The Invisible Power of Shame

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

Everyday miracle:  everyone in a theater is voluntarily quiet!

Everyday miracle: everyone in a theater is voluntarily quiet!

When people ask me what I want to replace violence as the main motivating force to behave in our society, I instantly reply “shame”. I think a lot of people believe that I’m kidding when I say this. I am not kidding. Shame is an incredibly powerful tool that, when wielded properly, brings out our better selves at almost every turn. I would argue this is because it operates on the basis of our deeper conscience, which is fundamentally tied to a very deep sense of right and wrong. If you’re willing to go there, I think this conscience itself is often, if not innately, tied to the divine.

The friend I call Drew Tirrell was here about a month and a half ago and we spent half a day arguing about “structural violence” vs. what I would call “actual violence”. It’s important here to recognize that I think a whole mess of things are wrong with the world (scroll down through a few posts if you don’t believe me). There’s inequality and vestiges of imperialism everywhere you look, people eat animals and abuse them along the way, people are turned into materialist hoarders rather than harmonious cooperators. The list goes on for several pages that I won’t indulge in now. But physical violence, for me, is the king of all ills, the one that this planet seems most designed to teach us is wrong. And I would argue, and did argue with Tirrell, that this is simply a priori. But if pushed to make utilitarian-style arguments for a fundamentally means-based issue, I think that violence is basically the only thing we’re incapable of reacting to rationally. Not only does it do immense direct physical and emotional harm upfront, but it is innately cyclical, stripping free will, triggering our fight-or-flight response, and coercing us into our worst possible selves. Given that our greatest gifts are our free will and rationality, it’s easy to see why I think this is so wrong.

I think a lot of people have erred over the years by saying that to overcome violence, we must all expunge anger from our hearts. That the only way to achieve non-violence is to be free of all ill will, all negative emotions. You could argue (and many have) that the only reason I disagree is because I have a lot of anger, that I carry the hurts and wrongs of the past and have been wrestling with a deep-seated propensity to defensiveness and anger since I was at most nine years old. But I just don’t think it’s realistic, on this planet at this time, for human beings to eradicate all their anger, all their ill wishes. Emotions have never seemed like an arena where people can exhibit much control, whereas actions are a realm in which complete control is possible. Difficult, often, but possible. This is a big part of why I refrain from mind-altering substances, to maintain maximum control over actions, whatever inferno may be raging in my heart or mind.

Basically, I see it as a matter of priorities. Having anger in one’s heart is probably objectively worse than only feeling love all the time. But on the scale of problems we face as a species right now, this is roughly 372nd, while physical violence is pretty clearly #1. So we should probably table #372 for a couple centuries while we get the top five sorted. Which is not to say that it isn’t great if you can make progress on things lower down the list. But it seems silly to worry about them in a world of drone strikes, occupations, organized militaries, and all the other hallmarks of violence so familiar to our condition.

Which brings us to shame. People think violent coercion is the only thing keeping us from all going out and fulfilling our basest hedonistic desires through wanton violence and oppression. No doubt that the threat of violence can be an effective deterrent, and often is. More often, it’s a really ineffective deterrent, which is why the history of human societies is so littered with revolutions, rebellions, and uprisings, and about 99% of them are violent in nature. When you coerce someone through violence, direct or implied, you are subjugating them, making them bend to your will. You are overpowering them. The reason they refrain from doing what you are preventing is that they feel weaker, less capable, and dominated. Perhaps only in 1984 have we ever seen an example where this results in a person actually feeling good about this coercion. And that required so much torture, physical and psychological, that the person who emerged was probably not really the same as the person who went in to the Ministry of Love in the first place. (Uh, spoiler alert, I guess?)

Shame, on the other hand, appeals to someone’s better self. Yes, it is not completely pure. It does make people feel bad about themselves and their actions sometimes. That said, I think pretty much all corrective advice does this. For someone conscientious or who cares about their behavior, it’s pretty hard to tell them to do something better without making them feel bad that they didn’t in the first place. Maybe some folks are more at home with themselves and being corrected than I am, but I think it’s fairly universal that there’s some upwelling of regret or shame in all correction. It’s that little spur of negative feeling or memory that reminds you to do better next time. The little pulse of regret to make you reconsider your inclinations that would lead to the same outcome when you see that situation again.

Shame is the primary tool at work in all non-violent revolutions. Gandhi and King shamed the occupying British and the dominating racists, holding the lens of public scrutiny up to their brutality and getting them to voluntarily withdraw and stand down. That’s the thing about shame – it doesn’t force you to change. It gives you a strong strong encouragement, but the mechanism of that encouragement is rooted in your own conscience. Or, at worst, the judgment of others, and humanity’s collective conscience. There are many who argue that our consciences are developed as learned behaviors, that they have no innate sense of justice, that if we are raised in a society where people molest their children and eat their grandmothers alive, their conscience will tell them these things are right. The examples of Gandhi and King debunk this myth, however, for the British and Southerners were raised in a particular order, with a set of beliefs that made them superior to these upstarts who wanted to show them another way of doing things. If one’s conscience were merely learned, they would never have been able to back down or admit the error of their ways – they would have gone to their graves believing it was right to beat people with sticks and ravage them with bullets and dogs and feeling no shame or remorse. And sure, not everyone backed down voluntarily or the first, second, tenth time. But in the end, the intuitive power of shame elicited better selves and most of those people died deeply sorry for their role in oppression.

But shame is not just in play in revolutions. Shame is in fact much more powerfully and subtly in play in most of the actions which keep everyday society ordered. Plays, for example. Presentations. Yoga classes, like the one I attended last night, my first in over three years (and long overdue). Regular classes. Planes, trains, automobiles. At every turn, these events could be spoiled by people making a scene, screaming obscenities or making wildly inappropriate gestures. But this almost never happens. It’s not because it’s not tempting to do these things – I would argue there’s a very strong primal pull to spoil sacred moments of our society with disruption, if only to see what would happen, if only to feel the power that anyone has to do so. The desire to scream in the middle of a moment of silence, to be the one exception to the rule, is sometimes breathtaking. But almost no one ever does, because of shame.

And shame is probably too negative a word to strictly describe that phenomenon. There’s something deeper and more positive, a kind of collective spirit. The reason I don’t scream in the middle of such silences has less to do with the fear of shameful repercussion than it does with appreciation of that moment of pure effortless harmony in which we are all collectively engaged. People like to think of humans as obstinate and unable to be corralled, innately selfish, greedy, and naturalistic. But that’s garbage. Every time we all attend a play and no one makes a sound, every time we all stand in a line without mobbing the front of it, every time we listen to a debate round without interrupting, we are cooperating on a very high level. We don’t think about these things often because they are so common, but these represent levels of collective effort that demonstrate a more communal society is more than possible.

And maybe this takes more work for me than it does for most people. I’ve never been quite sure how common the instincts I wrestle with are. When I acted frequently in plays, peaking at the local theater as Oliver two straight seasons in a hybrid play of “Oliver” and “A Christmas Carol”, I was almost constantly fighting with a voice in my head that described the power I held over the audience and how much fun it would be to smash it. There was an almost audible naysayer in the back of my mind telling me to shatter the fourth wall, to swear or to say “you are all just watching a play” in the middle of my lines. I never once did it, never even stumbled over a line with this temptation, but that voice has never left me. Hundreds of competitive debate rounds in high school, hundreds more in college, practice rounds, presentations and speeches – that voice is never far from my consciousness. Any time I have people in total thrall, most on pindrop, in full command of my words and the audience, that’s when the voice is at its loudest, telling me to just try chaos.

I’ve tried talking to people about this with mixed results. Many people relate at some level or another, people describe it (and I did in one of my books) as the instinct to drive a car off the road in the middle of an otherwise unfettered journey. When I told my college debate coach, Greg, how much this haunted me in my debate career, he expressed complete shock and said there was no one he worried about this with less. If anything, I think it’s because that struggle is so practiced for me that he worries so little – my obsession with controlling my actions leads to an exaggerated confidence in the defenses holding at all times. People don’t realize, often, that I selfishly desire violence and react in anger like anyone – the only difference is my commitment to controlling these desires.

And maybe it was just a giving in to that voice that made Andreas Lubitz take his plane down a notch. Maybe he was constantly telling himself that he’d pull up at the last minute, that he just wanted to see how much power he really had at that moment and he would call the whole thing off. Who knows, maybe he intended to do that and just miscalculated. My goal here not being to exonerate or excuse Lubitz’ deplorable actions in any way, but just to speculate on human complexity and how much our safety and good will depends on the willful denial of self-control, all the time.

I know there are myriad counter-arguments to the shame thing. The most prevalent being that shame has often been utilized to teach us things that are wrong, to prevent us from taking good corrective actions. Shame has been levied against women, subjugated races, gays and lesbians, and all manner of the oppressed. Shame is a tool that has been misused and mistreated to bring people down, to prevent people from speaking out, to subvert consciences rather than extoll them. People have been made to feel bad about their innate characteristics, their beliefs, their true identities, their feelings. People have faced years of therapy, sometimes fruitless, in an effort to expunge the shame they feel for bad reasons.

I have two key responses:

1. It’s a comparative debate, folks. Shame, like any tool, has been misused. But compared to physical violence and the threat thereof? No comparison. Would you rather be ridiculed for your beliefs or shot for them? Yes, ideally we will get to a world where no one even needs the threat of feeling bad to keep from murdering or stealing or oppressing. But we’re a long way from there, and I think shame is a good intermediate step between violence and us all just being that good all the time.

2. The problem with past instances of shame has not been with the means, but with the value structure surrounding them. I don’t think there’s anything innately bad about feeling bad about doing something wrong. The problem is when one feels that way and hasn’t actually done something wrong. We can regret the long history of LGBT oppression in our society, but we still want homophobes to feel ashamed of being biased. Don’t we? If not, what’s your mechanism for getting racists and homophobes to reconsider? Isn’t most of the country trying to publicly shame Indiana right now? Aren’t most of you applauding that? If we don’t have shame, getting people to reconsider their selfishness and look at others as humans and feel bad about wrong actions, what do we have left to get people to confront injustice?

It’s better if the shame comes with the possibility of forgiveness, to be sure. The shame of shunning and total exclusion, on a societal level, should probably be reserved for murder and rape and the most heinous behaviors. And even then, hey, maybe the Scandinavian model that you can eventually be welcomed back into the fold is best. But if we’re going to build a world around absolute violence or absolute shame, I’ll take the latter any time. It’s not even that big a switch. Most of your day, you behave better more from the threat of shame than the threat of violence. Now we just have to extend that privilege to Syria, Congo, and the poorer neighborhoods of the rest of the world too.


Zero Sum Games and Conservativism

Categories: A Day in the Life, Hypothetically Speaking, It's the Stupid Economy, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , , ,

Helpful advice from friendly people... or an offer to trade places?

Helpful advice from friendly people… or an offer to trade places?

I’m working on the budding theory that, if you can afford to quit your job, it may be at least a little immoral to keep it. Unless, I guess, you’re much better at it than someone else would be and it does good for society.

Whenever someone tells someone else “get a job” or says “they should get a job”, you should ask them who they want to stop working in order to make that possible. After all, it’s not like there are a bunch of unfilled job positions lying around out there with no one bothering to apply. If they are upset that someone is on welfare, they should realize that they are just asking that person to trade places with someone else. Who will, you know, be on welfare then.

Unless, of course, that person has enough money that they can get by without welfare. Meaning that they should probably quit and let someone who needs the money take over.

If you don’t believe this, then it’s pretty important to admit that either (a) the idea that one’s survival or quality of life should be tied to the happenstance of having a job is silly or (b) people are fundamentally unequal and those on the bottom rungs deserve to die for it. While many conservatives seem to believe in a dog-eat-dog approach, I don’t think that many will actually say that those who happen to have employment deserve to live more than those who don’t. And while there are safety nets, it’s these nets that conservatives so often rail against as increasing laziness. What it’s actually doing is compensating for the unequal math that ensures there are not enough jobs for everyone.

I guess this raises the fundamental question of what the purpose of a job is. If the job is to fulfill the function of that job, then great. Stop tying it to people’s survival and let the people who are best do those given jobs. If the job is to enable people to eat in exchange for their labor, then they should probably all be distributed to the people who most need to eat.

I guess if we could just directly control the number of jobs in the society, then this would be a little less of a dichotomous and contentious issue. Of course, that’s not really in the plan with all the capitalism and the treating “The Economy” like a mystical weather phenomenon. The economy doesn’t exist, of course. It’s a series of decisions about our society that we’ve ceded to chance. It’s like if we had the option to create a system of weather where none existed before. Bring hurricanes to Kansas, say, or tornadoes to the Bahamas. Just to see if it motivated people a little, or sometimes ruined everything for no particularly good reason. And then we could have a Chief Meteorologist go on TV and say “we’ve decided to raise storm door allotments for Jamaica, just in case they get more tornadoes. Also, we’re going to all start facing west and breathing heavily to deter hurricanes from coming in from that direction.”

I’m being slightly facetious. But probably not as facetious as you think.

What I guess an actual conservative might say is that everyone who can afford to quit their job should do so and start a business and then create more jobs. Except that to actually make statements like that, with all that “should” and moral implication, would probably rankle the conservative’s sense of freedom. I guess this was the point that Ayn Rand was trying to make all along, advocating for the radical freedom to burn the world down just because you’ve exploited the economy sufficiently to be able to corner all the matches and outlaw fire departments. Which I guess would be all right if ability to exploit the economy were some kind of grand test of character or strength or intelligence or worth.

Instead, it’s mostly just a roulette wheel to which we’ve ascribed enormous import. But at a certain point, we all basically agreed to stop even trying to spin it, to just let the thing turn and turn and turn on its own and hope we can sometimes predict its trajectory to angle the ball in the right spot. And meanwhile a few people get 35-to-1 payouts while everyone else is going broke.

At least when you’re standing at the actual roulette wheel, no one tells you to go get a job.

How did we get to this point? I know that fascism was really abhorrent and I know that the people calling themselves communists were mostly fascists, but is the right response really to just make people feel bad for losing a game of musical chairs where the number of chairs is designed to always diminish? Or at best stay stagnant? To have people’s guesses about what is a likely to increase or decrease in value determine every aspect of their quality of life? I mean, really, did anyone think very hard about this system at all?

There’s a way to reel it back in and at least get some control of it. We have to stop talking about the economy like it’s a thing. There are not bad economies or good economies. There are systems which make people thrive and cooperate and build what needs to be built (and avoid building what’s unnecessary). And there are systems which make people fight and cheat and steal and spend a great deal of time and energy on things that are useless. We choose these systems, we design and implement them. It’s when we believe that the systems are choosing us that we have the apex of a problem.

If the economy is bad, maybe it’s because the very notion of an economy is bad and we need to find a new system. And if it’s good, why is it designed to leave some people out, always? And what do you suggest we do with those people? Are you willing to trade places with them because you can afford to? If not, why not? Is this really a system of betterment and improvement of the society or is just about finding an excuse to behave as you might in the wild? A wild beyond our wildest actual observations, with interest rates and stock prices storming over the Sahara like a great tsunami of chaos, ready to wash away anyone and everyone in its wake.


Senior Retreat and the Infinite Sadness

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Long Tunnel, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , , , ,

The memorable lake in the middle of the Conference Center in Glorieta, NM.  I am haunted by this lake.

The memorable lake in the middle of the Conference Center in Glorieta, NM. I am haunted by this lake.

My image of God isn’t really an image at all. I think we’re all to an extent overly influenced by religious, Biblical, and societal depictions of the divine as a white-haired bearded father sitting on a cloud and looking vaguely ornery. No doubt Michelangelo bears some of the blame for this, but the Sistine Chapel probably was just utilizing what was popular at the time. As metaphors go, an impossibly old father who is really grumpy about you staying out too late again is probably a good depiction of the Judeo-Christian assumptions, replete with the requisite wrath to take vengeance on anyone who would mess with “His” people. It’s no wonder so many people have a falling out with their birth religion and throw the whole notion of higher powers and divinity out altogether. Who wants another voice in your head telling you to get home by curfew?

It’s hard for me to really envision God as anything physical. Being bound by the corporeal just doesn’t seem very godlike, frankly, though I guess the early scholars got really caught up in that “in His own image” business. It’s hard for us to relate to something aphysical, certainly, so I guess believing that a divine being gets emotional and stomps (H)is feet just like we do would make us feel more comfortable beseeching this entity. But there’s nothing I can picture about a viable or worthwhile God that would exist physically… it’s far too limiting and strange. This probably has something to do with the fact that I don’t, deep down, believe anything exists physically. I believe we are living in a grand metaphor. That these physical lives are for those of us (hey, that’s everybody here!) too unsophisticated to understand aphysical realities, so we need it all spelled out for us in bodies and colors and sounds.

This is not to say that I see God as unemotional. Indeed, there is one emotion that I think God resonates with, resounds within, and for many practical purposes is. The problem of evil has never bothered me because the only order to the universe that makes sense to me is one wherein sentient beings are given absolute free will (within, I suppose, certain rule-based limitations). We are suffering because we make each other suffer and the goal is to figure out how we can all get along and sort things such that suffering is minimized (though I don’t think that’s actually the ultimate goal – happiness/suffering is not the dichotomy that I think matters most, which sets me apart from I guess 95% of current philosophical people and 99% of current unphilosophical ones). The challenge of life is to make moral progress without a cheat-sheet or knowing the rules. There are a lot of clues and I would argue God is omnipresent in dropping hints of varying levels of subtlety, but at the end of the day, we have to figure it out. And this collective nature of figuring it out is, as I often say, why we’re not all born on our own planet. We need each other and a lot of what we’re supposed to learn about on Earth involves cooperation and compassion. A child born into poverty may not have the free will to get herself out of it, but we collectively have the free will to ensure no children are born into poverty, or that those who are still have choices in their life.

And this is what we squander constantly. Which is why I sense the emotion that God is perpetually consumed by is sadness. Benevolent Sorrow has long been my catchphrase for the divine, and it’s really hard for me to imagine anything else. Because God clearly cares, but is limited from intervening by the choice to offer free will. (Thumbnail argument: lack of free will spoils moral choice, making life meaningless – I can walk through this in another post, but it’s pretty straightforward.) And it’s clear that we all have the capability to spend our time the right way and make the right choices to make a much better and more moral existence for all of us. But we don’t do that, over and over and over again. Our world is still largely governed by fear, hatred, misunderstanding, and greed, all of which result in violence, ignorance (in many senses), and neglect. It always surprises me when people talk about depression as disordered thinking – I find it very odd to look at human history or the state of the planet, take it seriously, and not be depressed. And there are those of you out there who believe this is the problem with depression and think I have a disease that needs treatment, but let’s be serious. Can you really get out of your own first world bubble, consider what’s going on planetarily, and not get sad? If you can, I think you have the disorder.

