American Voters Actually Progressive: The Case Against Representative Democracy

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

None of these people would ever get elected to represent the people, even if their views actually do represent the people.  That appears to be the problem.

None of these people would ever get elected to represent the people, even if their views actually do represent the people. That appears to be the problem.

There has been a ton of negativity spewing out of the wake of Tuesday’s election, especially from all my liberal Democratic friends. I get it. My posts lately have been pretty negative, talking about how fear motivates voting and how there is a lot of unnecessary doom and gloom about the Republican Senate which will, ultimately, not change much, if anything.

But is that really the whole story? Is that what the midterm elections of 2014 have to tell this country?

This cartoon has been a really popular summation of the feelings of a lot of people I know:

The Internet loved this cartoon.  It also tells me it's by John Jonik.

The Internet loved this cartoon. It also tells me it’s by John Jonik.

The assumption here is that if people really understood the Republican agenda, they’d never vote for it. I think it also broadly misses the point that the Democratic agenda is largely similar. Issues like surveillance, Internet regulation, the deregulation of literally everything else, and a pro-corporate agenda (sometimes under the guise of “helping the economy”) find no or virtually no difference between the parties that comprise nearly all of our elected representatives. No one is speaking out for the poor, for the bombed, for the people who really need help.

And yet there is another story to the midterm elections. It is not just a sweeping Republican landslide that gives them control of both houses of Congress. It is the story of cities and states, some of them as liberal as Alaska, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Arkansas, who all overwhelmingly supported an increase in the minimum wage. This is not an issue that Democrats have traditionally championed or particularly endorsed, though some are coming around to it slowly. This is an issue that is to the left of both parties in the United States right now, yet enjoys overwhelming support in hard-core red conservative states.

Or then we have the legalization of marijuana passing in, again, Alaska, joining Oregon, DC, Washington, and Colorado. Yes, three of those places are extremely left-wing areas, but Colorado just turned their Democratic Senate seat red and nearly elected a Republican Governor as well. No major party nor any of its candidates are endorsing marijuana legalization – it is far to the left of even the most fringe Senator or Governor. (Okay, I guess one Oregonian Senator supports it officially. One. There’s also a Socialist in the Senate, so one is the loneliest number.) How can these red and reddish states be supporting something that is so radically leftist that no politician will touch it? Are American voters that stupid?

No, they’re just upset and don’t know what to do.

When people are upset, if they vote, they tend to go to the polls to try to protest, to vote against people as I discussed a couple days ago. This is why midterm elections in modern America always go against the sitting President, especially in their second term. This is why Hamas won the second round of parliamentary elections in Palestine. Everyone in the West freaked out and said everyone’s becoming a terrorist! Not so. There were two major parties – Fatah and Hamas – and people were upset with Fatah’s governance. So they tried the alternative. This is how two-party systems work (“work”): people see-saw back and forth between the parties when they’re unhappy with what’s going on.

And people are unhappy. They hate Obama, they really hate Congress, they feel extreme ennui with the fake recovery that’s only benefiting the corporate elites, they feel media-fueled fear of ridiculous things. Voter dissatisfaction is massive. Very few people even bothered with voting, an even larger expression of angst and disengagement. Where they did, third parties and outcasts did pretty well.

But for those who still believe in voting, the party machines have done a good job of convincing people that their only two choices are (D) and (R), no matter what the policies represented by those parties reflect. And enough people feel some loyalty to that system that they keep going out and slogging for their folks and against the others, no matter what the consequences may be. Even most of the youngest voters don’t believe third parties will ever be a credible threat to the party machines, so they go out and flip back and forth between them and wonder why they never get any happier.

The problem is the parties, sure, but it’s also the people. Not the voters, actually – what they are doing with extremely limited options truly makes sense. It’s the politicians. It’s the age-old reality that when you have people who choose to seek power and advancement, they are particularly ill-suited to wield it. And when you add corporate capitalism in the 21st century to the mix, plus Citizens United and the unbridled principles of corporate personhood and money as speech, you get a real disaster. You get a “representative” body that is completely beholden to the highest bidder, utterly for sale, and completely out of touch with the actual wishes of the average voter or real person in the society. It’s not a coincidence that most major corporations donate liberally to both sides of the aisle and have a tendency to pick winners, nor that Congress is unable to agree on any policy most of the time until it’s time for a corporate bailout or a new war, in which case everyone trips over each other to fall in line. The corporations are buying our government and the government’s policies, in both parties, have drifted far to the right of where the people actually stand.

So when you look at these results, it’s not schizophrenia or insanity that you are seeing among voters. When they have actual issues to vote on, they skew radical. When they are facing elected representatives, they usually just try to muddle through with the evil they’ve tried less recently. Or, if they like a dynamic and popular figure in their town, usually their House representative, they keep sending them back. After all, most polls show that everyone despises the House as a whole, but kinda loves their own personal representative. Not, mind you, because they actually represent their interests or views, usually, but because they’re familiar and personable and local.

It should also probably be noted (before I get angry rebuttals to my thesis) that staunchly social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion are subject to fundamentalist Christian rallying for popular referenda and probably skew the other way. Even California passed Prop 8 when I lived there and the fundamentalist base has a tendency to get really fired up about making social laws look more like the Old Testament, or whatever their current reading of it is that day. Although I’m not sure these referenda against same-sex marriage would even pass in five years – the majority of the American populous now supports same-sex marriage and as soon as the Millennials fully replace the WWII generation at the polls, I think that fate will be sealed. That said, thank goodness for courts in the system of checks-and-balances for constantly correcting extreme social conservatism.

What’s the overall point, though? It’s that representative democracy has failed us. Yes, I know the founding fathers intended representative democracy and the electoral college to save us from ourselves. You know, the founding fathers who owned slaves and didn’t think of women as people and denied even white men the franchise if they didn’t own land. Yeah, those guys were kind of elitist. And by “kind of,” I mean “completely.” This system has always been designed to deny the people what they want. That denial was just a lot less pernicious when representatives felt really accountable and beholden to voters, rather than to the corporations that paid for said voters.

