re the world’s oldest person, but maybe “read about”.) Four decades is less time to suffer, but in some ways more poignant. There was no apex for Seattle, no fulfillment for the Mariners.
But every year dawns anew. For Cubs fans, for Mariners fans, for followers of every team, no matter how hapless. There’s a sense of expectation, to be sure – the M’s are expected to do well this year with new signings and a pitching core poised at a communal peak. There are teams that virtually know they’ll be slated for 100 losses, for whom it is hard to get the gumption of hope and excitement. But even then, is there not a surprise team every year? Is there not some collection of young men for whom doom was predicted who are still contending in July, August, September? The whispers of April always abound, this could be our year. It could be. The record is clean, 0-0. We are tied for first place. There’s no saying we can’t do it.
The M’s were just such a team last year. Predicted to return to the bottom of the heap in the AL West by most (okay, maybe just above Houston), they played 162 games that mattered for their season. Or 161 2/3rds, riding out the last three innings having finally been eliminated. By proving the point, they renewed the promise that even those of you out there with a hopeless band of misfits, with bad contracts and steroids suspensions and management lowering expectations, even you can revel in early April and its universal hope. Even if you like ill-fated three-letter teams like Cubs and Mets, you can lift your spirits this month and dare to dream.
Sports are objectively stupid. They take valuable energy and resources away from fixing our problems, offering little beyond the value of pure entertainment, already an overrated pursuit in our society. I have made my peace with the fact that baseball is wasteful and unhelpful and still I love it and can’t help myself. I will always pursue it, always invest time and emotion and energy better suited for nobler things into the crack of the bat and the dive of the catch and the eruption of tens of thousands as a ball clears a wall. It’s silly. It’s nostalgic and beautiful and heart-rending and strategic, but it’s also silly.
But it does offer us a model for renewal. A model for a place to find joy and rebound even in the darkest times. Sports offer us a metaphor not only for what could literally replace warfare if we came to our senses, but also for the resets that our own lives need from time to time. People can ruin you, they can squash your dignity and stomp on the things you value the most. They can trample your sense of self and punish you for your vulnerability. But they can never impede your love of a team, nor deny the gorgeous reality of that 0-0 record, all the games yet to be played, the possibility unrolling before you like a bright blue tarp on freshly mown grass.
My team is 1-0 now, the hopes redoubled by the unblemished start. Like a new car driving off the lot, that first loss goes so far in dashing these fresh spring hopes. Hold on, now. Hold a bit longer, like the balance of a yoga posture, like the tentative bloom of a flower against the frosty near-freezing chill. A loss is just a loss. 161-1 is a marvelous record, though we’re all going to lose at least 40. We always do. Grip tighter into the ball, into the hope, hold your breath if you have to. Every year is a new chance at everything you’ve ever wanted, no matter how much you’ve lost before.
Usually these days, when the media reports “unemployment was flat, but job growth was sluggish,” you all know how to translate that by now. It means that unemployment actually ticked up through people leaving the labor force, but the BLS has ways of carefully ensuring that’s invisible to the public. It’s just like their repeated phrase in the monthly unemployment report that “labor force participation has been in a narrow range of 62.7% to 62.9%,” not realizing that the difference between a tenth of a percent in that number is worth 0.15% in the actual unemployment figure.
Actual unemployment ticked up in March, to 11.56%, the highest figure in three months. The Reporting Gap, measuring the distance between the published headline figure and the actual figure that accounts for labor force departure, jumped to 6.06%, matching its all-time high, also reached in December of last year. The Gap is now 110% of reported unemployment, also an all-time high.
Here are your graphs:
Actual (red) and reported (blue) unemployment, January 2009-March 2015.
Reporting gap between actual and reported unemployment, January 2009-March 2015.
With labor force participation rates near a 40-year low, there is no real reason to believe unemployment will be under 11% anytime soon.
This is part of a continuing series on the under-reporting of unemployment in the United States of America.
“When I talk to people about sadness and depression, as I often do, one of my suggested strategies is really internalizing and absorbing good days and ‘banking’ them as antidotes against future storms of sadness. Not because they will make you less sad when the storms come, but because those good days came after other days that felt like rock-bottom before, and the resilient memory of the good days will give you hope that such good feelings can come again.