So this omnibenevolent sadness is out there, coursing through the universe, constantly urging us to bend back toward a level of compassion and seeing beyond ourselves that humans are so reluctant to embrace in the known course of history so far. How could you care that much and be so limited in your ability to help and not be sad? Especially when the lessons to learn and the choices to make are so simple. Don’t beat each other about the head and torso with sticks. Care about each other, even if the other people are far away or different from you. Keep trying and changing to get better.

I am not trying to stand on some great moral high ground here. While I have made a lot of progress with the violence question since discerning its paramount importance in what we’re trying to learn here, I am constantly berating myself for shortcomings in how I use my time, money, and influence for the betterment of the species. I go to sports games and play poker and play video games and eat out when I should probably be spending all of that time and energy and money on refugees and war-torn regions. This gets used as a throwaway APDA argument all the time to justify that it’s okay to make these selfish-seeming choices, but I always relate more to the core of the actual argument – it’s probably not okay to care more about your own society and mindless happiness than these other people. But I do it anyway. And as close as I ever get to changing is to periodically feel infinitely guilty and ashamed and occasionally make half-hearted resolutions to sell all my possessions and move to an aid camp in Syria (the country has been different in the past and will be different in the future as geopolitical winds ruin one land after another).

It is this kind of sadness, this deep, soul-well kind of pit, that I fell into in the crisp fall of 1997 in Glorieta, New Mexico. Albuquerque Academy, the elite private school aspiring to New Hampshire that I attended for 8th-12th grade, holds several ritual events as rites of passage for its students, but the two most memorable are probably Philmont (a 100-hour camping trip for 9th graders at the Boy Scout ranch there) and Senior Retreat (a three?-day series of workshops, skits, and free time traditionally held at the Baptist Conference Center in Glorieta). This is right near the opening of school, I think in September, and both events are held as bonding exercises for the cohorts of 150 students in their passage of time together in the pressure-cooker that is this prep school education.

My own Senior Retreat took place as I was first confronting the demise of the first serious relationship of my life, the one with the person usually called “PLB” on this website, the one where I fell in love and was engaged to someone who was exhibiting the traits of a pathological liar for the whole year, the one where the relationship ended via a melodramatic e-mail from her father telling me to stay away when the last words I’d heard from the girl herself were “I will love you forever and we’re still getting married.” The web of lies and deceit and nonsense are not necessary to revisit in painstaking detail at this juncture, but this was the first real time I’d had to spend in close confines where she might be since she’d transferred out of all the classes we’d signed up for together on day two of school. A high school is large enough to avoid someone mostly, but a quiet mountain retreat for just your class is decidedly less so. And seeing her there, the same person I’d shared so much with, cold, unfeeling, anonymous, ignoring, and illegal to approach – it was too much.

My friends were also in this incredibly awkward position at the time. I’d been pretty bad to them much of our junior year, as people in the throes of their first serious relationship often are to friends who have been close for years. Early relationships bring this all-consuming sense of importance that shifts uses of time, usually dramatically, and I’d blown off countless invitations to hang out in favor of spending basically all of my time with my girlfriend. When she unceremoniously (and deceptively, and embarrassingly) cut me loose, I went crawling back to my friends for support, apologetically and apoplectically. They took me back with a forgiveness that was wholly undeserved, but for which I am forever grateful. But they just didn’t know how to wrestle with the depth of my despair.

This all came to a head at the Senior Retreat, where aside from one joint victory wherein we designed the winning (and ultimately unprinted, for it was deemed inappropriate) design for our senior T-shirt, I was despondent pretty much the whole time. I think I was holding up okay the first day, but by nightfall, was starting to spiral hard and fast. I remember there being skits performed by the popular crowd, skits that lampooned relationships at one juncture, and I just couldn’t take it. I couldn’t handle how carefree and young and boisterous everyone was when my world had ended. I tore out of the performance and went to stand by the lake, contemplating the depth of my misery.

Like most of my sadnesses, it didn’t just stay about me for long. If we are to picture outbursts and breakdowns of total sadness as a mineshaft opening up into brief free-fall, mine are often little chutes that then connect with the very deep wells of the larger sadness of the universe quite quickly. Feeling sorry for oneself only get so far when one quickly realizes how much other people are suffering in less recoverable ways, and especially how little one’s own self is doing to prevent and fix that reality. And then it’s just free-fall, every little injustice and wrong and rejection and failure in one’s own life and all Existence competing for top billing. When I get this sad, I cry inconsolably, and when I do that, I often end up hyperventilating, and it usually takes losing most of the feeling in my face to get me to a state where I can stop descending, can stabilize, can be numb enough to consider sleep.

For some reason, that first night in Glorieta, I couldn’t hit that stage. I kept cycling back from hyperventilation to sobbing, on loop. And when I was too drained and exhausted to manifest more tears, it was just despondent walking through the dark dark trees and rims of the lake, periodically bumping revelers who just sort of glared, sometimes trailed by my friends who were so so worried.

I have vague clear glimpses of moments of that night, including a tragicomic scene wherein three of my friends practically physically pushed my friend (and first girlfriend, who I’d callously dumped to date PLB) Alisha to talk to me and she tersely told me she had no idea why they thought she could help. I’m sure my group of friends, all male, thought a female influence would be able to get through in some way, or maybe it was her long-standing interest in psychology, but her mood at the moment was not amused and she confronted me with a bootstrappy kind of tough love that I would have to dig myself out of this if I wanted to. I was fine with that. I had no interest in digging, much less ascending. I was going all the way down that night.

I learned later that shortly before this happened, my friends had actually rallied a small search party for me since I had been missing since the skits and been seen crying by somebody and couldn’t be found and curfew was coming. I don’t remember being missing, but their worry was certainly justified, because a lot of my interest in the lake that night was one of longing, of manifesting my emotional reality physically, of sinking and going numb and never having to feel again.

I tapped into this feeling a little bit last night, some small combination of sad songs and late nights and feelings of moral inadequacy. There was no clear and present catalyst, really, unless one counts the sense of waste and loss and silliness that accompanies losing a poker tournament. I am not alone right now, though the feelings of rejection and the insanity of lost love are never far from my heart. But the world is still hurting and God is still sad and I can relate. And sometimes that’s all it takes.

I have never really talked much to anyone about Senior Retreat. I had a morning after the night that felt much the same – I think I woke up at four or five in the morning in the pre-dawn to go stand at that lake again and listen to sad music and try to will myself to break my promise to myself from seven years earlier and not survive. But I never got more than a toe in the water and here I am today. Maybe because I think that it would just be one more waste, one more thing for God and others to be sad about.

Harnessing the power of that sadness, of that feeling of infinite failure and disappointment, without it crushing you completely, it’s a dangerous game. It’s one I’m not even close to mastering, any more than I can capture the first rush of blood to the brain that precedes a migraine and live in the improved thinking before the pain sets in and nullifies all that progress. It’s feelings like that which compelled the holy folks of past generations to renounce the world and devote themselves to service or contemplation. I keep telling myself I can do more good as a member of the conventional world and use my gifts to influence others here instead. But I never know for sure. It’s so easy for it to sound and feel like an excuse, especially when there are sports games and poker tournaments and other hedonistic pursuits.

I’m sorry. I’m so so sorry.


Droning On

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

Good question.

Good question.

Planes are in the news this week, though the one getting most of the attention was manned. People are desperately trying to discern the motive for 27-year-old German Andreas Lubitz’ decision to calmly place his passenger jet into a gradual dive, lock out his co-pilot, and slam the machine into the side of a mountain. Since Lubitz is a white non-Muslim, he enjoys the privilege in the American media of having thoughts and feelings instead of being a “rabid monster” for whom even trying to determine an explanation for his acts is considered abhorrent. Instead, in the new racism and religionism of the 21st century, he gets full credit for having a brain and discernible motives. Disliking your life is considered rational or at least explainable, while disliking the West and its ongoing robot-war on the homes and villages of Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria is just so irrational we can’t even begin to fathom it.

Of course, no one is going to defend Lubitz’ decision to take down the otherwise very safe Lufthansa jet, which is where the mental health piece comes into the equation. We are at this fascinating crossroads in the West where everyone decries the “stigma” surrounding depression and what are perceived to be mental health challenges, yet every time a white person kills people en masse, the purported solution is to make sure anyone who has ever been counseled for depression in their past has no rights whatsoever. By framing every mass-shooting or suicide plane as an issue of lack of mental health interventions, trotting out the history of counseling or diagnoses of the perpetrator, we are actually further stigmatizing not only depression but seeking treatment for it. Like so many policies around mental health, all of the decisions and perspectives are authored by people who consider themselves completely happy and sane and consider depression, let alone suicidalism, to be this bizarre foreign landscape to be approached at 30,000 feet.

The problem is that, in a post-9/11 world, the only reaction anyone has to unfortunate events is that they must be prevented, either through violence or restrictions on freedom. If the people to whom we cannot ascribe motivation or rationality threaten our safety, we must slaughter them like the animals we perceive them to be. If the people to whom we ascribe a broken or mentally ill motivation threaten our safety, we must limit their abilities such that they do not control firearms, jet planes, motor vehicles, or perhaps their own decisions at all. The idea of not having perfect and utter control over the absolute physical safety of every man, woman, and child in society simply does not occur to us.

This despite the fact that the only reason Lubitz was able to lock out his co-pilot and commit to the fatal descent of his plane was because of post-9/11 overreactions. And the fact that everyone involved with airline security and safety is saying as plainly as they can that there is nothing that can be done to prevent a suicidal pilot from taking 149 others with him on his self-inflicted death spiral.

You can bet that the West will not take that for an answer, no matter how true it is. Already, the drumbeat is up to turn heavily autopiloted flights into fully automated ones, to transform jets into drones. Leaving out the fact that the main reason for placing live pilots in the cockpit is because they have a vested interest in the plane’s survival – namely, it is tied to their own. And the occasional suicidal individual aside, this is a pretty good motivator for most people. It is perhaps challenging to imagine a pilot like Sully landing a plane in the Hudson from an air-conditioned room in Nevada. Not necessarily because he lacks the skill or even the interest in saving the plane, but because protocols in that kind of detachment become about risk-minimization and on-paper probabilities. It takes someone motivated by their own survival instinct to have the creativity to actually get out of these kinds of harrowing safety hazards that planes can create.

The world of drones is all about replacing reality with on-paper probabilities, with disastrous consequences. The other plane-related news of the week is the somewhat surprising move of a Saudi-led coalition of Arab nations to start bombing the daylights out of Yemen, a nation recently taken by rebel forces. The instability and deterioration of the national situation in Yemen is trumped only by that in other targets of drone strikes – Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. You can ignore the testimony of villagers living under the constant threat of unseen death-by-sky and merely examine the anger and anguish of those who are actually hit by something, whether they were working against the US in the first place or not. Can you even personally imagine living in a nation that is threatened daily by the possibility of an American blitz of invisible robot planes that kill in an instant? Can you contemplate the fury you would feel about this situation and its perpetrators? We were ready to kill everyone and eliminate all rights in society after one 9/11 event. And while the daily scale of magnitude is smaller, the constant and persistent outrage of unwarranted attack goes on and on and on. An America under this deluge probably would have lobbed nukes at every other nation by now.

And yet we persist in being unable to understand why this practice would anger anyone or create more enemies for the nation doing it. It’s bombing the village to save it all over again. How can they not understand that the rubble we are creating and the bodies we strew mean FREEDOM?

As is predictable, things have gone completely to hell in these nations in a way unseen in un-droned nations (with the possible exception of the Democratic Republic of Congo). I listened this morning as a series of NPR announcers fumbled over the tangled conglomerate of alliances and proxies and how the US is de facto supporting Iran’s opposition to ISIS in Iraq and Syria while de facto opposing Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen. The problem is that indiscriminately bombing people who disagree with you just creates chaos on a massive scale and does nothing to stabilize a region or improve the outcomes for its people. It does exponentially increase rage and tragedy, sowing opposition to the authors of this mayhem. No matter how much you hate the local rebels or ISIS or anyone else, you’re never going to forgive the US for killing your family inadvertently in their effort to wage that war. And that’s giving the US maximal benefit of the doubt on intelligence and sincerity, which is completely unearned in these theaters.

The question always arises of whether it is malignancy or stupidity that is the primary factor behind these decisions by the US and its droning army. Does the US subversively recognize that the only way to maintain power over an unpredictable group of foreign nations is to keep them in a state of perpetual chaos and war? Does it want war without end to fuel growth in the military-industrial complex, constantly generating new threats of failed states that require even more bombing into submission? Or does the US genuinely think the rain of explosives is helping the situation, that it will eventually convince people to love the nation that brought all this death and destruction from the too-high sky?

In either case, malignancy and stupidity are things we should stop. No matter how afraid we feel, no matter how much we want to control every tiny little factor that could limit our safety. Because this obsession with safety is making us less safe. Killing everyone who disagrees with us on foreign soil just makes more people want to kill us. Locking up or limiting job prospects for everyone who gets really sad just deters people who are sad from getting help. And makes it more likely, not less, that they will snap someday and take a plane into a mountain. These things you think you’re doing to make the world safer, out of fear, are just manifesting what you fear the most.

The only way to live more safely is to accept that your own safety is not something you might be able to control. Every time you get into a motor vehicle, be it plane, train, or automobile, you have to cede some of this control. Heck, every time you leave your house, you have to. And that’s okay. Other people can make you unsafe if they really want to. But only you can make yourself live a life that is not so governed by this threat that it’s not worth living anyway.


Ted Cruz and the Elaborate Troll Hypothesis

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

Presidential material, being forged in the hot fires of APDA!

Presidential material, being forged in the hot fires of APDA!

People simply cannot get enough Ted Cruz these days.

The Senator, one of two representing the state of Texas, perennial hotbed of Presidential candidates successful and otherwise, recently became the first official candidate to take the office of the Presidency in 2017. He’s also one of two Senators representing the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA), the hyper-competitive debate league on which I competed for four years and coached for five. Chris Coons (D-CT) is the other, a former teammate of David Foster Wallace, who he described in the latter’s recent biography as having “literally the worst delivery I have ever heard.”

A huge portion of my circle of friends has been following the rise of Cruz as a model for what APDA debaters can become, though few share his particular ideology. But the increasing question, raised by some of even his teammates and former friends, is whether he shares his particular ideology. As a passionate spokesman for rabid conservatism to the point of alienating many Republicans, Cruz has always been a polarizing figure. But he’s also, at root, a debater, making him capable of employing passionate and rabble-rousing rhetoric without necessarily believing it personally. Could this all be an elaborate troll?

The question of whether a serious candidate for the President of the United States is just trolling us with his beliefs may sound far-fetched, but you have to understand the world of APDA debate. There are many things that I love about the debate circuit as a culture and debate as a format for learning and skills development, but there are also a ton of things that disappoint. Two quick reference points for an introduction might be the Judging Bias Report, just released today by the Women’s Initiative, and the beloved Slate piece on Ted Cruz’s time on the circuit and in college. After the latter article made the rounds in August 2013, a former colleague of Cruz’s on the circuit posted on a Facebook thread that he didn’t think Ted Cruz believed a word of what he said – he just wanted to have the power, influence, and prestige that come with political position.

When I joined the Brandeis debate team, the team President at the time (whose name I won’t disclose since I’m not trying to use this space to impugn his character for Google) was an abrasive, egotistical leader with a true gift for public speaking. He was intimidating, off-putting, and sometimes corrupt, but also served as a mentor for me and personally vested time and energy into my improvement. He had a very successful debate career indeed, taking Brandeis to the National finals and winning top speaker at that tournament, and went on to Yale Law School as expected. Then, quite suddenly, he was born again and became a devout evangelical Christian. He disavowed his prior habits, like getting high with friends and mockingly reading passages of the Bible aloud for amusement, becoming suddenly quite interested in the fate of everyone’s soul. He kept his Wiccan wife, though I wasn’t close enough to them at the time to know whether she converted also, and soon entered seminary. Most all of his friends were baffled and even more questioned the sincerity of this conversion.

My assumption is that he was doing it for political gain. He had desired high political office since birth near as I could tell, but he had openly expressed fear that his Jewish heritage would put a cap on the trajectory of his ascent in America. A sincere-seeming conversion, vouched for by his friends, is certainly far less compromising and transformative than much of what people go through to get ahead in the arena of US politics. By this point, he’d unfriended me from Facebook and we hadn’t spoken in years, so I was never able to do personal investigation. It’s possible that he really means it and that I’m to be criticized for questioning his sincerity. But the consensus of those who spent the most time with him in those years on APDA is that this was just another in a series of shrewd political calculations with the goal of rising to the top.

And herein lies one of the critical problems with APDA, though it’s hardly exclusive to said circuit. It makes rising to the top and end in itself. Ideally, our politicians would seek office in the old-fashioned ideal of the notion – to serve the people, or at least to work for an ideal or a set of principles. To have a goal, an achievement or a belief structure in mind, and then set about acquiring the power necessary to enact such ideals. In the brief fanciful moments wherein I entertain the idea of an America where I’d be electable (despite a long history of criticizing the country, its history, and its current policies), it is this kind of candidacy that I envision: stumping for pacifism, equality, and the maintenance society. I won’t say that there’s no thrill in the idea of being a personage, of having fame and influence, but it’s pretty much all desirous as a means to an ends of making the world a more moral place that takes better care of its people.

No one really thinks this is what Ted Cruz is after. Not among those who knew him best back in the day, and certainly not even in those who follow him now. Like so many people, he wants to be President to be President. And unfortunately, there’s probably something about APDA that trains people to think this way. The place is an elite and competitive crucible of some of the brightest young minds in the country, replete with anger, egos, entitlement, and various pressures to win at any cost. Tons of otherwise civilized and reasonable people become transformed into cutthroat competitors in the refraction of this forge, running unfair cases against close friends and even lovers, employing vitriol and ridicule to shame their opponents, even resorting to bald appeals to their superior reputation as being deserving of victory. It’s not that everyone does this, or that anyone does this all the time, but APDA is such a purely intellectual playground that is so insular and self-promotional that the stakes of any given round or tournament can sometimes feel like life and death. Or, perhaps, like the Presidency itself.

The background of APDA’s top competition, be it the wealthy establishment or mere intellectual brilliance or rhetorical firepower, bolsters the notion that what’s happening week to week at any tournament truly matters. This is a circuit that annually asks a series of “Family Feud” style questions about itself and the topic of “Most likely to be President” is taken seriously as an actual prediction of future success. The Ivy League is well represented and has often dominated APDA competition, but upstart schools like Brandeis or Rutgers or Boston University have enjoyed great success as so many of APDA’s alumni have gone on to fame, fortune, or preparation to make influential decisions for the country. Whether there’s something about a competitive debate league that makes one more likely to lead in the future is uncertain but likely. Whether there’s something about this debate league in particular that leads people to pursue success for its own sake using the tools acquired on the circuit is pretty definite.