You don’t need to look a lot further for evidence of the American hunger for strong progressive/radical leadership than the success of the two Obama campaigns. Despite no intention whatsoever to make good on leftist policies, Obama was handily elected twice on the back of staunchly progressive rhetoric. It wasn’t just Democrats who voted for him, either – he needed plenty of Republicans and Independents to champion his cause of hard-core radical change. It’s pretty well documented that his policies have been aligned with or slightly to the right of George W. Bush, especially on foreign policy, and his one allegedly grand progressive vision (Obamacare) used a model that was originally drafted by the Heritage Foundation and first implemented by Mitt Romney. Like so many Republican solutions, it utilized the market as the only mechanism, gave all the power to corporations, and just made it illegal not to have health insurance, a privately-sold product. As progressives who originally opposed individual mandates in healthcare pointed out (before many of them were quieted by having to get in line behind the allegedly leftist President), this is like solving hunger by making it illegal to not buy food on the open market.

Or how about the fact that most people, when surveyed, want foreign aid reduced to about 10% of the budget when it is actually only 1.4% of the budget to begin with. Or that people think wealth distribution should be far more even than even the most radical restructuring would create? Hopefully we’ve all seen this video by now:

16 million people have seen that video. About 42 million Americans voted two days ago. We should run one election cycle where all campaign advertising on television is replaced by showing that video.

The problem is, nothing would change, outside of ballot referenda. Because no politicians on the corporate dole are willing to even begin to discuss wealth distribution issues. No one will touch it, just like other widely popular things like the minimum wage or legalizing pot.

People always say “work within the system” and “change from within” when I bring up issues like this. The problem is that it’s the system itself that doesn’t work. It serves the elites. It was always meant to serve the elites, but even the founding fathers couldn’t have dreamt of corporate titans that would make the wealth of their contemporary kings look like amateur entrepreneurs. The nature of power is to consolidate and snowball and at the point where regulation is handled by a government that is for sale, there is nothing to stem the tide of that momentum.

The best hope we seem to have is for direct democracy. It wouldn’t fix all of our problems – there’s the social conservatism of denying rights to gay couples, women, and immigrants that I discussed above. And direct democracy would still be highly susceptible to a fear-mongering media that convinces us that the next terrorist threat is infinitely more vicious, bloodthirsty, and irrational than the last one, no matter how much American training and weaponry they were given by our previous administration. This wouldn’t solve everything.

But as far as our socio-economic issues, the fundamental structure of a society that is rapidly becoming a kleptocratic corporate slave-state, those would be held off by taking votes straight to the people and skipping the middleman. Because the middleman is always going to look out for himself first, especially as he becomes more powerful and more acclimated to life at the top of the food chain.

I guess there are things within the system we can do in some places. Heck, San Francisco, with the strong support of my old workplace, just passed $15/hour minimum wage! If you live in a place that allows ballot referenda, get radical ones put on the ballot. Honestly, the more radical the better. If you don’t, then work to try to open up more opportunities for direct democracy.

The people are not the problem. The politicians are the problem. And making more people into politicians, with very few rare exceptions, isn’t going to fix things. Nor is just voting out whoever happens to be in at the time, as satisfying as that might feel on Election Day. We need a more radical change to overhaul the direction of the nation and its policies. Fortunately, the people are already pretty radical, at least compared to the parties that allegedly represent us.


What am I Missing?

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

My best guess at what everyone is so worried about, with rebuttals that I find to be pretty clear.

My best guess at what everyone is so worried about, with rebuttals that I find to be pretty clear.

The graphic above is going to be most of what this post is about. So go ahead and peruse that. This is my best guess at the five things that Democrats, liberals, and the other people who mostly comprise the people I have regular contact with are most worried about. My Facebook feed today has been overwhelmed by claims about people wanting to move to Canada, giving up on the country, being depressed, etc. by the Republican Senate landslide that took place yesterday in the US. But I honestly just can’t tell what is actually going to happen that upsets people.

I know that I tend to be pretty radical on the political spectrum and have a tendency to be a single-issue voter/person on the subject of war and peace, which has been pretty much a disaster since I reached the age of majority (or really, since the Carter administration and maybe forever in this nation). But even if you don’t come with me on the “there’s not much difference between the two major parties” issue, what are you worried about? What are you so scared will happen? What liberal causes will fall now that there’s a Republican Senate?

People accuse my politics and support for third parties and “fringe” causes (like not perpetrating violence on other nations with impunity) to be impractical. So let’s talk pragmatics. What’s going to happen that’s so bad? What legislation is going to get passed, or not passed, or repealed that spells a turn for the more conservative as compared to the way things have been throughout the Obama administration?

I really honestly want to know. Because I just don’t see it. Near as I can tell, either party winning a majority in the Senate would have yielded pretty much the same policies that have been implemented for the last four years. Or honestly, not been implemented, because the only thing that the Congress can agree on right now is spending money on wars.

There will be wars. Forget death and taxes, unless we’re talking about the death of Iraqis and Syrians. The only thing we can count on these days is war.

Tell me what I’m missing.


Fear in the Box

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

Artist's rendering of the typical American voter exercising the franchise.

Artist’s rendering of the typical American voter exercising the franchise.

Maybe election day is just a little too soon after Halloween.

We’ve discussed American fear, its prevalence and perniciousness, quite recently. We are afraid of terrorists, even though what they are supposed to wield as a most scary object is, well, fear. We are afraid of a disease that has killed fewer Americans than lightning. We are afraid of our own shadow, ourselves, our neighbors, our government, our absence of government, pretty much anything that humans can biologically generate cortisone in response to and a goodly number of things they can’t. And we react to this fear by lashing out, spreading the fear, voting for people to sequester the diseased, strip rights from everybody, kill the foreign others who we don’t understand and claim to be crazy. Human reactions to fear are responsible for just about all the destruction in human history and most of the worst things we’ve ever done can be explained by fear and pretty much fear alone.

But perhaps nowhere is fear more pervasive in the American culture than in the ballot box. Every couple of years, a march of recently scared voters trudge off to their local community polling center to cram the little slitted box just full of fear, loathing, and terror. Not just by voting for people who will perpetrate such ills on the rest of the planet, though there’s plenty of that. But primarily by casting votes motivated primarily by their own fear.

Despite your gut reaction or your political leanings, no one group, party, or candidate has a monopoly on this perpetration of fear. Most all advertising these days is negative, making voters terrified to vote for someone and instead allowing them to cast votes only against evil worst-case scenarios. Political ads rarely promise anything these days, certainly not even any improvements, opting instead for telling you how horrible things will get if the other option is elected. And if you don’t see the election as having only one other option, your friends and cohorts will berate you with the rhetoric of fear that voting is not some idealistic exercise in making a choice, but instead merely damage control in picking the second worst person imaginable so that the worst person imaginable stays out of office.