Today was one of those days. A banking day. I was incredibly productive at work and had good energy there all day, a day after having a migraine and almost going home early. I went to yoga (3rd time in 4 days), took a class that was about 80% of what I was doing at my peak and it just about destroyed me. I almost gave up halfway through, but I pushed through it and completed it and talked to the great instructor afterwards about how to do better. I felt amazing afterwards, though, healthier than I have in over 5 years. And then I went to Bring Your Own Story and “earned” (via rock-paper-scissors) the Wildcard slot to tell an old classic while hearing a lot of other great tales.
Banking this one. Remind me the next time the chips are down.”
-Facebook post, 10:47 pm, April 2, 2014
Like so many good things in my life (Brandeis, Counting Crows, David Foster Wallace), yoga was introduced to me by a girl. She was barely “a girl” in the sense that I mean it – we went on a few dates of little consequence before she made it clear she wasn’t interested romantically, but still thought I was an interesting person. It’s hard to say how much of it was that I was a few months into my marital separation and how much was that she just wasn’t into me that way, but I’m sure both played a role. We kept hanging out for most of that year, though – periodically hiking and meeting up at weekly yoga and getting the occasional meal. She was a deeply dissatisfied grad student at Rutgers who echoed my frustrations with the state of New Jersey, insisting that Buffalo, New York was more like the West and the South than it was like the East Coast. After a year, she took a leave of absence, went on a Birthright trip, made aliyah, and joined the IDF. Seeing Facebook pictures of her in the IDF uniform, toting weaponry, just months after making fun of Israeli policy, was so unsettling to me that I stopped responding to her e-mails, mostly because it reminded me too much of someone else with what I would call a “cult-follower’s personality”. I still feel bad that I didn’t respond to the e-mail she sent in the midst of this transition, questioning the speed of her changes, asking me for spiritual guidance. I just couldn’t. The ruts were too deep and painful, I didn’t have the strength. I went to yoga class, thought about it, and let it go.
I had long been into meditation, my interest first sparked by an Eastern Thought class in high school, taught by one Ken Hause, who taught me (among other crazy things) that it was safe to eat chalk, something I would later employ in a critical debate round my senior year at MIT. He was a truly crazy man, someone deeply unexpected to be found at Albuquerque Academy, and he took part of his class to teach people basic meditation practices, including pranayama breathing. I had a vivid dream of him dying in 1997, but he was alive and well as of this 2012 Journal article, which makes me happy. He seemed like one of those people that one could discover was actually partially responsible for the Earth’s rotation.
After that, I meditated for a long time, just on my own, and always felt that yoga was a little unnecessary as a guided meditation. It felt like creative writing classes always seemed – like the very nature of involving a teacher and a guidance interrupted the nature of a solitary creative exercise in the first place. How can you concentrate when someone is in there talking, telling you to concentrate? It didn’t make much sense.
But I had no real understanding of yoga until I started it, getting brought along by that girl to a grad student yoga class at Rutgers that her friend was starting up. I had no idea it was so athletic in nature, that the stretching was a kind of physical activity and advancement in itself. That the guidance was vital to learning the practice. That my body was capable of postures and balances that I never would have found on my own. It was amazing.
The class was once a week, on Tuesday nights, two blocks from debate practice and ending half an hour before it, and I quickly found that I came with a different, better energy to Tuesday night practice once I’d gotten into the yoga habit. I was calmer, less focused on my pain, more able to have that “away energy” that is so lacking in the clash and conflict of debate rounds. And I began to notice changes in myself. I developed stomach muscles for the first time in my life. I felt stronger, more flexible, more energized. It probably didn’t hurt that I was trying to bounce up from the terrifying weight of 115 pounds, the direct result of the traumas of the summer before and an early fall when I was deciding whether to stay on the planet or not. I already had a pretty typical yogi body; I just needed to add the strength.
I became reliant on this weekly endeavor, this moment to recenter my place in the universe, to feel good about existing and to stop fighting everything. I bought my own mat. I got good at crow pose, a crazy gateway to inversions where one has one’s entire body piled on one’s hands, arms fully extended, knees into elbows. I sang the praises of this concentration and focus and physicality to anyone who seemed open to it.