Any debate format where one doesn’t get to choose what one is defending or advocating all the time is going to force people to be more open-minded and, sometimes, insincere in using fiery rhetoric to express beliefs one disagrees with. I was disheartened after a public demonstration round my senior year when a novice told me that I’d convinced him of the morality of the draft, something I disagree with so vehemently that I’d refused to register for the Selective Service and nearly lost my financial aid and ability to go to college over it. But the opposing team had thought it would be cute to make me defend my nemesis system in front of a couple hundred new debaters and I convinced at least one to join the side I was defending, at the peril of what I think is right. Admittedly, I think this practice is still incredibly valuable as an intellectual exercise and learning tool, but it was hard on that day to not feel like I was undermining something fundamental about what I believe.

The hubris that accompanies APDA is also worth noting here, fueling the habit of people who ruthlessly pursue power for the sake of lording it over others. Note that said demonstration round described above was held on September 14, 2001 in New York City, at the opening tournament of the year, a tournament designated for first-year debaters who had just had their college experience defined by 9/11. Despite the assumption that there would be more attacks in the US and soon, APDA decided to hold this tournament a few miles from Ground Zero, three days after the event, because not doing so would be “letting the terrorists win.” With a background like this, it’s not hard to see where Ted Cruz comes from.

So does he mean it? Does he really want to enact the policies he claims? Or is he just another debater in pursuit of a slightly different kind of National Championship, one who revels in the thrill of the competition and the bravado of intellectual battle?

You’d have to ask the people closest to him at the time. I feel confident I could speak to a good deal of the motives and backgrounds of debaters on the circuit from 1998-2015, but Cruz graduated in 1992 and I never saw him speak. Never even met the guy, though he came back and judged during at least one tournament during my tenure. And hey, people change. Maybe he became convinced that Bible-thumping conservative doctrine is what the country truly needs. But my guess is you can take the kid out of APDA, but you can’t really take APDA out of the kid. The White House is an awfully shiny trophy and it’s hard to argue with that kind of hardware.


The Myth of Linearity

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: ,

Life:  not always improving for everybody.

Life: not always improving for everybody.

Sometimes, life gets worse.

You wouldn’t think that would be such a controversial statement. You might think, off-handedly, that it’s kind of trivial or obvious. People go from better situations to worse situations all the time. They lose jobs, relationships, marriages, loved ones. People get sick. They get really sick. They lose their house. They squander something and can never get it back. They get addicted to something and can never wrest free of their struggle.

There are so many clear and obvious examples of people going from a situation that’s better to one that’s worse that it seems like we should have a whole architecture around thinking about this scenario. That we should have a series of narratives for facing hardships and see inevitable setbacks as a critical part of life. A part of life to prepare for and recognize and make peace with. Children might be raised to tell themselves, aloud maybe, “Sometimes, in the future, my life will get worse. Maybe much worse. Maybe irreparably worse.”

But these are not the hopes and dreams with which good young American capitalists are raised. Indeed, I’m not sure anyone is raised this way. The closest I can think of are those who are told that life is going to be a series of tough disappointments – all too often, these are also parents who take it upon themselves to be the worst enemy of their child so that nothing in the future will pose a bigger threat or challenge. Some of these parents honestly might mean well, but I don’t think any of them do much of a service to their offspring.

But borderline-abuse (or, y’know, just actual abuse) is not what I’m talking about. There’s a difference between despair and hopelessness and getting comfortable with the idea that life is not a linear upward progression no matter what. But I think the two are usually conflated and this leads to no one getting the narrative about ups and downs, instead favoring up up up up up. Parents desperately want their children to have better lives than themselves and they put all the hopes and dreams unfulfilled from their own existence into their children. It is almost mathematically guaranteed from these two premises that they will raise those hopes and dreams to believe that each day will be better than the last, that their life will be an upward trajectory in terms of wealth, knowledge, understanding, and comfort.

Don’t get me wrong – there are things about growing up that tend to give one an advantage. Certainly knowledge and experience have a tendency to give one more mental and emotional resources from which to draw. Wealth is easier to accumulate over time for those who are lucky enough to have opportunities in the American economic system to begin with and happen to be raised with frugal sensibilities and to avoid debt (this is actually probably very few people these days). And, biggest of all, one gets a certain sense of perspective with age, mostly in accepting that things which seem insurmountable are not fatal. At least, that seems to be the largest sense of perspective I’ve gained over time. I’ve lost everything that I seemed to care about at least four times in my life (one temporarily) and that has given me a great sense of endurance and durability that I wouldn’t have if I’d never lost much of anything. Even if pretty much all of those situations brought me to the absolute brink each time.

But here’s the thing – I haven’t always improved. In any sense of the word. I have learned, in a sense, but I have also acquired deeply damaging and detrimental habits. My financial history has fluttered about like a yo-yo. So too my emotional history. I have figured out how to survive emotional calamities and great losses, but have done so by compromising values that were (and still are) dear to me, while becoming an angrier, more bitter, more caustic and difficult person. I am less capable, less flexible, and probably less vital than I was at 23 or 30. I weigh more. I do less with my time. I may be stronger in some grand sense and have had more cumulative experiences, but many of those experiences have served only to scar me, leaving me damaged and less able than before.

And don’t even get me started about comparing me to my 10-year-old self. Or 11- or even 17-. Granted that some of my fascination with these prior selves is wrapped up in grade-skipping and being told I was a prodigy and a whole mess of expectations and hopes that not only were not realized but, frankly, were probably impossible to realize by the time I was enrolled in community college classes at 11 or writing a regular newspaper column at 12. I guess I was due for a crash. And that may lead you, mistakenly I think, to believe that I am a grand exception in rejecting linear upward growth as a myth and that most lives that are not mine conform to this path.

But examine yourself. Are you the happiest you’ve ever been and has every year been better than the last? Are you the smartest you’ve been and have you always known more and made better decisions than the year before? Are you the richest, the most active, the most moral, the most whatever-it-is-that-you-value? Be honest.

I’m a little afraid of the fallout of asking that question since most people get through each day by not stepping back and asking these grand questions and sweeping questions can lead to sweeping change, which is often traumatic. My point in this post is not to make you unhappier or more dissatisfied, I promise. Really, it’s not. Because I think the Myth of Linearity is actually making us more unhappy than anything.

Here’s the problem. The Myth of Linearity gets tied up with hope, but it is not hope. Hope is the conviction that things can get better, that there are ways of improving things in the future and that one is capable of finding and utilizing those ways. Hope is awesome. I love hope. I am the pro-hope candidate here. Without hope, life would be, well, hopeless. It may seem like a sleight of phrase, what I just did there, but I think it’s just true. Go watch Shawshank Redemption if you need further convincing on the importance of hope. Or remember your darkest hour, and take away the hope that probably pulled you out.

But the Myth of Linearity is not the hope that things will get better, it is the expectation that things always get better. And this is a devastating distinction.

There’s been a lot of research done and a lot of literature written about how expectations are actually the #1 predictor of unhappiness. A surprising number of people born into poverty, abject misery, and devastation grow up to be happy, largely or entirely because they were raised with no expectations. As a result, everything they do get that’s better than their beginnings fills them with unbridled, grateful joy. This is not really an argument for raising children in refugee camps (nutrition alone is a good counter-argument here), but it is a pretty good lesson about the nature of expectations. The United States is often described as the unhappiest country on the planet, spinning endless numbers of us into therapist’s offices, drug addictions, drug rehabilitation programs, all manner of other addictions, and so forth. The paradox of us being so wealthy and connected and yet so unhappy has been the subject of endless self-help books, multi-step programs, inspirational speakers, great American novels… you get the idea. And have been getting it much of your life in this country, I reckon.

Many of these things, especially those that work for people, come down to expectations. Breathe deep. Appreciate what you have. Live in the moment, live in the hour, live with less, embrace each day as though it were your last, etc. These things have become platitudinous and make it challenging to write about sincerely, as I sometimes strive to do in this space. A huge part of what makes Glide special (and other places like it) is the ability to convey this message to those who society has largely forgotten. And some folks are able to reset their expectations and turn things around.

High expectations make us sad. I think pretty much everyone recognizes this at this point. Nothing disappoints us like the movie that was maximally hyped, the meal that we paid a lot for and everyone said would be fantastic, the event we looked forward to forever. Think about Christmas afternoons, let alone the horrors of December 26th. Letdowns are miserable and it’s our over-thinking and over-expecting that makes it so.

But the Myth of Linearity works more insidiously along the same lines. Because it gives us this notion that the pressure of future expectations must always be ratcheting up. That our life must feel like a perpetual escalator, that with time comes ease, happiness, understanding, love, and that all of these things just improve and improve, even if only by a little bit. That we will be able to look back and explain at any time how we have made improvements in all the areas that matter to us, or at least big enough ones in big enough places to make up for any shortfall.

Look, there’s something reassuring and self-justifying about being able to explain one’s life this way. I get it. It’s very liberating and reassuring to actually feel at the top of one’s lifetime game. It is instant justification for all the heartache, setbacks, and challenges of the past. All of those can pale a little bit if they brought you here and here is the best place you’ve ever been. This narrative is ingrained in our psyche and reinforced in our culture, the mantra of better better better, that time is always improving us somehow. It is tempting to give in to the Myth of Linearity because it makes every other story we tell about ourselves more comfortable.

Trouble is, it’s a lie. Look at what our bodies go through over time. Could we possibly have an easier, more accessible metaphor to counter the Myth of Linearity than our aging physical selves? Sure, we can undergo self-improvement rituals, and the first few years are actually building, but the nature of the body is to decay over time. And no matter how much energy we put into denying it, it’s inevitable. Our bodies are not a treadmill or an escalator, they are an arc, and the arc of the physical bends towards death.

Which is not as depressing as it sounds! It is the fact that we obsess through the Myth of Linearity that makes talk of death and decay and disaster so depressing, so scary. If we were more comfortable with these topics, more at home with the idea that life sometimes gets worse, then we would have more architecture around keeping hope alive through these things. The problem is that so many people facing a friend or loved one who has just undergone a trauma or a setback is trained to tell them that they will “be better for it.” This voice is poppycock most of the time, it’s absurd and insulting. Someone who has just been raped or assaulted will almost never be better for it. Someone who has just lost something dear to them will probably be worse off. They will probably be traumatized and injured and spend much of their life trying to recover that part of themselves. And yet so many sincere, genuine, wonderful caring people insist on saying that somehow it will all be for the best.

And when they can’t say that, they have nothing else. They are totally lost about what to say and how to help. Even the most helpful, except perhaps for the people who have done the most work with this, the best trauma counselors and those with the most perspective, are speechless when they can’t funnel someone back into the Myth of Linearity.

But this is destructive. The Myth of Linearity, when relayed to someone who knows it can’t be true, often inspires extreme reactions. I’m not saying that people who only hear this narrative turn around and kill themselves, but it is at least more tempting for those who feel there’s something wrong with them if they aren’t always improving, even after a personally cataclysmic event. If the message you’re getting from all sides is that every event in life must make you better somehow, no matter how bad it is, then you feel like you’re just broken or not a real person if you can’t make yourself feel that way.

But the truth is, this is all just a fairy tale we’re telling ourselves. It’s closely related to the growth myth and other capitalist mantras about always moving up. Life doesn’t always get better. Life is mixed. It gets better and worse and better again. It does different things for different people. Sometimes we get better in some ways and worse in more important ways. Life just is and stubbornly refuses to conform to any pre-set narrative.

This does not mean we shouldn’t hope. Hope is great. But hope is far from expectation. Hope gives us the opportunity to be surprised when it comes through, or glad, or even relieved. It denies us the need to feel only barely satisfied when our expectations are fulfilled and gravely upset when they are not. The Myth of Linearity is doing that to you, subtly, every day, making you less pleased with your progress and successes than you would be otherwise. Let it go. Accept that you may fall, that things may get much much worse, maybe permanently. Trust me, it makes getting back up again infinitely easier. Or honestly, just possible.


New Orleans March

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Marching to New Orleans, Tags: , ,


The nights got suddenly sultry this week, as the bobbing of 40s and 70s and back again gave way to 80s and March did its job of actually transitioning the seasons over into something warmer and more life-giving than the prior months. We are spoiled here in New Orleans, a phrase that could probably be applied full stop to any number of realities, but I am speaking now mostly in the context of Boston’s record snowfall, more accumulation, probably, than my entire four winters at Brandeis combined. And it doesn’t matter if I’d enjoy record snowfall more than an 80-degree twilight walk home in mid-March. There is much to be said for being able to be outdoors all the time, or more often than not.

I keep trying to compare New Orleans to other places and the facsimiles are often uncanny and yet insufficient. The one that comes up most often and sticks for me lately is San Francisco. Not because of climate, as a summer there is perhaps comparable to a Boston winter, nor because of elevation. San Francisco is famously a series of hills that they’d call mountains in the northeast, whereas New Orleans is functionally (or not so) in the shape of a bowl, with the upper lip starting at sea level, or at least it would be if not for the levees. No, the comparisons are found in the architecture, the streetcars (I’ve noted this similarity recently), the sense of color and life. Even, perhaps, the pirates. They did, after all, call part of San Francisco the Barbary Coast. The palpable sense of looming disaster, be it from earthquakes or hurricanes, mixed with a survivalist triumph of recovery. The importance of music. The legends of a past that was more glorious than now, when all these rambling grand houses shone with new paint, their first coat, and entertained the finest of the city before things fell on slightly harder times.

I haven’t been to San Francisco in several years and it’s possible that the recent spike in prices and even more wealth flowing out of Silicon Valley has ushered in a new age where people perceive this as the peak. Certainly few cities have the ubiquitous sense of surviving a traumatic calamity, at least domestically, to the degree that New Orleans does, carrying the weight of the nearly decade-old disaster like equal parts badge and burden in every conscious act. And yet so many people weren’t here, the city feels over half transplant, at least to the young or those in their thirties like me, and the question of when you came is almost the first for any new acquaintance. The lack of local accent is usually sufficient giveaway, though New Orleans has its own dialect distinct from the rest of the South, often compared to some of the lilts of Boston and New York. It has always, like San Francisco, been a city of migrants or, perhaps more accurately, pilgrims.

For both NOLA and SF carry this sense of place that transcends even the reality of these vaunted cities. They feel different and it feels intense and powerful to be in a city like this. For all the comparisons, both towns are unique. When you are standing in most of SF, you could not be anywhere else. Ditto NOLA. While both carry vibrant rows of eclectic houses in colors louder than the last, one is all Victorian and the other Southern Gothic, and never the twain shall be confused. One row will sit on a high-wire tilt and the other slumping into a sub-sea-level swamp. Both, I suppose, are surrounded by water, but the Bay could not be much different than the combination of bayous, lakes, and the mighty Mississippi. But we have more songs about these cities than perhaps anywhere except New York. The people teeming out of the northeast at various times when folks have dispersed have probably traveled to these two cities more than anywhere else. Nowhere else except for maybe New York and Los Angeles do people arrive at the gates with more anticipation, more certainty of destination, more abandon, reckless and otherwise.

And here we arrive at something unique to New Orleans, something that puts it more in keeping with modern Las Vegas than the peninsular City by the Bay. It is not just the drinking, though that’s part of it. It’s the sense of release. It’s the notion of freedom, the ability to do most anything and not only get away with it, but be embraced and revered for it. Crazy is the norm here. “You have a license to be nuts,” noted one elder stateswoman of the city to me when trying to explain what makes the city magical. She had a defiant grin on her face when she said it, as though to query why anyone would live anywhere else. The alcohol is, mostly, just a cover story. Like getting drunk so often is, it’s an excuse for the abandoning of inhibitions when it’s really just that one wants to be able to let go. And as always has been my retort throughout life, I don’t need alcohol or other substances for that kind of release. I already have the inhibitions of the inebriated, at least as far as the little hang-ups on dancing and reveling and excitement go. I do, admittedly, have pretty tight inhibitions on what I find to be moral lines, which is why I keep my prohibitions as they are. Not many in this city share those sentiments.

But there are codes of conduct here to be admired. Not just in terms of there being no real sense of embarrassment within the city limits. The phrase “Be Nice or Leave” is something near a city motto, hanging on brightly colored signs throughout the city’s private establishments. A fine fitting contrast with “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone,” functioning as both its reaffirmation and its glorious inverse. There is a real sense that this is not just the policy of the restaurant, the ice cream parlor, the bar, the bowling alley, but it is in fact the standing ordinance of the entire metropolis. If you’re not capable of sitting down to a conversation with a stranger at any time, with being genuinely friendly and interested, with expressing compassion, then you’ve probably wandered onto the wrong pilgrimage. We hear that New York is still accepting new pilgrims of your temperament.

But that’s probably meaner than something any actual New Orleanian would say. Even snide regionally competitive comments are a little out of bounds.

I have never encountered a place where so many people are so consistently genuine, where the common currency is someone’s story and background and feelings, where conversations with the dry cleaner and the Taco Bell cashier cut through small talk into a sense of real connection across the void between our souls. In my beloved West, people say hi to you on the street, but here they will stop and engage and ask where you are going and mean it in a sense more cosmic than an intersection of streets. The streetcar driver will start relating his life story, the waitress will give you a rundown on everything she’s actually going through. It’s not that these interactions never happen elsewhere, but they are more common than not in New Orleans and it gives the sense that here, alone among all places in the United States, there is no pretension at all. Which of course cannot be true at all levels, for there are still gated communities and gated houses and fancy cars and houses and golf courses. But at most rungs of society, most places in public, pretense about this life is absent. We are all just living and communing and trying to get by and life is easier if we’re in this together and I want to learn from you.

Life is hard enough without the barriers we tend to put up. In New Orleans, those barriers so often dissolve like ice in the sunset swelter of the cracked pavement, ten feet below sea level and thousands of miles from anywhere else.


15 Years and a Day

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Keepin' it Cryptic, Marching to New Orleans, Metablogging, The Long Tunnel, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , , , , , ,

Me in New York City, early 2000 (left).  Me in New Orleans, early 2015 (right).  Forgive the tiny image size - I don't have a better or bigger version of the one on the left just yet.  I do, however, still have and wear that jacket.

Me in New York City, early 2000 (left). Me in New Orleans, early 2015 (right). Forgive the tiny image size – I don’t have a better or bigger version of the one on the left just yet. I do, however, still have and wear that jacket.

It is perhaps fitting that I went with Introspection-style dash-bullet-points to summarize my experience in yesterday’s post. After all, yesterday was the 15th anniversary of my opening salvo into blogging, the first post of Introspection. Like so many things done the first time, it wasn’t very good.

It did, however, have a pretty prophetic reference in it, that a dream had entailed details of the film “Magnolia”. Not because I would necessarily post so much about dreams in the coming decade and a half (though there’d be some of that), but because that line from that movie has become such a watchword for this blog. It’s even one of the categories for this post since I am, after all, talking about the year 2000. (Cue Conan O’Brien.) Of course, I butchered the line to make it more grammatically correct and perhaps less zingy. I am told, though I haven’t watched the film in a long time, that it’s “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” Somehow when I first posted in this category in October 2007 (it was my first StoreyTelling post!), I remembered it as “We may be done with the past, but the past isn’t done with us.” Same sentiment, really.