And then even more people will cite how your ancestors fought and killed the Vietnamese so that you could exercise this right to pick the second-most-evil person ever and if you fail to exercise such rights, you might as well be napalming those children for nothing. Because how could it possibly seem like picking between two parties completely beholden to corporate interests who donate more money to each party than you will ever earn in your life is not some sacred bond of trust, some exalted and wonderful act? We have been stuffed so full of vainglorious gusto for the act of voting that we’ve failed to notice how much of a tired act of resigned fear it has become.

I just moved to Louisiana, which is the main reason I’m not voting, since I completed my voter registration a few days after the deadline (Louisiana makes you wait a month, I guess to think about what you’ve done, which is fun because there is no waiting period in the state to buy a firearm… talk about putting fear into voting!). In Louisiana, like much of the nation, all of the Republican ads are about how Mary Landrieu, the incumbent Senator, is closely tied to President Obama. You should fear Obama and what he’s doing to America! Which, near as I can tell, mostly consists of legislation that was passed in 2010 (Obamacare).

Meanwhile, Democratic campaigners and rhetoric offer fear of the Republicans controlling the Senate! There will be – get this – gridlock in Washington! Heavens to betsy, the horror. And then the specter rises of things like Supreme Court appointments, as though a Supreme Court in America would ever repeal Roe v. Wade. Or as though nine justices appointed by Elizabeth Warren would overturn Citizens United. People like to talk a lot about how the Supreme Court is going to do scary conservative things, but fail to explain how the Supreme Courts of several notoriously conservative red states have struck down laws banning same-sex marriage.

Like the fear of ebola, the fear of voting for the other party or – worse! – a third party – is empty words. It seems to motivate people consistently as people begrudgingly tromp off to the polls and keep sending Democrats and Republicans back into places where they enjoy less popularity than Ford Pintos, though, admittedly, roughly the same propensity for causing explosions.

In trying to sum up my thoughts on this Election Day in the face of a torrential downpour of voting enthusiasm from my Facebook feed, heavily populated with first- and second-time voters in college or freshly out, I posted this:

“Most Americans (at least, among those who vote at all) vote *against* people in elections, not for people. I think that may have never been more true than in 2014. It’s easy to see why this process would become disheartening and unrewarding. Basically all of our electoral and societal norms have driven us to this point, especially advertising and a culture of fear that pervades everyone’s public life.

If you’re going to vote this year, try voting FOR someone you really believe in. If you can’t find that person, write them in. After all, it’s not supposed to be a country of the people, by the people, against the people.”

And maybe I should have just reposted that simpler, slightly more positive view on all this fear and opposition instead of going into detail as I have in this post. After all, 26 people “liked” that post and no one even wrote some snarky counter about how the Green Party and the Libertarians and everyone you could write in are all ISIS agents in disguise.

But I am continually baffled, every day, by how much palpable dripping fear is filling this country. And my best explanation harkens back to another previous examination of fear, this being one about institutions and individuals feeling they have more to lose from the future than they do to gain.

I suppose that this nation, quickly slipping from its brief stand atop the pedestal of human political affairs, is in such a fear mode because we feel that the future is spelling our doom. Despite the mandated rhetoric from all the politicians about America being the best country anyone will ever be able to imagine forever, we all seem to know that we’re not going to be the latest and greatest and biggest and baddest forever. That other nations have surpassed us in quality of life, in economic standing, in education, and nearly in power. And yes, in democratic openness as well. Voter turnout below 50% is not a sign of an engaged and thriving model democracy. And that shortfall isn’t because young millennials want to watch the world burn and would rather play video games than exercise their God-given rights. It’s because of what I posted in the quote above – it’s exhausting to feel like something that should be special and vital and important is simply an exercise in voicing support for the second-worst person in every position.

Frankly, it’s exhausting to go through life with this much fear. Fear of decline, fear of dropping standards as a society and as people within it. Fear of the other party, the people who will vote for them or vote for no one or vote for the third party and thus screw things up for your perspective. Fear of apathy, of ebola, of ISIS, of Fox News, of MSNBC.

There were people who had few choices besides fear. They lived in something roughly akin to the so-called state of nature. They ran from saber-toothed tigers and ice floes and had to subsist on giant mammoths with tusks the size of people or they would die. It was cold and they were hungry and they huddled in caves against the dark of the unknown.

These people had a reasonable right to live in fear, though they confronted it remarkably well or we wouldn’t be here.

So how is that fear governs most of our key decisions when we have, for the most part, a relatively infinite supply of food, clothing, shelter, comfort, distractions, and fulfillment? Why do we live each day like we’re wrestling mammoths and tigers and the Ice Age incarnate?

Why do we vote like that?

I would post my public ballot here as I’ve done in the past, but like I said, Louisiana law kept me out of the vote. You can look at the 2012 and 2008 editions if you want to get a sense of how I would be, more or less, casting my votes here today.

If you’re going to vote, do so fearlessly. And if you don’t feel like voting, do that fearlessly too. Yes, it’s a right. A defining characteristic of a right is the option to choose not to exercise it. And that choice beats the pants off of voting out of fear.


The Absurd Costume Files

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

It’s Halloween! Happy Halloween, everybody. This has long been my favorite holiday and one of the only ones that I enjoy which doesn’t feel tinged with something problematic (e.g. the origin story of Thanksgiving and its accompanying genocide mucking up a conceptually very nice holiday). I mean, realistically, that’s probably not even true, since a lot of people get into some pretty gory/overly dark stuff on Halloween and while I appreciate spookiness, the place a lot of people take Halloween is pretty bad. Like everything, I suppose. I think the only person I’ve ever encountered who has anything like the deep abiding love I feel for Halloween and the October season generally is Ray Bradbury, and I’ve only really encountered his testimony of same on the written page. Others come close, though.

It would take a long time and be a mite dull to list all the things I love about Halloween, plus I think I’ve already made the attempt a few times. See also that it’s the only holiday I regularly celebrate through theme-changes on both this blog and the last one. The feel of the mood, the pumpkins and ghosts, the prominence of themes around the supernatural, the spiritual, the haunted, the past, the mysterious. The candy. And, yes, the costumes.

When I was in third grade, I had the kind of exuberant fervor for life that I think I’ve sometimes (even often) manifested since, but definitely took a big hit in 1990 (and 1997, and 2010, and 2013, and yeah). But in that year, I was full of this zest and excitement, pretty much constantly. To call it the “last good year” would be melodramatic and wholly inaccurate, but I think in many ways it was the last unfettered year. I guess many people would call it the last year of my “innocence,” whatever that means – innocence is a concept that generally troubles me, but there is something to the notion that during that year, I still had an unbridled optimism for the future and for the challenges and joys of every day that was simply never constant again, even in phases where things in my life were very, very good.