And then, slowly, I stopped going. I forget whether the class actually stopped or I felt sheepish about going without my ambassador friend. I had technically attended, entering the grad student lounge to which I was otherwise uninvited as her “guest” even on weeks where she didn’t make it. No one really cared and the yoga teacher welcomed me every time, but that was just the sort of thing for me to overly worry about. We don’t ever lose our grade school instincts sometimes. So I decided I could do my own home practice, that I knew enough of the moves and the order and the flow. And that was great for a while. I kept it up, sometimes 45 minutes a day, practicing even more often. And then it became 30, then 15, then 5. And then it became easy to skip.
The weird thing about yoga is that I don’t think I ever looked forward to it, but I always felt great about it afterwards. It was hard and demanding and sometimes bordering on painful. It interrupted the rest of life, wherein thoughts and arguments and internal dialogues are constantly bubbling around. I like my critical brain, I like evaluating and judging everything, trying to distill potential narratives and improvements. Yoga got in the way of all that, a big giant timeout, but one that always made me so grateful for the opportunity afterwards. I would never exactly look forward to it, but I would never skip when I was attending the group practice either. And I would often feel exuberant the rest of the night, even extending into the next day.
So I lapsed and stopped and life happened again. And that was that, until recently.
Turning 35 triggered something in me. It’s funny how people talk about age like it’s nothing, like your birthday doesn’t change anything. I think that’s true, innately, but there’s something about marking the passage of time that impacts our self-image. And 35 hit me like a ton of bricks, it felt like a real turning point. I guess it’s the birthdays ending in 0 that are supposed to make us freak out like this, but I was in a perfect place in my life when I turned 30, wouldn’t have changed anything, and couldn’t have been happier. Thirty didn’t freak me out because I felt like I’d come to the balance I’d always been hoping to find. And then, of course, everything changed overnight, and I stumbled along in ruins just trying to get through another day. In some ways, with all the twists and turns of those years in Jersey, it felt like I didn’t even come up for air until this February.
The first manifestation of this freak-out about being 35 came 7 days after the birthday, when I posted that I wanted to revisit my Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim Grand Canyon trip at 40 to mark 20 years since I first did it. I remembered a promise I’d made to myself at my last GC visit that I wanted to be a person who could always hike there, who was in sufficient shape that the beauty of the Canyon wasn’t lost to me. The day I turned 35, I was as far from that as I’ve ever been, over 160 pounds with a big gut and having spent most of the last two years sitting, either at poker tables of judging debate, not even walking to work anymore. I know that I wasn’t actually really overweight the way that I felt, but these things happen when we’re not paying attention to them and suddenly one wakes up in middle age. I’d gone through enough of a metabolism shift and readjustment at 27 to know that I don’t want that to be me. I like my naturally thin build. I like being physically active all the time. It’s easier to be happy, or okay with life, when one is playing basketball or doing yoga or even just walking regularly. And having a goal of getting back to the R2R2R trip by 2020 is focusing for that.
So it took a week where Alex was out of town (home for Spring Break) to separate me sufficiently from inertia to get down to Wild Lotus Yoga six blocks from my house and start practicing again. This was literally four and a half days ago and I’ve been three times already and I already feel like I’ve been back on the horse for months. The centeredness, the awareness, the peace, the burgeoning strength. I can’t recommend it enough. And I look like such a walking stereotype with my bright teal mat and my ponytail and my skinny arms, but sometimes tropes exist for good reason. Of course a regular yoga practice is my natural home. Its spiritual roots, its basis in India, its focus on peace and awareness and living in the moment. Yeah. It’s kind of where I always should have been.
Maybe it’s not yoga for you, though you really should try it if any of this sounds intriguing. But so much of our lives gets hijacked by obligations and time-wasters. Pretty much all of the big inventions of the last half-century – TV shows, the Internet, cell phones – bring this enormous dump of time that is the nourishing equivalent of greasy potato chips. (Yes, I’m conveying this critique to you through the Internet.) But getting onto the yoga mat or out on the trail reminds us of our purposeful animal roots. We are creatures in this lifetime, we are meant to go and do and be. Huddling in front of screens serves its purpose and has a value, if only to connect with other people. But sometimes we also must connect with the Earth itself. If only to remind ourselves that it, like us, is precious, and not merely an obstacle to getting to where we want to be.