Given my penchant for references, anniversaries, looking at life through a novelistic lens, and seeing time as geography, it is perhaps almost unbelievable, then, that I would launch a brand-new blog on 13 March 2015, exactly 15 years to the day after my personal world turned a bit forever with the opening of public displays of introspection. And that I didn’t even quite realize that was happening for the first few days it was scheduled.

I recently started working at Communities In Schools of Greater New Orleans. It is not my intent to blog a lot about this position or what happens therein – I’m the Director of Development, which is a reasonably sensitive job, and there’s just not a lot of call to talk about my work life in this context given the nature of that work. However, I am super-excited about bringing you details of what that organization is doing to improve other people’s lives, which is the function of our new blog. Launched yesterday. 13 March. The anniversary. I’m sure.

It says something for the separation of work life and personal life that it didn’t immediately occur to me when my boss suggested we launch this Friday that it would be such a significant personal date. Because it’s one of those days, like July 24th (once good, now good and ruined) or July 13th (ibid.) or April 8th (still not sure the roots of this one, but it’s always significant) or June 6th (bad things, man, although also Felix now) that carries weight despite not being a birthday or something. I guess we could throw October 17th in there, but screw that.

Come on, I can’t reference the old blog this much and not have moments of being cryptic, can I?

Anyway, I want you to go read the blog, and like us on social media for regular updates and all that wonderful stuff. It has been a really wonderful project to work on and I’m so excited about telling the story of the organization and especially the kids we serve. Dropout prevention was never a specific passion of mine (though I long aspired to be a high school teacher), but I’ve com to realize that, in this country, it is the primary preventative measure we have to combat all the other direct ills that I care about. Dropping out of high school is the biggest predictor of whether someone ends up homeless, in jail, in poverty, overcome by addictions, you name it. Graduating from high school isn’t a guarantee to avoid those things, but the statistical significance of the benefit is overwhelming. I still care deeply about food justice and poverty alleviation and I believe that this organization is actually doing incredible work on those issues via the best preventative measure we have.

Plus, there will be pictures of kids. Who doesn’t love pictures of kids?

These meta posts observing how long I’ve been blogging publicly and writing posts, usually (in this format) in fits and starts with long droughts and long sustained periods, usually bring up some reflection on the purpose of the approach. I’m not really in a place where I’m questioning the existence of this medium or my use of it (I rarely am, since college, I guess). But it’s good to take stock of the ability to communicate here, to convey a series of thoughts and feelings to try to inspire change. While all writing I have ever done has the goal of changing how people see things toward the ultimate goal of improving our lot in life (as a species, morally), it becomes more clear and overt by starting a blog for an organization with the purpose of communicating the mission and garnering support for it. I don’t see it as that fundamentally different from what I’m trying to do here, honestly, though this also includes a lot of emotional hand-wringing and the intent of simply chronicling a life with all its ups, downs, mistakes, and triumphs.

I’m even more reflective than normal after engaging in earnest as a regular contributor to Clarion Content, Aaron Mandel’s online curation of Durham, North Carolina and leftist politics. He’s long been a gracious supporter of my work and syndicated Duck and Cover for a long stretch when I still was keeping that project up (it may come back someday, don’t give up hope). He’s invited me to be a regular contributor and there’s been a commensurate spike in dedication to blogging here ever since, especially since he’s mostly running cross-posts of the more politically minded content that runs here on StoreyTelling. The index of my new regular feature will be here and I’ll make sure to share my unique posts that end up there on the BP’s social media.

It’s tempting to close these kinds of pieces with a look into the murky fog of the future, something even more inviting in the late winter of New Orleans, when mist is ubiquitous and the spirits seem to gather wispily corporeal presence. But I’m on a crusade against future-mindedness, at least in a long-term personal context. We can set goals for ourselves, like graduating high school or returning to the Grand Canyon to go rim-to-rim-to-rim. But obsessing about where we’ll be in one, two, five, ten years is usually fruitless fretting. It leads to ignoring the moment in front of you, the day you could be enjoying more thoroughly if you weren’t wishing it away. Each day can be long and full and fulfilling, or at least intriguing, if one foreshortens future thinking. I’ve really tried to apply this logic to 2015, not trying to build a grand vision for the year (other, perhaps, than returning to work and the new exciting opportunity at CIS) but to take each day, each moment, as the quiet little opportunity it can be.

I may not be able to forgive people, I may not be able to let go of the past. But daily mindfulness is a healthy target I can try to achieve, for now. And that’s all right for me today. Because today is the only day I need to be all right, right now.


Wait, Wait, I’m Going to Tell You

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

The view from the top of the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans, stage set for NPR news quiz, "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me".  The place is beautiful, obviously.  It's one of the weird quirks of our language that one always has to look up whether a theater has chosen for itself the old British re inversion of Theatre or not.

The view from the top of the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans, stage set for NPR news quiz, “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”. The place is beautiful, obviously. It’s one of the weird quirks of our language that one always has to look up whether a theater has chosen for itself the old British re inversion of Theatre or not.

Spoiler alert!

I mean that in two senses. I am going to use this post both to tell you a few things about this weekend’s upcoming episode of “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” (sometimes hereinafter referred to as WWDTM) and to tell you about some behind-the-scenes aspects of the show that I learned by watching a taping. These latter things are not traditional spoilers, but are kinda cool things to know about from peeking behind the curtain, but they may serve to spoil your illusions about the show itself on a weekly basis. The taping was not exactly what I expected, though it was incredibly fun and I highly recommend the experience. Let’s just say that one gets a different perception of things from the airwaves than the plush theater (Theatre) seat.

I’m going back to old-school Introspection manual bullet points, identified with a trusty dash. But I’ll add paragraph spaces as well for extra clarity!

-The show was late. I remember a time when people weren’t seated at theaters if they were 2 minutes late because it would interrupt the performance. Granted that WWDTM is not exactly the opera, but I was really panicked about us getting seated at 7:28 for a 7:30 show. No one made it to the stage till 7:50. Not sure if this is a New Orleans thing or an NPR thing or just a radio-taping thing… I guess this just reflects something more like a concert schedule than a traditional theater performance. But it also could be that the era of traffic and cell phones have made theaters fashionably late everywhere and all the time.

-People in radio never look like what you expect. This is a well documented phenomenon, but it bears repeating. They are people particularly chosen for their incredible voices, and most always also chosen for looking at least somewhat strange, if not downright unattractive. The pretty people make it to TV. The less so are stuck on the radio. It makes me wonder, for my debater friends out there, if there’s some sort of radio-industry version of GDS. There kind of must be, right? I can hear Peter Sagal joking that that’s why he went into radio. Peter Sagal is older, balder, and just kind of stranger seeming than he sounds on the radio. He’s still pretty cool though.

-The Saenger Theatre is ridiculously beautiful. It’s big and I definitely felt like a fly on a very far wall (or, well, someone listening to the radio) for much of the show, but the top of the back balcony (we weren’t in the very very top – probably about 8 rows shy) really affords a spectacular view of a renovated palace to live performance. Being in better seats for Alton Brown a few months back actually limited my understanding of the detail work, not to mention the starry ceiling.

-New Orleans is just always perceived to be completely drunk. I know that Alex would argue that’s because it is (though I think it’s practically an effective rehab clinic compared to the Rutgers campus), but the number of jokes about drunkenness and drinking were overwhelming. These were often associated with the lively and boisterous nature of the crowd, which Sagal also complimented frequently. I feel like people routinely miss a spiritedness about New Orleans that is not solely derived from spirits. Or at least not the kind you imbibe. There is energy here, and joy for living, and one does not need to get that from a bottle, even if some folks do.

-I actually had fears that we were only going to get an hour of time to watch the show, or maybe an hour and five or ten minutes for some extra stuff. This is the most laughably wrong impression I had of WWDTM, but it does explain a lot. Namely, I had always wondered – naively I now realize – how they managed to time a rollicking news quiz with dynamic elements like live callers, on-the-fly jokes, questions with variably lengthened answers, and required elements, to perfectly an hour format (or an hour less news) every time. I think at least part of this perception was based on attending a taping of A Prairie Home Companion when I was 7 and that, being a live show, taking two hours and sounding exactly like it did on the radio, bit for bit, note for note. WWDTM is not a live show (I think they cleverly cloak this by having actual callers from around the country call in during the show and advertising a number to call like it’s a real live talk-show) and the differences are legion. The taping took nearly 2.5 hours and involved a round of re-takes of things at the end, including an attempt to recreate particular jokes and get the audience to laugh once more. There are audio issues (there seemed to be more than average on this particular episode, if the annoyance of the hosts and guests is an indication), talking-over problems when people try to jump in all at once, and a fair bit of riffing, especially by the guest comedians, which just doesn’t get off the ground or isn’t that funny. This was a pretty illusion-shattering event to witness, because the feeling that’s effectively created on the radio is that everyone is thinking of these jokes and timing their repartee perfectly and immediately. The reality is decidedly more pedestrian: that it takes a little more than double that time of taping to offer the kernels of joy and perfection that will then be trimmed into the immaculate hour that we all hear on the weekends.

-Along the same lines, Peter Sagal is almost entirely scripted throughout the show. I think I kind of intuitively knew this on some level, but it’s still a little disappointing to watch him read off a cheat-sheet rather than come up with such effervescent wit off-the-cuff. I think a lot of this was surprisingly to me, deep down, because I’ve done so many Mep Reports and that is something we actually record on-the-fly, with almost no editing, and I guess we try to recreate that same humor in banter and turn-of-phrase reaction. Not that I had any illusions we were a serious competitor to WWDTM in this skill, but it’s a little saddening to realize that the hour you’re aspiring to create isn’t an hour that anyone is actually really creating in the traditional sense. Or at least not these people.

-I feel like these have mostly been negative and I really don’t want to convey that message – the energy of being in the room with these humorists was incredible and the real joy of being able to see them come up with these jokes or even deliver the scripted ones was awesome. I laughed heartily and much and the experience was really fantastic overall. I felt like this note was necessary because most of the post is about what was different than my expectations, and my expectations were very very high.

-There was a joke, possibly the funniest of the night, that might get cut out, made by a guest who called in. The guests really are scattered around the country, by the way, and played as very loud voice-overs in the theater, unless there are hidden actors pretending to be guests somewhere off stage (I don’t think this is the case). But the guests are clearly able to listen to the show as it’s being taped, because this guy made a joke about the Philippines that made everyone lose their mind. You’ll know what I’m talking about when we get there. But it got re-recorded at the end and it is a tragic loss to the show’s humor if it’s missing. Tune in and find out.

-I feel like it’s becoming a little unsustainable for me to live in and love New Orleans as much as I do and continue to feel totally meh about jazz. Even admitting that in print, in public, feels like it’s going to trigger some alarm like Harry Potter’s arrival in Hogsmeade at the end of the series. I just don’t particularly care for instrumental music of any sort, being a words person, and while I can appreciate the virtuosity and skill of jazz musicians and their creativity, it’s a world largely foreign and uninteresting to me. The guest this week is Trombone Shorty, who was an incredible guest and one of the most directly revered people I’ve ever seen live. The interviews for the guests go on for much longer than the segment they play on the radio. He was an awesome guest and his story is incredible, but I still had no real interest in going to see jazz played live afterwards. It’s still not going to have words.

-Paula Poundstone is really funny. And she talks endlessly. Peter was openly annoyed with her for how long she was going on about things and how much she was dominating the panel. She did work herself into some incredible moments at times, but I was left wondering how they were possibly going to edit enough to make it seem like she wasn’t just totally dominating the show.

-There’s a short Q&A session after the re-recordings of things they missed or want to change, but asking an audience of attendees at a snarky irreverent show to ask questions is pretty self-defeating. They mostly tried to be as clever and sarcastic as the show itself, which led to very little dissemination of actual information. Peter shut it down early when it became clear that the NOLA audience was doubly irreverent.

-For people who are constantly trying to get funding (they actually distributed pledge envelopes at the entrance instead of programs), there was no merchandise table or booth anywhere in the theater. I had no doubt that many people would have dropped $40 for a WWDTM T-shirt on their way out of the venue, myself almost certainly included, and that the margin on this and other paraphernalia would have been comparable to a donation. My only thought is that they fear this would have detracted from people donating to local station WWNO, now immersed in a pre-pledge-drive campaign, but it seems they could still split the profits with the local station to allay these concerns.

-I actually can’t wait to hear the show on the radio, which I never would have guessed. Just seeing what made it and what got cut will probably make it more fun than the usual episode, which I already like a lot.


Choices: Too Many, Not Enough

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

“It’s a typical situation in these typical times
too many choices…
Oh, everybody’s happy
everybody’s free
we’ll keep the big door open
everyone’ll come around.
Why are you different?
Why are you that way?
If you don’t get in line, we’ll lock you away…”
-Dave Matthews Band, “Typical Situation”

I need a doctor.

No, not that kind of doctor!

No, not that kind of doctor!

Maybe I’ve been watching too much of the new “Doctor Who” lately, just starting on season 5 now in the progression, after growing up with the original series as perhaps my absolute favorite show. Tom Baker is still the best, but it was hard to see David Tennant go, especially under the phrase “I don’t want to go!” Of course, that reminded me just a tiny bit too much of the big hug I got from Marcel Miranda in May 2009 when I left Glide after three years. He cried in my office a little and said “I don’t want you to go!” He passed away that December.

I can pick between ten or eleven doctors, which the iconic British show has offered me, and narrow it down to at least two, and probably one if I had to. What I am struggling to do is choose from the large printed book that Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana sent me a couple weeks ago, detailing all my possible options for primary care provider under my newly regained health insurance. The book is 402 pages.

The existence of such a tome and its delivery to me, free of charge, is supposedly what’s great about health care in America. Obamacare advocates would claim it as a victory and its detractors would say this is the kind of excellent private health coverage that is about to be taken away. Louisiana in particular has been playing out this struggle – it’s one of the Medicare refusal states and a state with unbelievably runaway insurance costs of all sorts. It actually has the highest car insurance rates in the nation (sorry, Jersey, I’ve been able to do some pretty direct comparison shopping) and is one of those weirdly shaded states on the map where health care premiums have still been skyrocketing after the ACA. I don’t even want to think about what the book and its upkeep costs, let alone what it gets billed as in the modern ever-growing health care industry. Especially when it could be a website, but that would limit access, because we somehow stubbornly cling to the belief that the Internet should be doled out like a private luxury instead of the public good that it clearly is. If you wonder why I believe in radical change over gradualism, it tends to be this kind of spiraling frustration that it’s hard to find one thing that this society does efficiently and/or with the people of the country in mind. The really sounds like an exaggeration until I start pulling the loose thread of any given problem.

This book has single-handedly prevented me from going to the doctor for two weeks. And it may yet do the same for a few more. Even though I really need a doctor, mostly because I have been without health insurance for about half a year and there is an ominous growing patch of discolored skin on my upper back that is almost certainly not cancer, but you never know. Most friends who I’ve discussed this issue with find it hard to believe that I waited for health insurance at all to discuss this issue with a certified medical professional (and of course WebMD has already given me just weeks to live), but I’m not fond of doctor’s visits when I’m swimming in health care, let alone when it must be paid out of pocket. I learned that lesson real fast in a 2003 emergency room visit in Berkeley and have never really lived it down for myself. I’m sure I could find the link in Introspection, but I really don’t feel like combing the year 2002-2003 for the record right now.

I believe I have what they call “analysis-paralysis”. Not on my back. That’s probably called something else, hopefully not an astrological term involving an admittedly ornery-looking crustacean. With the healthcare and the 402-page book and the need for a doctor. I have too many choices. Way too many choices. I miss Kaiser Permanente, who just picked a doctor for me. Yes, sometimes the doctor was obsessed with medication and I hate medication, sometimes the doctor wanted to put me on mind-altering drugs for migraines, sometimes I had to wait a week for an appointment. But at least I was utilizing the health care system. At the rate I’m going with Blue Cross and Blue Shield, I’m not sure I’ll ever start.

I guess if I grew up here, I would feel more qualified to make the decision, having logged time and preferences and references and prior visits. The problem is that the decision could matter, theoretically – there are philosophical and quality differences between doctors, to be sure. But researching the decision in order to make an effective one is a ridiculous proposition with the time allotted. Frankly, it would be a ridiculous proposition with the time I used to have back when I lacked health insurance. I think someone could make it their full-time job to pick a doctor (under the premise that the choice matters) for me, because, probably, there are 2 or 3 really excellent matches with everything I feel about the delivery of health care.

But obviously, undertaking more than a cursory random-noise search is impossible. Alex said she confronts these decisions (she, after all, had health care months ago) by picking someone (a) a woman with (b) flexible hours who is (c) close to home. I don’t really have a gender preference in my medicine, but the latter two factors seem to make sense, though they have very little to do with what actually makes a doctor more likely to deliver me health care in the way that I want it. And, admittedly, maybe finding out things about whether they believe in off-label use of anti-depressants to treat migraines or back lesions or any of my other ailments is not really something even the book and the power of Internet research could tell me. Maybe I should just pull some names within 2 miles and throw a dart or a pick a unique-sounding name.

But I’m haunted by the idea that this could matter, that everything in our society tells me that doctors are very different and being able to have agency in selecting a personal doctor is one of my supreme God-given rights. I certainly don’t have a right to housing or food, but doctor choice – now we’re talking! And so this rhetoric has prevented me from sincerely getting out the darts, even though I already would have a diagnosis on what’s troubling me if I’d just freaking picked already. It’s hard not to feel like I’m a big metaphor for the bloat in our system, though I know my results are hardly ever typical of how people approach health or its care.

What is altogether too typical is the preliminary sparring in the 2016 Presidential race, one for which I’d like to make a quiz if I can ever remember how I made 128+-answer quizzes while holding down a day job and living life all at the same time. And what society tells me is important here is that the dream deferred of Clinton-v-Bush, round 2, is being threatened by an e-mail scandal. Hillary Clinton was, apparently, very naughty with her e-mail accounts.

I strongly dislike Hillary Clinton. I dislike her policies and I dislike her as a person. I think it would be a horrific precedent to set that the first woman President of the United States was first a First Lady, that her initial qualification for politics was being married to a popular President. I am terrified of 4-8 years of her policies when she has clearly expressed that she thinks the biggest impediment to electing women is the wide perception that they would be less likely to bomb people than men, and would dedicate her Presidency to proving that theory wrong. I find her sense of entitlement, a true Clinton legacy, disturbing in the utmost. I do not want you to vote for her.

That said, this e-mail “scandal” is stupid. I really dislike Hillary, can’t stand the Democrats (or Republicans), but not voting for her because of these e-mails is ridiculous.