A lot happened that year. We had moved to Oregon, I made a ton of new friends, I was in the Dickens Play, I had a fantastic teacher (Mrs. Mary Kerwin) who challenged and inspired me, I discovered sports, I was elected class President (after suggesting that we have an election as a civic education exercise), and I was just happy. I also, which may be endemic to third graders, just didn’t care what other people thought of me. I mean, I liked having friends and wanted to get along with people, but I was totally impervious to possible negative opinions or judgments of peers. Which is an attribute I have had more of than most people throughout my life, but was way more unfettered then than since.

Which may explain why, when I woke up early before school on March 17, 1989 and decided to craft myself a leprechaun costume made entirely of dark green construction paper and Scotch tape, there was no voice in the back of my head that contradicted with warnings that this project might not go so well. I believe I had been working on it for about 90 minutes when one of my parents awoke and blearily observed that I was making quite a bit of clutter. I definitely remember getting a little frustrated at one point shortly before school that the costume hadn’t really come together as what I was hoping, that it mostly just looked like a young boy wearing a whole mess of misshapen green construction paper. And the ensuing conversation with my father where he gently suggested that most people don’t even dress up for St. Patrick’s Day and maybe it would just be a better idea to put on a green shirt instead. To their immense credit, however, neither of my parents pressed the issue very far and both allowed me to board the bus as Green Construction Paper Monster.

No one had the slightest clue what I was trying to be, resemble, or achieve. There were definitely people who could tell that all the green must have something to do with the date, though I was also wearing a green shirt underneath, so the effort must have seemed superfluous at the very best. There are, mercifully (or perhaps tragically, depending on one’s appetite for schadenfreude) no pictures of this outfit that were ever taken, but I’m sure your imagination can suffice at this point. If not, picture a very small third grader with a bowl cut walking into a small factory producing green construction paper and Scotch tape. Then, a bomb goes off. The remaining exploded tatters of each attach themselves to all parts of the boy, hair included (I think I was going for some sort of hat), in random fashion. The boy boards the school bus.

Most reactions ranged from quizzical to speechless to an overt series of concerned questions. I was generally considered mentally stable and coming from a family that cared for me, both of which attributes came under almost immediate scrutiny upon my arrival in Mrs. Kerwin’s third grade classroom. I was offered numerous opportunities to away to the bathroom to change, remove tape, or at least perhaps “adjust” in some small way the monument to dead construction paper that I was ensconced in. Bits of poorly taped paper kept coming off at random times and, rather than see this as a blessing or even a less-than-subtle hint from the universe, I would obstinately re-tape, sometimes rummaging in my desk for my own personal roll before jamming ever more clear sticky material on the tortured green mess and adhering it to my shirt, pants, shoes, or hair.

Then we went to recess. And at recess, it rained.

It should herein be noted before we proceed that this school was in Gearhart, Oregon, which is in the middle of Clatsop County, which is the extreme northwestern-most county in the state. Most of coastal Oregon is absurdly soggy, but Clatsop County actually juts out into the Pacific Ocean where it meets the gargantuan mouth of the Columbia River, essentially trapping all the moisture from the both bodies as storms sweep in off the sea. It rained, no exaggeration, about 300 days a year in that area when I lived there, though rarely all day or torrentially. The sky was perpetually gray, the ground that was not sand was eternally muddy. Watch national weather maps for the next month and you will see that most every day, that little upper-left corner of Oregon has a patch of green on it, even when the rest of the country is bone-dry. It rained all the time. A day when it didn’t rain at all was notable.

And somehow the interaction of the inevitable rain and my paper costume had not occurred to me in advance, any more than I predicted that not everyone at school would immediately gasp “Oh, you’re a leprechaun!” upon seeing my handiwork.

It was even worse than you’re imagining. You might not be imagining my complete stubbornness, my total unwillingness to accept the obvious defeat that my drenched and ruined costume, soggy crumbling paper literally coming off in wet clumps on the playground was, in fact, drenched and/or ruined. I wildly told my friends that I would dig up some green construction paper when we came in for some “repairs.” I think it was almost the end of recess, when the perpetual heavy drizzle became a hard rain and we had to go in early, that I realized the costume (such as it was) was beyond salvaging and broke down crying.

You might think that this experience would traumatize me, would make me unwilling to dress up in future, much less to design homemade costumes. But any residual sting from this incident (which of course only grew funnier and more heartening over the years) was quickly overridden by my unflappable love of Halloween. There were homemade costumes to come through the rest of my youth, of ghosts and elephants and pirates. At Seneca Center the one Halloween I had to work, I made an impromptu fish costume with a blue net laundry bag that was nearly as laughably impressionistic and ridiculous as the third-grade leprechaun, with me having to explain to the kids how to interpret what I’d tried to do hurriedly before a 16-hour Sunday shift. When I took my love of Halloween to my office at Glide, transforming it with string lights and dimly lit pumpkins every October, I famously came to work in this home-crafted elephant costume:

Arthur "Woody" Schulze and I, dressed, respectively, as me and an elephant.

Arthur “Woody” Schulze and I, dressed, respectively, as me and an elephant.

Yes, the kindergarten teacher dressed up as … me. Which was almost as absurd as my ridiculously homemade but kinda lovable elephant.

The elephant was a big hit and I followed it up the next year with a gecko:

The gecko, hard at work.

The gecko, hard at work.

And while I really loved being a big green thing that, y’know, looked like something, a lot of the homemade charm of the elephant was missing in this online-bought and highly manufactured (though detailed) costume. There were a lot of assumptions that I was trying to be the GEICO Gecko, especially from the people on the street which, while I like the GEICO Gecko as much as I like any corporate shill… is still a corporate shill. So that was a lot of fun, but kind of a flop, even though I revived that for the UPenn tournament I helped tab in 2010.

Which brings us all the way to this year, 2014. And for once, I was not the subject of the absurd costume, but rather my school-teaching girlfriend, Alex, who had the opportunity not only to dress up at work for (the day before) Halloween, but to do so in an environment where hundreds of kids would see her and where her primary task for the day was manning the Fall Fair, a whole day of work basically just celebrating the holiday. So we had to have a great costume.

I think we did:

Alex's costume from yesterday, from the back.  It's a whale shark!

Alex’s costume from yesterday, from the back. It’s a whale shark!

Profile view!

Profile view!

I asked Alex what she’d most like to be and she said a whale shark and we just kind of ran with it. We bought towels and cut them up, we bought googly-eye attachments and an industrial stapler (dubbed, literally, as the Epic Stapler) and white duct tape for the dots that didn’t work as the dots themselves as originally planned but did a great job at adhering paper dots to the back. You may not be familiar with the whale shark, but I was a big fan when I first went to the Georgia Aquarium and Alex has been completely obsessed since we went this summer.

The costume was not nearly as awesome as I think we’d both been envisioning at first – we had trouble with the idea of where to put the head, considering have it overhang Alex’s physical head, having it kind of around her back (as we chose), or even having Alex’s head popping out of the whale shark’s mouth, as most regular shark costumes choose. But whale sharks are not dangerous to people and subsist on krill, so we thought that would kind of send the wrong message and ruin the aesthetic of whale sharks’ mouths. The tail was perhaps the most problematic, folding back in on Alex’s legs rather than bowing out away from them. Of course, we worked on the costume the night before it was necessary, with me making dots from 4-6 in the morning when I awoke early to complete them and we’d nearly given up. So we didn’t really have time for adjustments in the morning dress rehearsal and just had to go with it.

The costume wound up being really uncomfortable and a little indiscernible (even with a smaller whale shark prop, many kids were confused), so Alex actually ditched the giant piece early in the day in favor of the same elephant hat and gray adornment I took to Glide years ago (we’d prepared a backup for the heat, just in case). But I’m not totally giving up on old sharky here. With a year to plan and tweak the tail and some other small elements, the whale shark may yet swim again.

Until then, at least the real ones are in Atlanta, swimming about. With no green construction paper to get wet in the tank with them:

Whale shark in the Georgia Aquarium, reflected in the top of its tank to show the spots.

Whale shark in the Georgia Aquarium, reflected in the top of its tank to show the spots.



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

An average American, unable to determine whether ebola or ISIS will kill them first.

An average American, unable to determine whether ebola or ISIS will kill them first.

All anyone in the media can talk about anymore is ebola. Unless it’s ISIS. Or maybe, on slow days for ISIS and ebola, pretty white women going missing from college campuses. Never mind that far more people die from frat parties than any or all of these things combined, though that only makes news at Rutgers. Never mind the guns and the vehicle crashes and the medical errors and all the other dangerous things in our society. I’ve talked about this before about ebola and before that about ISIS. These things aren’t going to kill you. They’re not. Stop.

But everyone seems to continue to go on the media, be it on TV or online or in the newspapers, whatever those are anymore, and seriously discuss the idea of shutting down our society (or at the very least our bowling alleys) over the fear of a disease. I mean, I guess I thought Outbreak was a pretty good movie too, when it came out, when I was 15. I saw it on a plane to Russia. It was a pretty freaky context, I guess, and I definitely covered my mouth for a few minutes after the movie ended and looked askance to see if anyone sitting among us was actually, in fact, a rabid monkey escaped from a lab. None were. I was fine. We landed in Moscow. I moved on with one of the more interesting parts of my life.

You are not living in Outbreak. Step away from the television. Your life is not that exciting. The world is not about to end. Really. Promise.

Nor are irrational crazy ISIS commandos about to storm your farm or apartment building or place of business. Unless you possibly count a trick-or-treating teenager with a really sick sense of humor. Over-under on number of trick-or-treating teens brave/stupid/uncaring-about-spending-the-next-20-years-in-Gitmo enough to try an ISIS commando costume on their rounds in America: 3.

Just not gonna happen. Now, maybe, maybe, if you’re in the military and dispatched to a nation where ebola and/or ISIS are active, these things might impact you. Or if you voluntarily go to deal with one or the other. They may then have sufficient impact on your life that you can worry about these things. But you will not be in New York or New Jersey or Maine or anywhere else whose Governor has deigned to have a publicly spouted an analyzed opinion on these matters. You will be in, y’know, Liberia. Or Syria.

And I really really really don’t want my cavalier and frustrated attitude about American fear to be confused with American exceptionalism or a lack of concern for the people of Africa and/or the Middle East. These people matter and their lives matter, arguably more than and certainly as much as American lives. I care that ISIS, product of American foreign policy, is killing people in the Middle East. I care that ebola is ravaging Liberia and Sierra Leone. These things matter and should be discussed, though I really don’t think the American military is the answer and probably, given the histrionic nature of our nation, its media, and its leaders, American intervention of any kind is the answer. I am hard-pressed to think of an international crisis that we improved or even didn’t make worse in the last fifty years, maybe longer. Probably not American problems to put on our back and try to “solve” like we “solved” Iraq or Afghanistan or Latin American revolutions or Vietnam or malaria.

So the question becomes why (WHY) do Americans insist on being so doggone afraid of everything that doesn’t hurt them? While simultaneously being nonchalant about things that are really doing substantial damage like, say, cars. Or diabetes, the treatment of which now has whole two-aisle sections in your average neighborhood pharmacy because it is so rampant in our nation. (Though, admittedly, not directly contagious, I guess.) Or corporations that are trying to eliminate the practices of safety regulations and employment from their business models, with great success and the aid of Congress. Are we just beholden to whatever the media will give us?

And then comes the eternal conundrum which is that this, like many of the linked posts above, is basically just another ebola/ISIS post, albeit a frustrated one, so I am no better than the rest of the media in spitting out the same regurgitated nonsense that we are fed by our rather ruthless corporate-profit-fueled bird overlords. That every time I bring up one of these topics, if only to complain or vent about how frequently it’s discussed I am, in fact, merely discussing it myself and thus improving its Consciousness Rank for the rest of this terrified country. Such that it becomes almost impossible to even talk about the problems without being a part of them, which insidiously feels like it was somehow built in to the design as much as Obama announcing a new war on September 10th.

But seriously, why?

Did we just not go on enough roller coasters as children? Do we crave the fake drama and illusion of danger? Are we so complacent and in such a post-danger malaise that we feel a human need to be on the brink of losing our link to survival? Is this somehow ingrained in our animal nature that we lack such fight-or-flight experiences so as we generate a need to create them out of thin air? This last one seems really unlikely given the very real danger posed by tobacco and alcohol, or if you prefer violent and immediate death, cars and guns. But I guess we might believe our own rhetoric sufficiently so as to think that we’re so immune to danger that a sweeping danger that brings everyone down must be around the corner…? Maybe?