Like, yes, I guess there’s theoretically some minor chance that her personal e-mails would be more likely to be hacked or read by an employee of the private company with whom she sent e-mails. And I guess the surveillance state finds it terrifying that there would be some balance in the transparency of everything, see also Snowden, Edward. But, really? Mrs. Clinton is 67 years old. She doesn’t know the intricacies of technology. You find me a 67-year-old politician or statesperson who understands these things. Who never threatens the absolute security of their documents by making some technological blunder, by leaving a printout lying around, by forwarding the top-secret attachment to their home account so they can print it, by logging in to the CIA server from the ski lodge wifi. Really? People sneak machetes and pepper spray and small arms into airplanes all the time. We’re worried that HRC’s top-secret not-yet-leaked correspondence with leaders she was trying to intimidate were on GMail? All the secrets of the world are on GMail! Thankfully it’s too much data for Google to quickly mine and distill for purposes other than using advertising to creep you out.

She's using a smartphone!  We should be impressed.

She’s using a smartphone! We should be impressed.

But mostly people aren’t even rumbling about security. They’re rumbling about appropriateness. Or, mostly, they’re rumbling about BS. They’re using the opportunity of a couple media people and politicians taking this scandal Very Seriously to join the chorus in the hopes that something like this could actually fell the momentum of the presumed President-elect.

The problem here, of course, is that there are basically no real choices for President. In a theoretically wide-open field of candidates, with no incumbent on either side of the aisle, it’s been known for over a year who most of America thinks will win the Presidency in 2016. And it’s certainly been known for a while that the person will come from one of the two major parties and that there are only a handful of people from each party that could seriously be considered for this job.

And it’s not that there aren’t a few more qualifications for President than there are to be a certified medical professional in greater New Orleans. But with those qualifications and the commensurate responsibility should come at least a modicum of flexibility in who we consider. After all, it’s not like the people we’ve been dealing with are getting us anywhere. Congress continues to pass functionally no legislation while carrying an approval rating well below freezing. And yet the quantity and scope of our choices remains extremely limited.

How have we generated a society that offers a 402-page book for who you want to discuss aches and pains with, but can’t come up with more than a small handful of choices for who is going to make the majority of decisions about the operations of the entire nation for four years?

The illusion of choice is pervasive in our world. We are, as Americans, completely obsessed with choice as a concept. Choices of products, choices of companies, choices of jobs, choices of schools. The ability to make these choices is a badge of wealth and privilege that we like to pretend represents neither. But the ability to choose between 402 pages of doctors belies the fact that the alternative choice is among 0 doctors, or crippling debt to wander into an office. Our college admissions process cloaks the fact that many people had insufficient opportunities to learn before college and are faced with no acceptances, or cutthroat for-profits masquerading as educators. Job offers and rigged unemployment numbers mask the fact that so many people have no jobs to choose from at all, or are being squashed into a shadow labor-market as “independent consultants” who work below the already dizzyingly low minimum wage.

But no amount of status and class can buy you a real choice for the Presidency. Well, even that might not be true. If you have enough zeroes behind those digits in your bank account, I guess you can buy yourself a candidate to your liking.

Can someone buy me a real leftist?

Or at least someone who can help me pick a doctor?


Oh Nose

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


They say that smell is the sense most linked to memory. It’s funny how hard a time I have identifying smells and how hard they are to objectively describe, even in reference to each other. One can describe the characteristics of a shape or a sound or a sight quite easily, even a feeling, by likening it to other things in the same genre. But smells seem to link us only to past times when we smelled it. And unless we pay very close attention to the flowers and leaves in our surroundings, it can take years for us to really consistently label a smell’s source, even if that nasal imprint has a lasting impact on the mind that lays in wait for the next opportunity to besiege the soul through the nostrils.

Take dogwood, for example. I can’t really tell you what dogwood smells like in a vacuum, but there’s something sickly sweet and I can kind of recognize the mucked mulch of white leaves in a pile from which the overpowering odor wafts. It smells a little like nausea, but mostly like overripe summer days in the south, or probably spring days, days on college campuses thick with malaise and oncoming heat and restlessness. It smells like a frat party unthrown, or overthrown, like backwards baseball caps with frayed bills exposing the little curl of cardboard beneath, like stale beer in a half-upset red Solo cup, like sodium lights overbrightening just one patch of winding wet lane. Like the dog that barked at me tonight as I passed his inviting, door-opened house, soaked and mangy looking, the victim of an involuntary bath in the earlier deluge.

They say that smell is the sense most linked to memory. I don’t think I smelled any magnolia tonight, quite, on my sojourn into the Crescent, but they always take me straight back to Beverly Hills and the long languid sidewalks on the hot path to Starbucks from Russ’ old place. When the moving truck came, 18 wheels long, to our first stop in New Orleans, it took out a high branch of magnolia overreaching the street and the leaves and little pineappley pods sat in the gutter and withered in the searing swelter of the ensuing months. The green rubber leaves curl into tough brown husks, but each tree seems to have such abundance of leaf to give, growing strong over the paths while raining down little offerings of itself as summers drift to fall. There had to be a campus or two with these trees sometime, maybe the University of Florida, in high school. I have had the luxury of growing up on so many college campuses in my life, before, during, and after, and arguing at almost all of them.

They say that smell is the sense most linked to memory. The pitter-patter of rain comes with a fresh but musty whiff of the water itself, or perhaps the water’s interaction with the fertile wet ground already saturated with a day’s sky runoff. It’s Oregon first, Oregon almost always, muddy Little League rain delays and quick splashy runs from the car to the theater, the bus to school, the beach to the arcade. Haystack rock and the tidepools at first light, fending off puffins and seagulls so we can see the little life clinging to the shallowing inlets against the craggy barnacled surface. But it’s warm, and so Washington DC, or that Baltimore summer, the first experience of an honest-to-God rainstorm that wasn’t unpleasant, it was just humid and showery and almost refreshing. But quickly back to Oregon, for it isn’t that warm and the gray pelting of precipitation against the receding yellow flowers of the scotchbroom.

They say that smell is the sense most linked to memory. One can’t really smell one’s own sweat, unless in reflection, or so I guess they also say. I’ve actually always had a rather bad sense of smell, objectively speaking, and especially in comparison to sight and hearing. And I’m not a huge sweater, or wasn’t when younger, so it was only a particular hat or shirt after hours of outdoor basketball, and then only faintly. New Orleans will surely challenge even the most tenaciously dry person, no doubt, but it is mostly the heat of memory itself and the little addition of sprinkly rain dripping from the magnolia leaves that brings me to this thought. I strain to smell my own pores, my own contribution to the milieu, but it is useless. I am reminded only of a particular baseball practice or two, but I really have to force it and that is not what tonight’s about.

And then, bam, jasmine. Jasmine? I could never identify jasmine on its own, the word doesn’t really even mean anything to me and what it is remains beyond a guess. But jasmine just sounds somehow like the smell I’m getting, here in front of someone’s small herb garden where honestly it could be anything. Unlike the vaguely queasy overtones of dogwood and magnolia, this is slightly purer, much more direct and open and pleasant, though a bit on the sharp side. All our descriptions of smells are tales of sound, attributes of feelings, elements of vision. We do our best with what we are given. But what we are given now is a girl, a girl who must’ve adorned her skin with some reasonable facsimile of this at some point, maybe just for a day or two, but they were all gone too soon, weren’t they? Too long and too soon and this is a dangerous garden indeed on a walk alone at night and it is perhaps best to just away to the vague must of the sweat-rain-road.

The road. To car exhaust accented with dogshit. Yes, even car exhaust, it’s true, with its traffic jams and parking lots and urban street scenes. A night in New York City with debaters and the desire to step, just briefly, out into traffic, mostly of frustration, to give them something to honk about already, to make a gesture that one is a person, mad as hell, and all that jazz. Garages, their ramps aswirl, taillights ahead and the radios blaring the boredom of the people who only that moment realized that they could be doing something better with their lives.

And the scraping of the latter, the fetid infestation of so many days just become bad in the little grooves underfoot. No matter how many tilts and turns and bangs, the deep cuts of a sneaker does not relinquish all of its brown totem of dog, no amount of grass-blading or pen-picking or soaking is going to get the job done. There will be a little trail of stench with you the rest of the day, a bit headachey, mostly revolting, never quite acclimating as you turn your own nose and those around you. Less fun even than the infamous bird overhead, if only because that makes for such a better story of the caprice of fate than just misstepping into doo-doo.

They say that smell is the sense most linked to memory. We never cook meat at home, but we allowed an exception for guests over Mardi Gras and I awoke one morning to my grandmother’s kitchen, less a little tobacco at least, and actually had to pause when I saw someone sixty years her junior (and alive!) at the stovetop. The sizzle of bacon, more sound than smell, but oh that smell is a time machine swifter than all the rest combined, the political arguments and chewed straws, the ratty nightgowns and cackling, coughing laugh. “You’re joking!” Bounding down the musty carpeted staircase beneath the pirate-hatted Dutch painting my parents would later forget, never once awaking earlier than her at the stove with the little slices of slaughtered pig. And I at the little table where I would one day write my first book, transported, in one of those rickety chairs, wide-eyed with a sense of place and purpose and all of it being ahead of me.

And the smell so profoundly unleashed in a riveting performance of Our Town, back in New York City, and I wept openly with the drama of the reveal of what is always the best scene, but done now so over the top, so boldly and colorfully, and even with smell! “They don’t understand, do they?” And I wept on a shoulder that would be gone by summer’s end. “Oh, Earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?”

They say that smell is the sense most linked to memory. Don’t spite my face, just let me forget.


Unemployment Actually Down, Still Above 11%

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Tags: ,

Unemployment declined in February 2015 for the second straight month, to 11.42%. This is the lowest unemployment has been in the US since June 2009, when unemployment was 11.26%.

The Reporting Gap, which indicates how under-reported the official BLS figure is when failing to account for departures from the labor force, crept up to 5.92%, the third-highest rate to date. This puts the gap at nearly 108% of the reported figure, demonstrating that the BLS is ignoring 52% of those who are actually unemployed.

Unemployment in the US has been above 11% for 70 consecutive months. It has been above 10%, the highest reported figured by BLS during the Great Recession, for 72 consecutive months (six full years).

Here are your charts:

US actual (red) and report (blue) unemployment rate, 2009-2015

US actual (red) and report (blue) unemployment rate, 2009-2015

US "reporting gap" between actual and reported unemployment, 2009-2015

US “reporting gap” between actual and reported unemployment, 2009-2015

Unemployment in February was down 0.05% from January’s 11.47% and down sharply (0.24%) from December’s 11.66%. These are the most substantial improvements that have been demonstrated since late 2013, when unemployment fell below its spike in October 2013 to over 13%. Current trends seem to indicate that no one is re-entering the labor force, but those who have remained in the labor force are actually finding jobs at a slightly steadier pace at the outset of 2015. If these trends of improvement continue, unemployment may actually be below 10% by the end of 2016.

This is part of a continuing series on the under-reporting of unemployment in the United States of America.

Past posts (months indicate the month being analyzed – the post is in the month following):
December 2014 – labor force participation assessment
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014 – age assessment
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
April 2014
December 2013 – seasonal assessment
December 2013
March 2013*
August 2012*
July 2012* – age assessment
July 2012*

*My initial analyses led to a slight over-reporting of the impact of the reporting gap, so the assessments in these posts are inflated, as explained and corrected in the December 2013 analysis.


Overpopulation and the Growth Obsession

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,



Did you ever wonder why property values always (2008 aside) go up?

It just feels like one of those economic truths we imbibe at a young age, probably before we even take an Economics class, for those of us who are fortunate enough to grow up with educational opportunities. Cars will depreciate 50% when you drive them off the lot. You should save some of your money. The stock market’s long term trends are up (gulp). And housing and other land values will always rise over time.

In a world where the entire planet has been mapped and we haven’t started earnestly shipping people to Mars or Titan or Space Station XLVI, there’s really one fundamental reason for the value of property increasing. Overpopulation.

I guess one could say that it’s judgmental to call increases in population “overpopulation”. This is a touchy issue for a lot of people, not least of which are those who believe we are mandated to “be fruitful and multiply”. When I was younger, I was pretty convinced that overpopulation was the #2 moral issue in the world, behind violence, and I’d still probably put it in my top five. Most all of the direct causes of violence and injustice in our world derive from scarcity, and scarcity is directly related to overpopulation. No matter how equally we distributed resources and pooled efforts, we could not, tomorrow, support a planet of 100 billion people. And while that number seems utterly crazy, our current 7 billion would have seemed equally crazy to people a century ago.

I’m sure you’re all at least a little familiar with this chart:

World population, 0-2015

World population, 0-2015

That’s a terrifying growth rate. The acceleration of the human population on the world is pretty directly correlated to the overall negative impact our footprint is having on the planet. The first grips of the Industrial Revolution were dirty and destroyed certain regions (black moths, anyone?), but the full-scale acceleration of the size of the species has really started the wheels turning on some major devastation. I’m known among my peers for being a bit of a climate change skeptic (I just don’t believe we could possibly have enough data to be sure of the long-term trends), but I believe firmly that it’s good that people believe in climate change because it’s the first thing that’s been able to convince pretty much anyone to reconsider our obsession with growth and conquering nature. Somehow generating mass extinctions, dropping a miles-wide trash gyre into the Pacific, and slaughtering a healthy portion of the flora and fauna on the globe haven’t made anyone blink. I guess because the impact on us is less obvious. We have to believe that we will be uncomfortably hot or wet to start caring.

While I often go around lambasting human myopia, the swift upward trajectory of that chart at least explains our myopia a little bit. This sea change in growth and expansion of our planetary presence hit pretty recently and we weren’t prepared to think about it from a philosophical perspective. I’m being a bit charitable, of course, because the prevailing belief is that there are no philosophical perspectives to be had, full stop. Philosophy is a waste of time, they say, but science will cure all ills and answer all questions. This makes the desperation many scientists are expressing over climate change poignant almost to the point of humor – they keep banging the scientific drum, but a philosophical solution is their only hope. After all, science spends the rest of its time openly mocking and eschewing moral judgments or even ought statements whatsoever. Suddenly the scientific community is upset that no one is motivated by a moral judgment when they keep flinging sheets of data at people. It’s almost like we have to have a set of beliefs and principles and those will dictate our actions far better than any scientific “fact”.

I’ll get off my soapbox in a minute, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all this destruction has ramped up while we’ve been openly wrecking our institutions of philosophy and morality. Sure, most organized religions are riddled with some level of hypocrisy and corruption at the top, which is why I shy away from them. But it’s insane to conclude that because some human efforts to interpret God and morality on the planet have gone sour that the whole enterprise is bogus. This is exactly like finding out that James Frey made up parts of A Million Little Pieces and swearing off reading or learning about the scientist who manipulated the vaccine/autism study and saying that all science is fabricated. And yet, aided by the pre-eminent belief structures of our day (science and capitalism), that’s exactly what most people have done with not only religion, but also philosophy and morality of any kind. And we’re surprised by the greed, selfishness, and devastation our species is unleashing? You first have to believe that something can be wrong to even be capable of engaging the question of whether your own actions are wrong and then get to the heavy business of self-improvement.

So what assumptions and implicit moral judgments are ordering our daily life if we’ve handed the reigns to science and, far more influentially, capitalism? Well, the main one is growth.

I’ve talked a bit before on this blog about our cancerous obsession with growth on this planet and its ill effects. But I’ve usually discussed it in terms of how illogical it is to believe in eternal growth, like some sort of perpetual motion machine, just spinning up and up and up forever. Only recently did I realize that the engine of that growth – and the thing that seems to mask its illogic – is overpopulation. And property is the easiest place to see this. If we have a fixed amount of land in our world (face it, no one’s moving to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch), then it will only gain in real value if the population increases. If the population is stable, land values will be stable. And if the population decreases, land values will decrease.

No wonder it’s conventional wisdom of the capitalistic era to invest in land for a sure return! Just look at that spike in population, putting pressure on those land values. And sure, there’s a desirability cut to add in here, especially if we’re considering buildings on that land. People would rather live in New York City than rural Syria right now. People would rather live somewhere newly renovated than a jungled-over home in the Lower Ninth Ward. But those are only influences on the overall trend. Greater population, greater value.

And to an extent, this principle is what influences and generates a belief in all of capitalism. Every company must not only profit each year, but increase profits. But as long as more people are being born than are dying, there are new target markets to be acquired and it’s feasible to sell more every single year. The total insanity of this obsession with endless growth, rather than maintenance, is completely hidden by the skyrocketing overpopulation that makes it seem contextually sane.

And I guess it would be sane, to an extent, if our planet were not shuddering under the weight of the impact of our growth. If we could guarantee infinite resources and the ecosystems of the world weren’t folding up shop and disappearing, then it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe this model even made sense when the planet’s population was 500 million people and had room for some more. But with the amount of understanding we’ve accumulated now, not to mention global connectedness, continuing on in this manner is criminal.

Obviously the solution to overpopulation is not some giant die-off. I do not wish to see a war or a plague or some kind of draconian set of death panels unleashed on the species. And, incidentally, I think this reality is an interesting refutation to that particular branch of conspiracy theories that hypothesizes that people will be slaughtered en masse after some kind of major round-up as the end-game of capitalism. To the extent that there might be a unified capitalist effort, it wants the opposite result. It needs a population of 10 billion, 20 billion to generate enough people in the lower class to keep the hierarchical structures intact. Slaughtering all those at the bottom would make the wheels fall off of capitalism because it would eliminate the scarcity that keeps people at the bottom hungry, afraid, and willing to work endlessly for virtually no remuneration.

But there must be a solution to overpopulation. Because we simply can’t go on like this. If anyone really examines and considers the implications of that chart sincerely, I think they’ll agree. Most people’s only alternative to limiting our growth trajectory is just hoping blindly that science figures out ways to solve problems faster than we generate them. That science will declare that food can be generated from air alone, or that we’re ready to terraform and colonize Mars tomorrow, opening up a whole new world to pillage and ruin, or that we have a fleet of space stations that can happily hold the extra 10 billion. This is what you get when you invest everything in science and ridicule philosophy – no one is really thinking about the long-term plan and everyone just hopes science invents some new piece of magic that makes the solution seem obvious and justifies not thinking about it creatively.

After all, what science rejects most heartily is the question why. Well, second most heartily, behind the question should. Science believes these inquiries are incoherent, replacing them wholly with what and how. But why is the question we need to be asking about infinite growth of the species. Do we really need to put 20 billion folks on this Earth? And won’t the scarcity that ensues be so devastating that we’ll have found a very ugly and deadly solution to the overpopulation problem by default?