Or is just a fundamental profound unhappiness with our society and the basic nature of existence herein? America is notorious for being perhaps the unhappiest society of all-time, triply so when one contextualizes the material wealth and comfort enjoyed by all but the poorest in the society relative to the rest of the world and most of human history. And it’s a well-known trope that the end of the world and apocalyptic scenarios start looking appealing, exciting, even galvanizing to the chronically depressed, to those without hope. It’s a giant reset button, the chance to change your place in society or just outlive everyone else, or at least feel like your choices and decisions matter in a fundamental way that trips to the unemployment office or a dead-end job that keep you out of there don’t seem to have. That going down in a hemorrhagic fever while fighting off terrorists seems far more glorious an end than drowning in debt or having your used car break down and being unable to pay the repair bill.

Is that it? Are we just so dissatisfied that we need a dramatic and crazy broom to sweep away all our ennui?

Or are we being deliberately manipulated and misdirected? Do the powers that be, be they governments or shady entities behind the governments, or the corporations hiding in plain sight, just want us to be constantly afraid and hand-wringing and overwrought so that we can’t worry about anything else? So we don’t bring up the problems with the corporate state as it’s manifest, the problems with poverty or endless war, the things that actually pose a danger to our health and well-being? Surely the people who have manufactured the need for deodorant and toothpaste and Q-tips and dandruff shampoo (to say nothing of anorexia and bulimia!) are capable of manufacturing a little light fear to keep everyone sufficiently distracted and grease the profitable wheels of the fear industry, no?

Do we turn on the ebola coverage and the ISIS coverage because we want to feel the rush of fear and anger and go crazy and think that this might be the apocalypse? Or do we turn on whatever the coverage is and react accordingly? How culpable is the average viewer for what happens? Is the media responding to the highest bidder or the lowest denominator? Or just generating a narrative that they find exciting and then trying hard to out-outrage and out-sensationalize each other? Are we just enough of a movie culture that we all get sad if life doesn’t feel like a crisis movie, unfolding minute by minute? Or did movies and the media program us to be this way? If so, deliberately, or did it just kinda happen?

There is a contagious disease loose in our society, making us all rather sick. It’s not just fear, but totally baseless irrational fear. You could argue that we take a good look at the rates of cancer and obesity and preventable death and poverty in our nation and should get legitimately afraid, maybe even more afraid than the average American Governor now appears to be of ebola. But it’s the misdirection of these energies that is so problematic. Clearly we are capable of getting a lot done in a short period of time if we’re afraid enough. Especially if “getting a lot done” involves either killing foreign nationals or giving up civil liberties (or both!) – then we’re really top-notch. So why can’t we get comparably motivated to make an actually safer society, not just one that stops feeling paranoid about outside threats that have combined to kill 3 Americans all year?

Actually, strike that. I’d be excited about an energized movement to just stop us from being so afraid of things that aren’t a threat. That would suffice for now. We don’t need fear as a tool so long as it stops being such a self-inflicted weapon.

In the meantime, best hunker down this Halloween and not answer the door. No, not because an ISIS commando with ebola will show up. But because an American child who isn’t getting a decent education, is growing up in poverty, and is likely to be a victim of violence might be there. You know, something actually scary.


Return of the Emu

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

The Mep Report is back.

An emu, the official mascot of The Mep Report.  The podcast relaunched this week after over 3 years without an episode.

An emu, the official mascot of The Mep Report. The podcast relaunched this week after over 3 years without an episode.

We’re on Facebook. We’re on Twitter. And we have about 127 hours (5.3 days) of recorded show that you can listen to in the archives.

I wasn’t always on The Mep Report. I quit in August 2007 after 86 episodes, which was memorialized with this incredible graphic. I returned occasionally in 2009 and 2010, and then pretty regularly for the last few episodes before we hung it up in June 2011.

The Mep Report is one of the hardest things to explain that I’ve ever done. It’s mostly an hour-long podcast where we talk about anything and everything, stemming from our lives at the outset and usually commenting on politics, sports, and debate. It’s ostensibly sort of a comedy, but also a discussion/debate show, and also just three guys (and sometimes Clea) hanging out.

My partners in crime are Russ Gooberman and Greg Wilson, both of whom were on the Brandeis debate team with me, one a teammate a year ahead of me and the other our Coach. We all lived together, including Clea Wilson (Greg’s now wife), in a place called the Mep House during my senior year in college (2001-2002), known mostly for endless late-night phone-calls on the land-line and the discover of Dark Age of Camelot, which ruined several of Russ’ years and several parts of a few of mine.

Russ and I weren’t always friends. We didn’t know each other very well for the first couple years we shared on ‘Deis debate, mostly because he was partners and good friends with Brad, someone who I had a fierce rivalry with and wholly disrespected as a person (less so as a debater). Russ and I shared an interest in Philosophy and especially Professor Eli Hirsch, one of the greatest professors ever to teach at Brandeis. But we never talked that much until the National Championships in 2000, when we were both so thoroughly disappointed with our respective teams’ performances that we found ourselves in the exact same mood and sitting next to each other in the van during the infamous Van Round after Nationals, when everyone basically just ad hominemed each other to blow off the stress of the season. This lightened the mood a little, but the ice was really broken by me observing that the truck trailing along next to us in the late-night return from Bryn Mawr College was for the Fink Baking Co. and said that “Fink means good bread.”

I made the following observation: “Fink doesn’t mean good bread. Fink means scoundrel!”

And thus launched, totally unplanned, about an hour of Russ and I coming up with sentences where bread and related words for bread were replaced by the word “fink”. Each of them followed by increasing paroxysms of hysterical laughter. We only escalated in such humor while the other people in the van thought we were crazier and crazier.

By the time the van reached Waltham, we were pretty much friends for life.

Fink Baking Company later went out of business, by the way. Apparently they couldn’t convince much of the world of their new lexicon.

A year later, Russ and I moved in together when he was planning on an ill-fated matriculation into Boston University Law School. But before he graduated Brandeis, we fulfilled a semester-long commitment to each other to attend a tournament together. We went to Providence College in January 2001, a small but top-heavy tournament that was only breaking to semifinals. My regular partner, Adam Zirkin, who would win the North American Championships with me the next weekend, was hybriding with a friend of his from Yale.

Russ and I were, if I say so myself, on fire that tournament. We won the first two rounds handily and then ran “legalize all drugs” in third round and totally torched the team with what was, at the time, a controversial case. Fourth round we were 3-0 and hit the team that proved to be third TOTY (Team of the Year) by the end of the season, the famous Yale OJ, and Russ started pre-making fun of the case we were likely to hit when we were chatting with the judge before the round. We both predicted something boring and difficult was on the way despite the fact that it was early-morning Saturday’s 4th round, a classic time for more fun cases. They walked in an presented a case about technical details of insurance law and Russ and I turned and rolled our eyes at the judge and we went on to destroy the case and win the round handily. Fifth round, we hit my regular partner and his hybrid partner and expected a pretty fun round since it was a 4-0 match and we would both likely break. But Zirkin and Russ were not the best of friends and our friend from Yale was not wanting to go easy and they wound up running something that made for an annoying round. We suspected the round would be a coin-toss, but we’d still have high enough speaks to break. We headed to the banquet in great spirits.

We didn’t break. Russ punched a wall as soon as the fourth semifinalist who was not us was announced. Years later, the hole in the back of the lecture hall at PC from said punch was still there.

We had to sit through a semifinal round between our 4th and 5th round opponents (we had obviously lost 5th round and by a wider margin than we expected to miss the break), then watch Yale OJ drop to Stanford before we got the ballots to find out what had happened. And the ballots told us that while Russ had been debating that weekend, I had apparently been speaking in tongues and running screaming from the room. Russ was 4th speaker at the tournament, speaking a 132/7. But we had missed the break by a single speaker point, finishing 4-1, 260/20. Meaning I had spoken a 128/13. This put me 2 points and 4 ranks behind the 10th place speaker at the tournament and would have made me, in a year where I finished 5th SOTY (Speaker of the Year) overall as a junior, the 3rd novice speaker were I still a novice.

You can see the full results of that tournament here.

We looked incredulously at the ballots. Russ and I were pretty evenly matched and felt we’d been especially so this weekend and had complemented each other well. I looked at him beseechingly and asked if I had been terrible that weekend. He said not at all. And then I started berating myself. We gathered in a circle before leaving the tournament and I broke in to Greg’s questions about team dinner to publicly apologize to Russ for ruining his weekend.

“I’m sorry, Russ. When that emu asked you to debate with him, you clearly should have gone with him instead of me this weekend.”

He looked at me quizically.

I continued, warming to the subject. I said “At least he could have gone ‘Mep… mep…. mep.'” And then I got down into a crouch, tucked my hands under my arms in mock wings, and then stuck my tongue out periodically while making the mep sound.

Russ indignantly blamed the PC judges and not me, but I insisted on taking the blame and breaking into meps periodically at team dinner and the ride home.

The emu thing stuck. The rest of that year and the next, when Russ traveled with us frequently as a de facto Assistant Coach, Russ and I would periodically both get down in the emu crouch, quickly developing a pseudo-dance around each other in a circle that was dubbed “the emu-mating dance”. After the first spontaneous outbreak of this, we would look for a random time each tournament to break this out in GA. It never photographed especially well, but its legend still existed on the team a full APDA-generation (four years) after I graduated.

Then came Mep House (hilariously mis-heard as “meth house” by the mother of a visiting friend) and the rest was basically history. When Russ moved to LA, Greg to New York, and I to Berkeley, we periodically would regroup online to chat about life and then turned it into a podcast. We peaked in 2006 when we won the second Podcast Pickle Cast War, an event that got written up in the Brandeis University Alumni Magazine.

I have no idea what TMR 2.0 will look like in 2014, but it was fun doing a show again and I’m sure it will be fun in the future. We will definitely make fun of the world and each other. Our voices will sound even better, since we’re now using Skype instead of semi-pirated Teamspeak gaming chat rooms to talk to each other. Audio quality has really come a long way in the 3.5 years we’ve taken off.

Let the emu soar.


Baseball Roundup

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



For some reason, baseball is most of what I can think of to post about these days. I posted a lot about baseball down the stretch as the Mariners fell one game short of the playoffs, made doubly more frustrating by the fact that the AL Wild Card team (who could easily have been them had the A’s lost game 162) won 8 straight games to get to the World Series. As the Seattle Times just put it, the “Royals’ run should make Mariners fans take notice and dream”. It’s definitely doing that, as well as making me think about Kevin.

So, I feel compelled to write some loose end notes that don’t really conform to a typical streamlined post but still culminate what I’ve been considering during a season when I’ve thought about baseball far more often than my usual (which is already a lot).

You don’t have to take my word for how exciting the Mariners’ season was this year. Grantland has quantitatively measured that they had the most exciting regular season. Granted that some excitement should be reserved for the process of actually, y’know, making the playoffs, but as the article opens, “uncertainty equals excitement.” In their statistical analysis, the M’s were listed as having at least a 10% more exciting season that the next-most-exciting team, which, incidentally, also missed the playoffs (Atlanta). Kansas City was 5th, but I think they pretty clearly take #1 or #2 in terms of post-season… it’s hard to tell whether constantly coming back to win at the last minute is more exciting or just winning all of your games is. I guess, technically, KC has done both.

Speaking of the Royals, the very first box score I ever read in my life depicted a Boston-Kansas City game. We moved to Oregon in summer 1988, but I think it had to be in 1989, the year I truly discovered baseball. The box score was in the traditional format where the linescore was at the top with the city names, then the detailed information about the teams was below with the team names. I assumed, given everything I knew about Boston and Kansas City, that the teams were the Boston Royals and the Kansas City Red Sox. After all, Royals sounded just like what the Bostonians would dub themselves, while Red Sox sounded pedestrian and midwestern, especially with that spelling. This is how little I knew about baseball at the time.

That’s not even the least I ever knew about baseball. That summer, I insisted my parents take me to Little League tryouts. They were very supportive of my youth baseball career, but when I first asked, my parents gave me this kind of sidelong glance that said “Sports? Really? Did we do something wrong?” My Dad definitely prompted me more than once about whether this was something I really wanted to do. My father decided not to invest in a mitt right away, but to first see how tryouts went. They had a bucket of spare gloves for boys just like me. (Incidentally, “tryouts” at this stage was a misnomer – no one was denied their birthright to play Little League baseball.) I went up to the guy manning the bucket and asked for a glove to borrow. He asked if I was a righty or lefty. I said I was right-handed and he promptly handed me a glove. I then tried cramming it on… my right hand. It didn’t fit. I complained to my father and then to bucket-man. Bucket-man rolled his eyes, sighed, and wordlessly switched the glove’s hand. Voila! “But I’m right-handed!” I protested. He pointed out that I throw with the hand I use – admittedly I had tried at least once to throw with the gloved hand with surprisingly poor results.