I try to do a lot of thinking about what would steer the planetary course from a growth-oriented belief structure and system to a maintenance-oriented structure. The only people who have ever thought seriously about this and happened to have significant leadership positions are the Chinese government in the second half of the 20th century. Now I’m not here to defend all of their beliefs and decisions, but the one-child policy was a serious effort to curtail the wild endless growth of the population without resorting to a more dangerous solution to curb population growth. China, for the first time in human history, was willing to question the assumed absolute right to procreate as much as possible, and the results were quite positive for their society. And I think such a belief structure and willingness could only come from a society that favored communism to capitalism, because it stemmed from favoring equality and maintenance over inequality and growth.

Of course, all of that has now been lost and discarded. China has gotten in the growth game and is doing it better and faster than anyone, embracing capitalism and easing the one-child policy and its egalitarian roots. So it goes. But it does at least leave us with one piece of the blueprint for how to, eventually, build the maintenance-society.

But even if the planet weren’t about to start coughing and spluttering under the weight of all this human growth, I think shifting to a maintenance-society would still be a moral issue we must embrace. The byproduct of the growth-obsessed society is the accumulation of wealth at the top and poverty in the long, long tail of the plurality of society at the bottom. You want to know why the middle-class rhetoric of the last sixty years in America is so appealing? Because it’s where most people want to be. Even though we are taught to dream of riches and wealth and being able to figuratively or literally own our fellow person, the intuitive home for most folks is to be in the middle of the pack. The problem is that capitalism is constantly threshing most people in the middle of the pack downward and anointing a few people up to the top, constantly striving to stratify harder and harder as pressure is applied on everyone to work harder, faster, longer for less pay.

This is not some anomaly of the last few years in a down economy. It is happening everywhere and for good reason. It is the natural design of capitalism. It solves itself as a wealth accumulation and stratification system.

And even if we can hack back the worst effects of that to constantly alter it at the margins, why do we embrace such a system in the first place? The justification given is always growth. Look at how much we’ve grown under capitalism! Look at all the shiny new buildings! Look at all the people laboring harder than ever! Look at our stock portfolios! This engine is just going going going going going forever! Hooray!

But it’s pretty empty, especially when real quality of life is diminishing for most everyone. And the breakthroughs in technology and replacement of work are making people more desperate to work for less, rather than improving leisure and relaxation. We are reaching a horizon where, despite our perilously swift growth rate in population, if work and effort were equally distributed, most people would not have to work all that hard. The payment? We’d have to accept maintenance instead of growth. We’d have to have fewer children and accept that they will have lives that are more or less like our own, maybe slightly better or slightly worse. We’d have to get comfortable with a world where that goes on forever.

The problem is that we’ve conflated economic growth with all other kinds of progress. Making this declaration does not mean we’d stop researching science or inventing technology or curing diseases, let alone creating art or entertainment or social advancement. It means, in fact, that the focus would be on those endeavors for their own sake rather than as a means of economic advancement. Which mostly just means we’d lose the worst renditions of all those efforts. Gone would be the lousy mass-market paperback, the blockbuster action movie, Viagra for dogs, and anything else that exists merely because an army of marketing geniuses can convince you to buy it when it serves no purpose. Instead, we’d only have room and time for the truly inspired art, the worthwhile science, because these efforts would be made for communal benefit and their own inspiration instead of a cutthroat game of accumulation and self-advancement.

It may sound dreamily utopian, but it’s really the immediate natural consequence of a philosophical shift from growth to maintenance. The profit motive has happened to inspire some incredible things, it’s true. But those things did not require the profit motive to motivate them. People still want to make art and cure diseases even if no one is going to pay them for it. But the worst science and creativity we’ve seen is entirely motivated by making quick cash. And that’s what we need to eliminate.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the bloated legal and financial architectures that are, to date, swallowing most of the best young minds I know. There is nothing gained from a society that invests most of its energies and prestige into these institutions. Law should be a technical thing that guides behavior quietly in the background, not that generates an entire industry that is constantly growing and consuming swaths of the society, putting more people in prison than in any other realm and making everyone fear for their endeavors and hire their own team of lawyers to read the fine print. Financial instruments, if we are to have them at all, should gently enable people to maintain their holdings so they can subsist at a reasonable quality of life, not gamble to be able to bow out of life artificially early or take advantage of others in society and leave them destitute. These things are crazy. No one would design a society willfully, philosophically, from the ground up, and include American legal and financial systems.

And yet the high remuneration and the twin pressures of a student debt machine and a terrible economy are funneling the best and brightest into these worlds, ensuring they do very little good for the world. The best among them promise that they will donate their riches someday to efforts that are actually producing something good for the world (or more often just trying to bail water from the negative byproducts), but this is much like nobly promising to repair a house after spending a life ransacking it. Isn’t it just better to do upkeep on what is, frankly, a pretty decent house in the first place?

All any of this takes to change is changing how we think about the world, our values, and what is good. Capitalism has taken an infectious and dangerous hold on our world outlook and it’s about to bring us all to the brink of ruin. Maybe not in my lifetime, maybe not in yours, but if we don’t start thinking about the 2150 world now, we’re being grossly irresponsible. It’s no coincidence that janitors and maintenance folks are the people we revere the least in our society. We have to flip our values, and fast, if we’re going to avoid the doomsday scenarios of slaughter, plague, or just barrenness on this planet.

They made a movie about a lot of this stuff last year, a movie that critics loved and no one wanted to see. It was really unnecessarily violent and brought me to the edge of walking out on those grounds alone, but the point it was making was excellent. It was called Snowpiercer and it modeled our planet as a perpetual-motion train, tiered by rigidly-enforced classes, and running literally on the sweat and toil of the torture of the children of the underclass. Periodically, a certain portion of the underclass would be slaughtered to maintain a safe number of people living on the train so that the little world did not grow beyond its means.

This movie got almost everything right with a grand metaphor about human structures. Where it failed, though, was limiting the size of the train. We don’t have some maniacal person at the top orchestrating the slaughter of the lower classes. We just add more and more people at every level and institute systems that wherever most of them are born, they will eventually die at the back of the train. And we hold up the few people who jump cars as models for everyone to show how fair and great this class struggle is.

The problem is that we have the resources to put everyone on the train in the middle of the pack. They’d just have to be okay with the train stopping. With us appreciating exactly what we have, exactly what we’ve been given. With striving and struggling to create new ideas and inventions for their own sake rather than to be better than our neighbor. With choosing to be a basketball player or a musician or a president because those are our true calling, not because they come with extra pay. With choosing to be a janitor, maybe, because maintenance is noble and true and what we should actually aspire to.

You may call me a dreamer. But there are alternatives to the nightmare train we’re on. And we can either choose to get off or watch the train, eventually, go over the side of a cliff. Sometimes it takes radical change that’s voluntary to avoid much more devastating, involuntary radical change.


Pancakes Make Me Hungrier

Categories: A Day in the Life, Call and Response, Marching to New Orleans, Tags: , ,

I know they look like food.  But in my experience, they are a pill to make you want more food.

I know they look like food. But in my experience, they are a pill to make you want more food.

That term: “pancakes make me hungrier” appears nowhere on the Internet as a phrase. Until now.

I had pancakes for breakfast yesterday, the second time in about a week, at a place that New Orleanians seem to adore called the Ruby Slipper. It’s a brunch place, but doing brunch all the time, and breakfast is normally my thing. It’s also the closest breakfast place to my work, which is convenient on mornings when Alex has to drop me off at 6:55 AM because she needs the car that day. I’ve been regularly opening my office at around 7:45 after having breakfast – going in at 7:00 foodless would be doubly problematic. So it’s the Ruby Slipper for me, so named to honor those who returned to NOLA post-Katrina because (you guessed it) there’s no place like home! It’s a neat place.

The problem is that I’ve been rolling around the menu, a very rare habit for me (I’m the find one thing I like to eat and stick with it type) in the quest for my one thing at Ruby. The quest is made difficult by the fact that most things come with breakfast meats and the only reasonable substitution is usually potatoes and the potatoes at Ruby are just not my thing. Which is crazy for two reasons – 1. potatoes are always my thing and 2. the potatoes are too burnt. Two wouldn’t be a crazy thing for anything else, but “too burnt” isn’t really in my vocabulary as an eater. I always want things crispy and overdone and burnt, especially bread and potatoes. Honestly, if they were hashbrowns, they’d be perfect, but instead they are these charred little nuggets of homefries that honestly seem like someone took day-old homefries and stuck them in the fryer for an hour. They just taste like char. I dunno, maybe it’s a Southern thing.

Well last Thursday, I landed on my one thing at Ruby. The full stack of pancakes with fresh fruit. They’re filling and delicious and fresh and sweet and everything you want from a pancake. Even crispy on the edges! And they’re cheaper than a lot of the menu and the fruit-for-meat substitution is already a given option (I often get tired of always asking for exceptions) and there are no little burnt nuggets of potato to have to push around the plate. And I only let a tiny bit of me worry about what would happen to my stomach long-term with that much pancake in it.

I should have been more concerned. Right on cue, around noon, the bottom fell out of my stomach and I started getting ravenously hungry. There is a type of hungry I get occasionally, and got much more often when I was younger, that makes me feel like I’ve become a diabetic overnight. I call it “panic hunger” and it involves a cold sweat, an immediate need to eat, a craving for bread products specifically, and extremely sudden onset of the hunger. I’ve experienced it enough (say, 50ish times) in my life to be able to identify its taxonomy and traits so that its sudden hitting doesn’t actually make me panic anymore. The protocol in my late youth and early adulthood for this was to go to the kitchen (it disproportionately hits late at night), eat two slices of bread, put two more in the toaster, eat the toast, and then eat two more slices of bread. As fast as I physically could consume all that. Only by slice #6 does the panic start to subside and then I just wait for all the other bread to hit my stomach like the filler it’s designed to be.

But I was on a work call on Thursday when this started happening and I was quickly losing the ability to functionally respond or be a person. And I had to walk a mile to get to a purveyor of bread, Panera. By the time I got there, I ate a grilled cheese sandwich, asiago cheese bagel, cinnamon roll, and tomato soup in minutes.

Pancakes are one of two foods I’ve identified in my life that usually, and definitely increasingly, cause this or a similar level of sudden hunger relatively shortly after their consumption. The other food, which behaves almost exactly the same way, is injera, the spongy bread that is served with Ethiopian food. If you think about it, pancakes and injera are pretty similar foods, with lot of air-holes in the middle and that same general fluffy texture. For some reason the heavier utthapam, the South Indian savory discs often described as pancakes, don’t seem to elicit the same reaction.

This is problematic because 1. I love pancakes and injera and 2. I can’t seem to find anyone else who has this issue to be able to relate to it. For years, every meal of pancakes or Ethiopian shared with someone has prompted me to discuss how these foods make me hungrier afterwards and I only get blank looks in return. Injera specifically is noted on the Internet and personal testimony for its filling nature. Injera works so quickly on my stomach that I have joked that I could literally eat infinite injera for the rest of my life because Ethiopian meals are usually leisurely enough that I’ve started to get hungry again by the time we’re wrapping up the meal – I’m the guy who orders another small entree and another plate full of injera in hour two, or used to until I realized it could be an infinite loop.

A quick Google search for “pancakes make me hungry” yields 14,600 results, but almost all of them are people writing salivating comments on foodies’ Instagrams about how their fresh-made hotcakes are making them yearn to eat. And, as mentioned up top, changing that last word to hungrier yields a phrase that, until Google indexes this post, doesn’t exist on the Internet. Am I the only person in the world that feels this way about pancakes and injera??

It would feel less isolating if it were just a feeling, although part of that is a testament to how we belittle feelings in our society while making the body of paramount concern. But it’s a physical reaction that I can’t control. Granted, my behavior around food is typically unique – no one else agrees with me that food can never be “too dry”, for example – but this is actually just a type of food affecting my physiology in the opposite way it affects everyone else’s. It seems troubling. There should be at least one other person out there who experiences this!

The best explanation I can come up with for this physical reality (remember that I’m not much of a sciencey guy, so if this is laughably wrong, go easy on me) is that these spongy breads are designed to absorb water. Just look at how quickly pancakes drink up any syrup you add to them. And at any given time, because I’m a constant water-drinker, a ton of my stomach’s contents are water. And that water, as water does, gives me an artificially inflated sense of being full. In comes the pancakes/injera and it sops up all the water very quickly, draining my stomach of its normal contents. Enter the panic-hunger.

This process seems to make sense physically and certainly works with the given timelines – it’s not like I’m hungry 5 minutes after eating pancakes. The average time for pancakes is probably about 3 hours or so and injera closer to 2. Which seems like a reasonable time for the given food to travel to the stomach and start soaking up all the water it can find. I’m not sure that explains why the hunger, once the requisite time has passed, is so sudden and so extreme, but it’s the start of a theory. And I guess it explains my uniqueness with this phenomenon – I probably drink more water than most others.

That said, the main impetus for writing this post was to find the other person(s) who feel this way. It is just crazy that no one has imprinted our web with the words “pancakes make me hungrier” until now. Or “injera makes me hungrier” (also unprecedented). Where are you, people? Have you figured out this phenomenon for yourselves? What’s your work-around? Or have you just given up on those foods unless you’re trying to jump wrestling weight-classes?

Inquiring stomachs want to know.


Moment of Reflection

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

The face of equal opportunity in America.  Courtesy a website apparently doing a documentary of my old workplace, Glide.

The face of equal opportunity in America. Courtesy a website apparently doing a documentary of my old workplace, Glide.

Last night, I had a disquieting and somewhat absurd realization that most people think it’s fine for some people to be rich and other people to be poor. I was struck anew by how difficult I actually find that to believe.

I’m a debater at heart and can defend any proposition if I really need to for the sake of argument. And I know all the arguments and have been through them with people. I’ve been called naive and I’ve dealt with incentive arguments until the cows come home. I’m not sure I really want this post to be about that. Because I think, sometimes, we get lost in the analytical and it takes us away from the profound wrongness of the assumptions so often underlying our society.

It hit me when Alex was talking about a cruise she went on in childhood during a particular time in her upbringing when her family had more access than other times. And I just thought “gee, not everyone gets to go on a cruise when they’re young.” And it seemed obviously, fundamentally unfair. Not necessarily because cruises are the yardstick by which we ought measure a life, but because it’s just one of those things, like getting to go to Disneyland or having enough to eat at home or not being beaten, that is extremely unequally distributed among children. And even you hard-core right-wingers out there will have a hard time arguing that children truly deserve the fate they are born into. That the children of tycoons deserve hundreds of times the upbringing that the children of the homeless do, just for winning the lottery of birth or sharing genetic material with the already successful.

I’m not really trying to elicit an analytical reaction here, because I think that it gets in the way in this instance. Which brings up an interesting paradox, because the longer this post gets, the more our analytical brain takes over and starts opposing the initial thesis and coming up with justifications. Maybe I should just end it now and leave you with the image of a refugee fleeing their home in contrast to an heir lounging by the pool. But somehow even refugees miss the point, because as hard as their lives are, no one builds refugees into the plan. Pretty much everyone acknowledges that we should help refugees and try to prevent their need to flee. But it seems not so with poor kids. We’ve deliberately designed our society to generate poor kids.

It’s very popular these days to say “no excuses!” and to trot out examples of the few poor kids who overcome their hardships and make it to the top of the food chain as a demonstration that anyone can overcome any circumstance. But it’s rarer to ask why we have a food chain at all when designing a society. Animals have a food chain, but they lack flush toilets and libraries and the ability, perhaps, to ponder their place in the cosmos and to try to alter it profoundly. Aspiring to a system of incentives based on animal behavior seems too close to being able to justify slavery or endless war or eating one’s fellow person, literally or figuratively, if nature appears to call for it.

Which I think gets to the critique I most often am asked to wrestle with, which is just how radical or “out there” my arguments sound to the average person. The naturalistic fallacy, that what is innately is what ought to be, is still the predominant justification for war, torture, poverty, vast incarceration, and all the other ills plaguing our species. It’s actually a defter and more advanced rendition of the naturalistic fallacy, which is that what is is awfully close to what must be. It actually tends to leave “ought” out of the equation altogether. This is where I get into gradualism vs. radicalism debates with people, because the underlying assumption of most folks seems to be that radicalism is infeasible, so gradualism is just the best we can hope to do.

I find this unsettling because the only things keeping gradualism afloat are the boundaries of these underlying assumptions in the first place. It’s very circular. If one believes that we cannot quickly overhaul our systems to ditch things that reward abhorrent behavior because things will always be that way, then we cement the very mentality that makes it so. People have actually made this argument to fight the abolition of slavery, the equalization of rights for women and minority races, and gay marriage. None of which were achieved by gradualism and all of which represent sea-changes in the order of society for those who were oldest when they were enacted. And yet no one standing in 2015 can really comprehend the depravity of 1850s America and its treatment of all these oppressed groups or could imagine traveling there and putting up with it.

So why is contemplating that same level of change in the next century or so so difficult?

There is a certain hubris to being in the present. We assume that we are the terminal point in human understanding and achievement because we feel so much better than all those who came before us. We revel in the progress we’ve made since 1850, or 1550, and assume that we must be reaching a vanishing point of accomplishment. Because we’ve learned about radical change in history books, we assume those are the only radical changes that were necessary. And, more damningly, because they already happened, those changes feel inevitable. Because they happened, we lose sight of how radical and scary those changes were at the time and we assume they would have always conspired to take place. We feel pride in our institutions, our upbringing, our whereabouts, because this is a natural human bias. And everything in our society inculcates and reinforces this pride, not least of which is the endless stream of politicians telling us that contemporary America is the best that ever has been, that ever will be.

But some people still get to live their whole lives rich and others live their whole lives poor. Some people will suffer and struggle and face every possible obstacle, while others have advantages at every level of access and freedom. And all of this simply because of the design of our society, because we have chosen to structure the rules this way. How is this possibly a thing?

If you’re arguing against me right now, with something about natural order or the need for incentives, or the way things have been done or life being cold and cruel and unfair, that’s fine. But ask yourself if the same argument(s) could be used to justify slavery in 1850. Ask yourself if the same argument(s) could be used to justify feudalism, or divine-right monarchy, or the practice of pillaging and enslaving a conquered society. Ask yourself if the underlying assumptions you apply to 2015 were applied to generate imperialism. Because I have a funny feeling you will have a very hard time indeed making an argument that doesn’t apply to those past situations. And I bet you find those past states of being to be unthinkably abhorrent.

The only thing keeping us from a world of fairness, equality, and reasonability is ourselves. We imprison our own futures with the walls of “possibility”. We rule out what is morally necessary with the presumption of what is physically doable, not realizing that it is only those assumptive limits that set the parameters of what we can do. If we all decided tomorrow that being poor was simply an unacceptable burden to place on a child, we could implement the steps in society to make it so.

We have made this radical change time and again on so many other policies that seemed like they’d long been obvious as soon as they were finally implemented. Think about what 2150 humans will look back on with disgust and start believing that we can change that in 2016, not 2149.


In the Ballpark

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

New Orleans has brought me my first-ever NFL game and second- and third-ever NBA games in quick succession (and I have a feeling that, at those ticket prices, we’re going to become Pelicans semi-regulars). But it sadly lacks an MLB team or stadium, though I am excited to check out the AAA team when spring finally arrives in earnest.

But it is March and I just had a mini-debate on Facebook about whether Dodger Stadium is great or just meh (spoiler alert: it’s just meh) and it got me thinking about what the all-time great ballparks are. It also reminded me that I’ve long been meaning to, in one cogent place, compile the list of ballparks I’ve been to for a baseball game, in part to construct the to-do list for the next few years (while I’m taking breaks from training to reprise Rim to Rim to Rim). Though I think I somehow managed to never see one in San Diego despite all the visits to see Fish during his college days, and I overtly skipped my planned trip to Busch in St. Louis to play a poker tournament instead, back in 2011 on the verge of my personal poker revival. It’s hard to be interested in so many things.

I’ve also decided to leave AAA stadiums (and lower) out for now because I think it muddies the waters and makes comparisons more difficult.

BAL1. Oriole Park at Camden Yards
Baltimore Orioles – Baltimore, Maryland
It’s not my favorite team, though it’s up there, but I don’t think anyone’s quite been able to top the original revival of retro-style ballparks. The Warehouse is just magnificent. The skyline is awesome and every seat in the place is great.

SF2. AT&T Park
San Francisco Giants – San Francisco, California
This is a very close second, with the scales possibly tipped by how many times I nearly froze to death in these stands in the early 2000s. The view of the water and the possibility of splash-downs are the highlight here, along with the retro architecture that will dominate the top spots in my list.

SEA3. Safeco Field
Seattle Mariners – Seattle, Washington
Well I wasn’t going to put the home of my favorite team down too far! A classic example of retro style, all the amenities of a top modern ballpark, and the Mariners! Plus the retractable roof is just plain cool, even if you never saw the Kingdome’s falling tiles.

PIT4. PNC Park
Pittsburgh Pirates – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
I know this one will surprise a lot of people, but I’m a sucker for skylines. Pittsburgh as a whole is an impressive and surprising city and the Pirates’ gem of a stadium stands out among the reasons. Plus, tickets were amazingly cheap during their endless losing years.

BOS5. Fenway Park
Boston Red Sox – Boston, Massachusetts
Some classic stadiums will not do well on this list, but Fenway, despite its creaks and quirks, really is magical. It’s hard to argue with the Green Monster or the obstruction poles and it just feels like the 1920s in there as soon as you set foot. Fond memories don’t hurt the ranking here either.

DET6. Comerica Park
Detroit Tigers – Detroit, Michigan
Another surprise to many, but so many cool unique features like the huge scoreboard and the old-school runway between the mound and the plate.

PHL7. Citizens Bank Park
Philadelphia Phillies – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Solid retro feel and cool field shape with great scoreboard and light features. Points off, a bit, for being too far from the Philly skyline to really appreciate it. But good use of brick inside and out.

HOU8. Minute Maid Park
Houston Astros – Houston, Texas
It doesn’t hurt that they’ve gone from repping Enron to repping orange juice, but I was really pleasantly surprised by this park and not just because we had 3rd row seats late in the season. Unique feel, the left field wall is awesome, and I personally like the hill in center field – perhaps because I don’t have to play there.

CHC9. Wrigley Field
Chicago Cubs – Chicago, Illinois
I can hear the purists screaming at me, but there’s something to be said for the feel of a park and this one was a little bit off-putting. Maybe it was all the day-drinking Chicagoans. Chicago and I have always had a rocky relationship at best. Points for Ivy and history, of course.

COL10. Coors Field
Colorado Rockies – Denver, Colorado
A very solid middle-of-the-pack entry, with good amenities and a nice overall feel. It’s huge and usually packed, which adds excitement, but there’s no special standout features other than lots of seats.

TEX11. Globe Life Park
Texas Rangers – Arlington, Texas
When I visited, it wasn’t under that name, but I was really impressed by the retro feel of the park and all the classic brickwork outside the stadium (these pictures fail to capture the beauty of the external buildings). But a little overbuilt in center field.

WSH12. Nationals Park
Washington Nationals – Washington, DC
This one may be getting put a bit lower than it should because a lot of its cool features are patriotic and that leaves me a little cold. The Presidents race is awfully fun, but all the stars and stripes are a little much for me at times. Really, Colorado, Texas, and Washington are very similar and interchangeable. Points for metro access, points off for humid heat.

CHW13. US Cellular Field
Chicago White Sox – Chicago, Illinois
I probably would like this stadium more if it weren’t in Chicago and weren’t named after a cellphone company. We’re allowed our biases in lists like this. I do like the lights a lot.

ANA14. Angel Stadium of Anaheim
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – Anaheim, California
Now we start to turn the corner into subpar parks, and not just because they insist on superfluously adding “of Anaheim” to everything like some weird civic brochure. The random rock structure in left-center just doesn’t do it for me. There’s no skyline because suburban LA. And the years of rivalry with the Angels don’t help anything for me either.

LAD15. Dodger Stadium
Los Angeles Dodgers – Los Angeles, California
Ah, the park that started the whole debate. Samburg’s friend said it felt like stepping into the sixties to visit and that’s exactly why it’s so low on my list. The 60s were the era when America took a hacksaw to architecture and stadium aesthetics. It’s a monument to concrete. There’s nothing actively offensive about this stadium, but nothing particularly good either. Plus, the Dodgers.

FLA16. Pro Player Stadium (defunct)
Florida Marlins – Miami, Florida
This square stadium had really cool ramps on the corners to walk up and down and a bunch of empty red seats to stare at while watching the game. There was really nothing to write home about from debate camp when I went, other than it being kind of amazing that actual Major Leaguers would play in this stadium.

OAK17. Coliseum
Oakland Athletics – Oakland, California
Everything that could be wrong with a baseball stadium. Appalling names that change every other year, concrete on top of concrete, too many seats that obstruct any possible view (and aren’t used anyway). Multi-purpose. Ick.

NYY18. Yankee Stadium
New York Yankees – New York, New York
Is it probably technically a little better than Oakland’s stadium? Yes. Do I care? No. The Yankees play here. And it is in every way the most overrated stadium in baseball history. There is nothing aesthetic or cool about this park and it was modeled on a park that was in no way aesthetic or cool. Why? Just, why? Babe Ruth was good at hitting homers, but not so much at building houses.

MIN19. Metrodome (defunct)
Minnesota Twins – Minneapolis, Minnesota
I love the Twins and hate the Yankees, but even I recognize that a dome belongs on the bottom of any sane list of ballparks. Just look at that turf. Look at it! And the weird blue folded-up seats in right field that haunted home-run highlights of early days of ESPN watching? It’s like they weren’t even trying. The roof was soft and had kind of a billowy effect. That was cool, I guess.

SEAKing20. Kingdome (defunct)
Seattle Mariners – Seattle, Washington
This is hard, because my first-ever Major League game was here, and my second and third, and the team that I adore saved baseball in Seattle in playoff games in this place. But it is, objectively, the worst building to ever host a baseball game in the history of humanity. My Little League field with an all-gravel right field and no fence was a better shrine to baseball.

I’m not quite sure I’d realized I’d been to so many parks, though I need to loop back to the replacement fields in Miami and Minneapolis. I’ve seen 17 of the 30 actives, though, which is a pretty cool fact, and really San Diego and Arizona should be easy to pick up to complete the West. And Atlanta while I’m living in the South, and maybe even Tampa Bay, if only to complete the 20s in this list. I think the one I may most want at this point is Milwaukee, which I toured around when last there, but it wasn’t a game day, so I didn’t really get to see it.


401(k)’s and IRAs are a Pyramid Scheme

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Tags: ,

Bernie Madoff, after being arrested in 2009.  If only he had called it "saving for retirement!"

Bernie Madoff, after being arrested in 2009. If only he had called it “saving for retirement!”

The stock market is booming! On Wednesday, February 25th, 2015, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at an all-time record-high of 18,224.57 points. This is getting awfully close to triple the March 2009 lows and is, according to all the experts, a sign that the economy is officially Back (TM). It’s also a sign that everyone should always invest all expendable capital in the market because it has a unidirectional future: up!


Well, as long as people keep buying into the pyramid. Your investment will definitely pay off as long as you can convince five more people behind you to make the same investment. So far, this has been a pretty effective strategy for keeping the empty engine of stock market growth churning and covering up for gaping holes in the economy, like the fact that unemployment is actually over 11%.

But you don’t need to convince anyone to buy into the pyramid! That work is already being handled by the private equity firms that manage your 401(k) and IRA funds, your replacement for savings accounts in the New Economy. They keep using the recent past performance of skyrocketing market growth to convince more and more employers and individuals to ditch silly things like interest in favor of the big-money roller-coaster of US corporate equities. The percentage of individually held assets in these funds is becoming dizzying, especially when measured as a percentage of the total market capitalization of the stock market as a whole. And it can only go up, as long as regularly forced increments of investment continue to be drawn from every working man, woman, and child in the United States.

According to the World Federation of Exchanges (WFE), the total market capitalization of the two major US markets is a little over $26 trillion, a number that no one alive is possibly capable of understanding. The world’s market capitalization is approaching $64 trillion, which, ditto. We can at least pretend to understand the relationship between a number like 26 and a number like 64, so maybe just forget the trillion? I dunno.

Meanwhile, according to the Commerce Department, US asset managers are running about $19 trillion worth of US pension assets, mostly through 401(k)’s and IRAs, though I’m sure there are a smattering of larger pension funds in there as well. Though that number is from the end of 2012, so I’m sure the last two years have seen vast growth in that category. After all, something called the Investment Company Institute put the 2012 figure at $19.9 trillion and the 2013 figure at $23 trillion, a 15.5% increase in one year. So it’s probably much higher by the end of 2014, which is where the $26 trillion market capitalization figure comes from.

Now, granted, not all of that money is invested directly into the US stock market. Some of it goes into the global markets, though a pretty small percentage. Some of it is managed by stodgy old conservatives who put it into negative-savings-rate fixed income funds or the like. We’re not actually to the point of craziness where the entire market is held by pension and retirement funds of one kind or another (at which point the pyramid will be looking mighty unstable indeed). But let’s try to get an estimate of what the percentage really is, a number that no one seems to want to report and has to be extrapolated from various reports.

Here, I made you a chart:

Based on data from the ICI and a couple extrapolations.

Based on data from the ICI and a couple extrapolations.

Please note that the 50% figure for other institutions was just a super-conservative figure I threw together that by all accounts is probably much higher. It’s too hard to scrape together data from individual investments and national, state, and local pension funds and all that extra jazz. It’s also worth noting that the 61% figure is extrapolated from the average between investors in their 60’s (~50%) and investors in their 20’s (~72%) as far as equity holdings, so that number may actually be a bit aggressive. So let’s round this chart down to $15 trillion to be extra-extra conservative.

What was that total US market cap again? $26 trillion?

Again, I know that not all of these equities are US stocks. Some people are buying UK companies or investing in China and Russia. So it’s not actually 58% of the US stock market that’s held by these kinds of funds. Maybe it’s 50%. Maybe it’s 45%. But whatever it is, it’s an unbelievable and unprecedented percentage of total investment in the market that’s been generated by a few wealth managing companies auto-investing into the stock market.

It should be noted that they don’t invest in the stock market because it will have a good return or because stocks are safe or something. They just invest in the stock market because you’re supposed to invest in the market. Which is kind of the definition how pyramid-scheme buying works. You buy something because other people buy it and, as long as everyone unthinkingly follows this mantra, the returns will increase.

The problems here should be obvious. All this investment is not being made by shrewdly calculating people hoping to garner safe and viable investments for their clients, whatever the rhetoric is. At best, it’s blind pyramid-scheme buying and at worst, it’s directly manipulated. There are countless articles all over the Internet about the fact that most hedge funds and money management companies are directly using their clients’ money to serve the interests of the company’s direct investments instead, often ensuring that they profit off the decline of the held accounts. The moral hazard of managing other people’s money is well documented. And then there’s the more common and popular critique of 401k’s as discussed in this Salon article, demonstrating the enormous fees levied for the privilege of dumping your money in the market. At best, they are skimming massive percentages off the top that consume your return; at worst, they are making these charges for the courtesy of squandering and mismanaging your retirement.

One of the only reasons this massive wealth transfer and propping-up of the stock market has been able to be perpetrated is the obsession with destroying interest rates. If interest rates were close to their traditional rate of 5%, stock market returns and their commensurate volatility would not look so attractive. But when most retail banks straight-facedly offer “savings” accounts with interest rates that you need several decimal places to see a number that is not zero and the highest-return online savings are capped at 1%, the desperation of those trying to save becomes quite high. Especially when the inflation number was manipulated to exclude fuel and food costs, or what most people spend most of their money on, as they skyrocketed through most of this decade (admittedly, this trend is now substantially altered with $2/gallon gas, but we don’t know for how long).

And then, of course, you have all the lobbying to move the behemoth government-run pension funds into equities while further deregulating the behavior of the investment bankers running them. This is pretty well chronicled in this Intercept article, further fueling the campaign to prop up the entire market.

Maybe 45%-50% of investment doesn’t sound like a lot. But without it, the Dow Jones would be at 9,000 or 10,000 points right now instead of 18,000. You know, a figure that’s a little bit off the lows, but still nothing like a recovery. Or, in other words, exactly where employment actually is, or where the economy feels like it is to everyone except the top echelons of society. And I know defenders of these practices would point out that all those investors with all this money in the market have made huge sums for their retirement investment in the last few years, as proof of this working. But you know who made tons of money in returns before they suddenly didn’t? Bernie Madoff’s clients.

You may say this is an oversimplification, but I challenge anyone to come up with something that’s behind the rally other than just a vast over-investment of forced stock buys for retirement accounts on the fundamental assumption that The Market Always Goes Up. Yes, some of the balance sheets of these companies have improved by laying off workers, paying workers vastly less, draining more work and hours out of workers, and keeping the supply chain extra-lean. But that’s not why 401(k)’s and IRAs are pouring money into these companies. They’re pouring money into these companies because it’s the theory of how these investments are designed and we have several recent years of inflated return percentages to justify it.

Even if we weren’t comparing things to the 2008 lows, do you really believe that the landscape of the US economy is the best it’s ever been? Do you really believe that corporations are fiscally healthier than ever before? Because that’s what the market is trying to sell you on, conceptually. Even the biggest bulls in the world don’t actually believe that this is true. The pre-crash high of the stock market was 13,895 points, reached in late September of 2007. This figure, as we all now know, was vastly inflated by the housing bubble and irrational exuberance. But the market now tells us that things are 31% better than in 2007. Just stop and think about that for a minute. Admittedly the economy was doing pretty well in the 90s and maybe even part of the 00s, but we all know that the 2007 number was fakely generated by phony investments, mortgage-backed securities, and blind faith in the boom. And stocks are ONE-THIRD HIGHER than they were then?!

People made fun of people for not realizing that there was nothing behind Bernie Madoff’s get-rich-quick investment scheme. And I know, deep down, that there is actually nothing behind money of any kind, that currency (fiat or otherwise) is all a fake belief system that we generate for ourselves. But there are still levels of fabrication. And this one, my friends, is a real whopper.

Bernie Madoff had 162 pages worth of clients, whose losses totaled $65 billion. That’s a lot of money, but it’s $0.065 trillion. The exposure to retirement investment accounts in the US alone is $26 trillion (exactly 400 times the Madoff investments) and covers pretty much everybody. I don’t think many of you reading this out there fail to have one of these accounts in some form or another.

After all, the people will more easily fall for a big lie than a small one.


Rim to Rim to Rim Revisited

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

With all the pictures I've taken of the Grand Canyon over my many visits, it's kind of criminal that I had to borrow one for this post.  But they're all on the other computer and I have to get to work soon.  Thanks Mike Buchheit and the Grand Canyon Association!

With all the pictures I’ve taken of the Grand Canyon over my many visits, it’s kind of criminal that I had to borrow one for this post. But they’re all on the other computer and I have to get to work soon. Thanks Mike Buchheit and the Grand Canyon Association!

When I was in college, one of my closest college friends, Stina, spent the summer of 2000 working at a cafeteria in the Grand Canyon. It’s one of those quirky little facts of American life that you might not think about that college students from all over the country (and beyond!) migrate to the National Parks each summer for low paying service jobs in beautiful settings. Attendance at the NPs explodes over the summer and the cafeterias, restaurants, and lodges need all the help they can get keeping up. And the big perk is getting to live and play in the midst of what have been designated as the country’s best natural wonders.

The living part was a big fascination for me when she first announced this plan, since I’d long grown up with the notion that no one was allowed to live in National Parks. It’s one of those slight oversimplifications of childhood that really sticks in one’s mind – there were a few particular facts my parents told me in very early childhood that had a powerful impact on my thought processes. I remember that they explained the Soviet Union to me by saying that the government didn’t allow people to move if they wanted to. It’s funny that our family was so itinerant that this struck me as a draconian regulation, the disallowance of someone moving across the country. They did say move both within the country and to leave it, and this was most of what they said about the USSR. That and to point out that Communists were not nearly the “enemy” that Reagan made them out to be.

I think the National Park living fact, like this other fact about where you can move, stuck in my head because I so desperately wanted to move to a National Park after first visiting one. The first was probably Sequoia National Park, or King’s Canyon (the two share a long border and function as the same park, even more than the proximate Yellowstone and Grand Tetons), when I was a young child in nearby Visalia, California. Indeed, I may have even forgotten that I somehow prompted the fact of not being able to live in a National Park by asking my parents point-blank if we could move there. Thus began a childhood obsession with hiking and camping, the latter of which became a bit of a white whale for my upbringing – my parents were just not into camping. But we did go hiking a bunch, and in a National Park whenever possible.

You can imagine my fixation, though, when Stina told me she was going to live in a National Park, if only for a couple months and only in a dorm that made Brandeisian accommodations look spacious (that was the rumor; the dorms in the Grand Canyon turned out to be much nicer than ‘Deis). I think I argued with her that this wasn’t possible and she would have to live just outside of it and it wasn’t until she pointed out that her parents had done the same thing with one of their summers that I deferred to her understanding of the situation and realized that information gleaned when I was five years old may have been slightly oversimplified. Given that I was spending the summer in Albuquerque and (as it turned out) without a consistent summer job, the opportunity to visit and stay in the Grand Canyon for periodic stretches opened up before me.

The Grand Canyon is a roughly 8-hour drive from Albuquerque – or exactly the kind of distance that feels like a reasonable jaunt to a Westerner and something you might as well fly for instead to an Easterner (by and large – I know there are exceptions to these regional archetypes). The first time I went to visit, I did have perhaps my closest near-death experience in a vehicle, wherein I fell asleep in hour 6 (not dozed, but just full-on lost consciousness) and startled awake 30-60 seconds later squarely placed in the opposite fast lane. I think someone’s honking woke me up. I have rarely been so terrified, but I immediately realized that I couldn’t just swerve back into the neighboring lane and I actually put on my turn signal and checked my blindspot before crossing back over the double-yellow to return to the appropriate fast lane for my direction of travel. But then I was there, harrowed a bit, but present in one of the most glorious landmarks known to Earth, and then in its possibly most run-down cafeteria, where Stina was dishing out portions of standard-issue food to fascinated tourists from all over the globe.

I took either two or three trips out there that season, but the big one was to join Stina and several of her co-worker friends on a trip through the heart of the Canyon and back again, going Rim to Rim to Rim. If you haven’t spent a lot of time in the Grand Canyon, and especially if you’ve never been, you may not realize the exact size and scope of the place. It’s 271 miles long, end to end, and 18 miles wide in some places. There’s roughly a mile of elevation difference between the top of the Canyon and the bottom; 1,000 feet more if you’re counting from the North Rim. The South Rim and North Rim are so disparate as to have almost entirely separate climates. The South is high desert; the North feels almost Alpine, covered with evergreens and, in winter, a thick blanket of snow. The bottom of the Canyon is a convection oven, especially in summer, relieved only by the refreshing ribbon of the Colorado river that snakes through the chasm and continues to shape it after millions of years of work.

I could write about the Canyon forever, as I could probably describe the play-by-play of that trip forever. Going Rim to Rim to Rim entails starting at the top of the South Rim, hiking into the Canyon and all the way to the bottom, riverside, then crossing the river and starting up the side of the North Rim, hitting the top of that, and then making the return journey. It’s even crazier than it sounds. The total mileage covered is about 50 overland, but you’re also covering four miles of elevation change and almost none of the journey is flat land. I think all seven of us who made this particular trip together had serious misgivings about our own physical fitness for such an adventure. My knee started having problems on the second day and I made the rest of the journey with a jerry-rigged ace bandage, often described by the rest of the party as looking like a wounded veteran. I had opted out of the communal food plan the other six were sharing, partially because I’m a vegetarian but mostly because I’m me and don’t like most food. I had unwisely opted to bring a block of cheese in my backpack, among other edibles, which had the seriously nasty habit of melting during the day and reforming at night, giving it that leftover-quesadilla consistency at all times. It was, after all, late July, probably the hottest time of the year.

Did I not mention the weather yet? It was 120 degrees in the base of the Canyon. You couldn’t really hike during the day at all and we scheduled most all the hiking for overnight or the first few hours of daylight before the sun got too hot. The trip started at the literal crack of dawn, not counting the 45-minute pre-dawn bus ride to the jumping-off point. The only time in my life I’ve ever been too hot to sleep was during that fist day in the base of the Canyon, hanging around Phantom Ranch when it was about 121 out, and half of us decided to go nap half-submerged in a nearby creek. Our only real daytime hiking was the last leg, trekking back up the South Rim, when we were too exhausted and done with the trip to care and would stop at every mile-house on the way up to remove our shirts, soak them in water, and throw them back on wet. They’d evaporate to bone dry in about 10 minutes.

You can read my first-hand accounting of the trip here, but it doesn’t really do it justice. I was four months into blogging and the lens I used for everything was my tumultuous emotional state (I know, what’s changed, right?). Though the mood swings then were perhaps slightly more justified by the incredible power of the journey. The camaraderie and brief conflicts of sharing a Hobbit-like adventure across a gorgeous landscape, the way the Canyon changes every five minutes and every twenty feet, offering a new perspective from every angle and depth and time of day. The stress of putting one’s body through its hardest paces, not really knowing if you will have to be airlifted out of there on an embarrassing helicopter because you bit off more than you could chew. The scorpions. I got over my fear of scorpions there, because you had to, because they were all over, especially at night, and sometimes you just had to go to sleep on the trail, with a 500 foot drop on one side and scorps on the other and you just couldn’t care anymore.

In the full light of memory, this trip has become legendary. But I kind of think it was legendary in a lot of ways. I have consistently described it as the hardest physical thing I have ever done, and one of the greatest accomplishments of my life, and I stand by those statements. As a general rule, I don’t put a lot of stock in the physical or the athletic, baseball fandom aside, but this was a place where my body and I really converged on the same goals. I was in the best shape of my life for that trip. It was breathtaking and amazing and unforgettable.

I want to do it again.

No, I’m serious.

I heard on the radio yesterday that it was the 96th anniversary of Grand Canyon National Park. Set aside only in 1919 for preservation (I guess it was a National Monument 11 years prior), GCNP is looking forward to its 100th birthday in four short years. And the year after that, it’ll be the 20th anniversary of my own Rim to Rim to Rim journey.

Sometime in that window, between February 26, 2019 and July 2020, I want to go back and do the trip over. I am throwing down. I want to be someone who is capable of doing that at 40 and does it and lives to tell the tale.

You can keep your marathons and your running for running’s sake. Those are great. Whatever goal you want to set for yourself is awesome. I just want my fitness goal to be in the most beautiful place yet discovered by human beings.

This goal is about a lot of things for me. It’s about acceptance of being someone who is going to be around for a while (more on this in another post). It’s about the holy stature of the Grand Canyon in my world. It’s about being 160 pounds at age 35, up 33% from where I was at age 30 (though, granted, 120 was unhealthy too for all kinds of reasons at the time). It’s about needing a specific, measurable goal for efforts to combat aging and weight-gain and all the things that hit Americans in their 30s.

And it’s about recruiting. I want you to join me. I’m setting this goal way way way in the future so we can plan together, if you’re interested. So we can get the vacation time and you can train too and we can all go together when we go. For most of you who might consider this, it’ll be the first time and I promise it will be one of the best things you’ll ever do. But I’m more than open to a reunion tour with anyone who went with me the first time, or anyone who went on their own.

Who’s with me?!

My unbelievably grainy scan of the mid-trip photo of our Rim to Rim to Rim journey in 2000.  Taken atop the North Kaibab Trail.  Left to right: Stina, Andrea, myself, Sarah, Patricia, Chris, and Marketa.

My unbelievably grainy scan of the mid-trip photo of our Rim to Rim to Rim journey in 2000. Taken atop the North Kaibab Trail. Left to right: Stina, Andrea, myself, Sarah, Patricia, Chris, and Marketa.


For the Love of the Train

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

The St. Charles line at night.

The St. Charles line at night.

I took the streetcar home yesterday. I don’t always take the streetcar to and from work, like I did with BART when I worked at Glide in San Francisco. I often take the car, dropping Alex off on the way, so I can use the car at work as I attend trainings and workshops and will eventually have more donor meetings and school visits. The car that badly needs a wheel alignment from its brutal encounters with the streets of New Orleans, streets that I’ve compared to San Francisco after consecutive 7.0+ earthquakes. The wheels of the streetcar are permanently, perfectly aligned.

The streetcar rolls down the neutral ground of St. Charles Avenue, the big broad host to many of the Mardi Gras parades, a street adorned with gaslamp-lit hotel entrances and stately homes that could be hotels and libraries that used to be stately homes. Neutral ground is what we call “medians” here in New Orleans, a special designation indicating both the substantial size of most of our medians and their particular Commonsy role in the social order here. People hang out on the neutral ground, especially during parade season, where lawn chairs and boxtop ladders and every height of seat in between litter the St. Charles midsection, making streetcar progress, like most progress in the city during that time, impossible. Why take the streetcar when you have a float?

But it’s post-Mardi Gras in New Orleans this week, time for reflecting and taking stock, cleaning up and bundling up. It was about 40 degrees last night, and awfully windy, when I stepped off the red Canal Street line that cruises down from my work and into the heart of the city, crossing the intersection to Canal and Carondelet to wait for the outbound green St. Charles line to take me home.

It is my home, for what it’s worth, at this point in my life. People at poker tables or work or wherever always ask me where I’m from and Alex makes fun of me for giving a complicated answer. I don’t always run people through the rigmarole of each sequential city off the bat, but I often end up there when people can’t reconcile being “from the West” but having “just moved from New Jersey”. I inevitably end up at stats like having visited 48 states or the substantial time (4+ years) in five of them and the incredulity isn’t aided by the fact that many people assume I’m a bit younger than I am when they look at me (it has to be the hair… and maybe the genetics from my parents, wherein no one could believe my mother was retirement age when she retired, or my father getting carded for a drink at dinner about a decade ago). Alex thinks it’s too much information. But I’m also the guy who gives a real and sometimes quite extensive answer to “How are you?” so somehow just picking one of the last 3.5 decades worth of places doesn’t seem to cut it.

In part because of moments like last night at the train. Because I stood there, shivering, acknowledging the likewise chilled people who approached the little yellow CAR STOP sign on the corner, and just looking around. Trying to center myself, trying to bank this moment for the memories and internalize what it feels like to be newly 35 in a new city again, anticipating a ride on my current favorite mode of transportation. And I glanced across the road, over the four lanes and two neutral-grounded sets of streetcar tracks of Canal, and realized again I was standing at the magical transformation point where Carondelet discards its inhibitions and becomes Bourbon Street, officially entering the French Quarter. And I felt the rumbling echo of early mornings emerging from Powell Street Station in San Francisco, quick-stepping past the iconic cable car turnaround as two directions of Rice-a-Roni vehicles floated on the hill-climbing tracks in the half-sun light. The echo was resonant, powerful. I have had the good fortune to log serious time in some of the Great Places of this country, perhaps of the world. Meaningful, significant places, pilgrimage destinations, and the epicenters of perhaps the only two remaining streetcar systems of significance within these fifty states. And while the Powell Street trek up to the Wharf was never part of my commute and I only rode it maybe five times in seven years in the Bay Area, the crowds of revelers snapping iPhone photos as the turntable spun their car around never got old.

I may get old at this point. More and more, I face that somewhat surprising possibility. All I can ask for are trains to ride to take me to the next stop, the next landmark destination, the next beautiful and historical Place. For now, it’s on the neutral ground, and that’s way better than neutral.

The Powell Street turntable.

The Powell Street turntable.


The Unexpected Virtue of Mardi Gras

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

Who is that masked man?

Who is that masked man?

I’ve been trying to explain to people all week what I loved so much about Mardi Gras. For those who were here, or have been here, the explanation works a little better. I am here attempting to distill an explanation, obviously, that works better for a wider audience, that can convey to you – since you probably were not here and quite possibly have never been here – what made Mardi Gras so unexpectedly special. It’s a bit like trying to explain to Alex (who is here and was here) what I like so much about New Orleans. It defies the easy and effable assumptions.

It should be clarified that when I say “Mardi Gras”, I don’t mean that Tuesday that falls before Ash Wednesday, marking the last joyous day before forty long days of Lent. I mean the entire season that culminates in that day in the city of New Orleans and its surrounding environs. It was one of my many flawed assumptions, commonly held misconceptions even, that Mardi Gras is basically just one big glorious blowout day before Lent settles in. It’s really a mini-season running from Twelfth Night (that number of days after Christmas) to Mardi Gras day itself, an age littered with parades, beads, king cake, and revelry of all sorts. I have never seen, with the possible exception of my parents’ neighborhood on Christmas Eve for luminarias in Albuquerque, a city get so decked out and so fully embrace a holiday as New Orleans does for the Mardi Gras season. There are flags, lights, bunting, banners, signs, and the participation rate in this decor is extremely high. It put Christmas to shame, and Christmas was well-embraced for a city that functionally (my header graphic aside) never sees snow.

And dinosaurs!

And dinosaurs!

The next flawed assumption about Mardi Gras is that the receipt of beads is some sort of exchange for lascivious behavior. There are places where this transaction still takes place, or place really, namely Bourbon street, where affection-starved men will fling beads off their overpriced balcony to briefly bare-breasted women below. And it’s possible that the roots of all bead-throwing rituals are in this kind of overtly chauvinistic power-structure. But much as we can have gay marriage and equal marriages in today’s society despite the heritage of quasi-chattel slavery marriages, bead-throwing at Mardi Gras is quite equal-opportunity, with the scales slightly tilted in favor of children. Especially those who are trundled up to these ladder contraptions with makeshift wooden car-seat boxes atop, a wooden pole belting them in to assure that they don’t spill out and over as they reach ten young digits for the next strand of airborne color. Usually these are backed by increasingly exhausted parents, disproportionately mothers, who do most of the actual catching, as well as the bagging of various beads, stuffed animals, glowy ornaments, sports equipment, and plastic-but-metal-sounding coins that stream through the air.

There is a lot I could conceivably object to about this practice, to take care of the counter-arguments up front. There is certainly a materialistic core to the event that made me uncomfortable at times. It is possible to step back from the event and see a metaphor for the nation itself – thousands of adoring supplicants charging the gilded chariots of those with all the power/money/prestige, begging for worthless trinkets with perceived value. There are sometimes even echoes of the concentration camp guard flinging bread to prisoners when a particularly taunting float-rider will stingily toss one or two strands into a scrum. None of this is aided by the fact that it is common practice for those in a “krewe” (yes, note the replacement of a traditional C with a K already) to hide their identity, making many of the outfits and especially headgear a little too reminiscent of the Klan, especially when the chosen color is white. And it is hard to ignore the environmental impact of literally millions of strands of plastic beads being manufactured for the sole purpose of this ode to trinketry. Especially when the remains of any given parade literally litter the streets as crowds disperse, mixed with spilled alcohol, peanut shells, plastic cups, and broken glass. Hundreds of glittering strands of broken beads await the cleanup crew to sweep them into the trash so the next march can commence.

There had to be a better way they could design this outfit, no?

There had to be a better way they could design this outfit, no?

I’ve made quite a case for it, huh?

But the event of Mardi Gras itself, both within an individual parade and across the entire duration of the collective festivities, a real sense of innocence, wonder, and joy pervade. There is a lingering ostensible justification of the Lenten restraint to follow, but this inspiration has empirically diminished or possibly crumbled. In its wake, the sheer revelry for the sake of revelry reigns supreme, as best embodied by children who have no need to question or analyze a celebration. It’s also worth noting that many of these children are growing up in substandard socioeconomic circumstances and a vast quantity of the throws from various floats are toys or stuffed animals of one kind or another. I witnessed some kids receiving a modest Christmas’ worth of playthings at a single parade … and there are about forty parades. As much as we can cast a materialistic lens on this happening, there was also a fair sense of Robin Hood in the air, but a more Scroogeian Robin Hood or even better, the kind of taking from the rich that is, indeed, the rich’s own idea.

Secret societies afloat aside, there was also an incredible sense of community camaraderie on the sidelines of each of these parades. Granted that there was some drunken insanity closer to Canal Street, but posting up nearer our apartment around Napoleon & St. Charles or even down by Poydras and St. Charles in the downtown district, a family atmosphere dominated. Class distinctions of all kinds evaporated as tourists and locals mingled across all ages and sects to vie for the multitude flying off each float. There were a couple overly competitive people, mostly hailing from the Northeast, who grabbed and snatched and ripped things from one’s hands, but almost everyone was smiling, laughing, and quick to let go a strand that garnered mutual attachment. When the average person seemed to get about 25 strands of beads, plus assorted cups and goodies, from each individual parade (and there were often 2-3 in a row), there was more than enough to go around.

I also learned recently that the roots of much of the Mardi Gras regalia are Russian in nature, only increasing my visceral positive associations with the ongoing event. While the Catholic traditions brought by the French and Spanish started Mardi Gras celebrations in the 18th century in New Orleans, it wasn’t until the 1872 arrival of a Romanov Grand Duke that Mardi Gras had a “Rex” – the presiding king of Carnival, who also bestowed the Russian royal family’s crowning colors of purple, gold, and green on the event.

All of these seem like minor, technical reasons for falling in love with the holiday so robust that most everyone gets 3-5 days off work and the entire city shuts down. And, like snow days and a few other holidays or events, shutting a city down itself is a cause to enjoy a phenomenon, taking everyone outside their workaday perspectives and into the streets to bond and unite and see the world anew. There is something deeper than all this, something beyond the primal competitiveness that is stoked by vying for colorful beads and even beyond the simple joy of watching people dance with fire, dance in costume, dance along to the drum twice their size that they beat in tempo.

I think it has to do with magic.

Panorama pictures just end up small when you put them on the web.

Panorama pictures just end up small when you put them on the web.

New Orleans is one of the few places in America that carries a deep, spiritual sense with it. It is perhaps the only major city to have this distinction. When I visited India, the entire country and even more of bordering Nepal seemed utterly drenched with symbolism, spirituality, deeper meaning, and even magic. I’m sure I’m losing some readers with this rhetoric, but I can only say that some places feel like there is something deeper going on and some don’t. If you’ve seen Eddie Izzard, his discussion of Stonehenge’s location speaks to this a bit – he illustrates how Stonehenge is built on an eerie windswept plain, whereas Manhattan could never host something like that. Well, here, from the transcript of “Dress to Kill”:

“But they built Stonehenge, and it’s built in an area called Salisbury Plain in the South of England. The area of Salisbury Plain where they built it is very ( eerie chanting ), ’cause that’s good, you know. It’s a mystical thing; build it in a mystical area. You don’t want to build it in an area that’s ( singing upbeat jazzy tune ). No, there you build Trump Tower.”

If you’re not an Izzard fan or you’re just not going to use a comedian as evidence for the variable nature of physical locations’ spiritual properties, perhaps you can imagine yourself in a graveyard or at the Wailing Wall. I’ve never been, but it seems obvious to me that most of the Arabian Peninsula and especially its western portions are similar to India, just embedded with a sense of Purpose and Depth. It’s hard to imagine people fighting so hard over the city of Jerusalem without this reinforcing sense of its importance beyond just reading the books that say so. And domestically, it’s pretty much just New Mexico and New Orleans that achieve that for me, that trips my radar in the same way. And some National Parks, I guess, notably the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. My contention is that there just are some innately holy places in the world, charged with significance of a more ethereal nature. And New Orleans is one of them.

So when you take a holy place, dress it up in a unique combination of colors, stream color across every tree and branch and spare bit of fence, dress everyone up, and shut the city down, you get an alchemy that is greater than the whole of its analyzable parts. Yes, you get some craziness and drunkenness and people who take it too far or in an obnoxious direction. But you also get the unbridled wonder of children and tourists and first-timers reveling in the sheer scale and size of the alligators lumbering down the city streets, the poles aflame with live fire, the largess bestowed upon the joyous crowd.

See the person jumping in the lower-right for scale.

See the person jumping in the lower-right for scale.

There’s probably a bit of the costumery, mysticism, decoration, and kindness of strangers of Halloween thrown in there too. Indeed, much of my strong gut favoritism to Mardi Gras may just be that it’s all a repackaging of Halloween in slightly fancier dress. And in February. When it’s alternately 35 and 75 out, as it was at the beginning of different parades this month. A little testament to the instability of a haunted land that could be washed away in an instant, with a spirit that lives forever.

Yeah, it's a little like Halloween.

Yeah, it’s a little like Halloween.

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