I had been an A’s fan before either of the above two encounters, and would be until about the time I was leaving Oregon. As mentioned in the prior post, I had spotted a green team (favorite color) with an elephant mascot (one of five favorite animals) and that was kind of a no-brainer. This was actually during the 1988 World Series, of which I saw about two innings, in the hotel lobby on our trip to retrieve our stuff in storage from central California in October 1988. The World Series was probably on in a lot of places, but it was really on everywhere in California, given that it pitted the north against the south in a pivotal matchup. I was enthralled with the mechanics of baseball as I had been in the parks of Washington DC the year before, watching pickup and adult league softball games and plopped right down in front of the TV. The desk clerk asked me who I was rooting for. It took me about three seconds to say “the green team.” And just like that, I was an Oakland fan for the next four years.

This means that I have had a team that was my favorite win a World Series. In the very first full year in which I followed baseball (1989, the earthquake series, when they swept the Giants). That is ridiculously unfair. You could argue I became a Mariners fan as penance. But I didn’t. I became a Mariners fan because I was so obsessed with baseball that I listened to about 140 games/season on the Mariners Radio Network in 1989, 1990, 1991, and 1992, that being the team that was broadcast on the north coast of Oregon. I would root for the A’s when they played the M’s, and this matchup was the first major league game I attended at the Kingdome in Seattle. (The Mariners won; I was sad.) Somewhere around ’92 or ’93, I realized that my loyalties had shifted… I knew a lot more about the Mariners, cared a lot more about their day-to-day, and felt a close kinship with Dave Niehaus, Rick Rizzs, and the team they raised their voice for in the play-by-play. Mark McGwire was still my favorite player, but Ken Griffey Jr. was just behind. I found myself being torn in the A’s/M’s showdowns. By the time I moved to Albuquerque in 1993, my allegiance had changed.

This process was further confused by the fact that my parents bought me a beautiful Baltimore Orioles jacket in 1993 from the Cooperstown collection after we essentially lived in Baltimore during summer 1993. I was attending CTY out there and we had just moved all our stuff down to Albuquerque and then flew to Hawaii and then Baltimore. My Dad spent the summer making pogs of the DC/Baltimore area and trying to bring the new fad to the east coast. I have fond memories of hawking these to people on the steps of Union Station in DC, one of the buildings depicted on his commemorative tourist discs. Like pretty much all of my Dad’s businesses, he was a little ahead of the curve and we basically broke even as I understand it and it was fun. But we also went to a game at the new palace of baseball, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and my parents, who I’d been dragging into a love of sports and especially baseball, were incredibly impressed. When I showed up to the Academy, it was in an Orioles jacket (well, I guess it wasn’t till October, since the Academy started in August and everyone is in shorts in New Mexico in August). Which made one of my homeroom teachers, Mr. “Bucky” Buck, incredibly excited, because he was an Orioles fan. It was a little hard to explain that the O’s were my second or third favorite team and that I just really liked the jacket and the ballpark from whence it came. But he was an 8th grade teacher who actually came to some of our ballgames when baseball season rolled around, so I was hardly in the mood to correct him.

I think the confusion (natural and understandable, since I wore the O’s jacket about every day of 8th grade it was cold) was part of what prompted me to wear subsequent Mariners jackets so obsessively. I’d already been doing that for some time by the summer of 1995, then the fall of 1995 when the M’s made their historic run to save their first chance at the playoffs (they’d been two games out of the division lead, despite a horrible record, when the strike hit the year before) and even to save baseball in Seattle. All the rumors were that they were strongly considering moving to Tampa Bay in 1996 or 1997, which was promptly silenced forever after the M’s made the ALCS in 1995 and reminded the city that it loved baseball. I was in a huge quandary about how I would feel about the Tampa Bay Mariners and where they would rank in my shifting hierarchy of teams, but fortunately didn’t ever have to worry about that question.

I remember daydreaming in my very early youth about being a major league ballplayer, like pretty much every Little Leaguer who loves the game does, not that I was ever close to the talent necessary to seriously pursue this dream. In more sober moments, I thought about how much I loved the A’s at the time and wondered how I would ever be in a position to regularly attend Oakland games. The irony I felt in remembering this feeling when attending lots of Oakland A’s games when I lived in Oakland and Berkeley from 2002-2009 was pretty serious. Especially in those M’s/A’s series when, once again, it was hostile environment. I think I’ve attended about 20 A’s vs. Mariners games in my life and always been rooting for the road team.

Sports, and rooting for teams, remain totally irrational, as they’ve always been. But they add a ton of vibrance and color to one’s life, not to mention fulfilling a certain competitive drive. It is kind of overwhelming to consider how much mental energy and emotional exuberance (and torment) I’ve put into baseball in my life. Some days, it’s hard not to think about that in terms of opportunity cost. But I guess, as the economists really ought to know, we can’t all be rational, self-interested utility-maximizers. Some of us have to applaud.



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

The Kansas City Royals are going to the World Series.

The last time the Kansas City Royals were in the World Series (or, mind you, the playoffs) was in 1985. They won, beating the St. Louis Cardinals, who are now facing a 3-1 deficit in the National League Championship Series to try to get to this World Series for a rematch. The ’85 Series, by all accounts, was a thriller, pitting two Missouri teams against each other for seven games, with a stunning Game 7 blowout for the Royals who had been down 3-1 in the series after the first four games. They were down 1-0 in the bottom of the 9th in Game 6 and came back to win 2-1 in a walk-off, though I don’t think anyone used that term in those days.

I wasn’t a baseball fan in 1985. I lived in Visalia, California, and wouldn’t discover baseball for three more years, unless you count being vaguely enthralled by pickup softball games I would see in the parks of Washington, DC in the fall of 1987 and the spring of ’88. But my future friend, Kevin House, who lived in Wichita, Kansas at the time, was a baseball fan. We wouldn’t meet until third grade in Gearhart, Oregon, a new and foreign land for both of us. But at the time he got to be in Kansas when the City who shared that state’s name and was at least partially within the state, just a couple hours away, won it all. He was a huge fan of George Brett, hero of the Royals, who hit .370 in that series and went on to lead subsequent Royals teams, though not to the same dizzying heights as in 1985.

My recollection is that Kevin and I didn’t take an immediate liking to each other. I remember fast becoming friends with people like Tony Cox, Cisco Treharne, and John Grotz (now Hill) who rode the bus to the same general neighborhood as I did, where I was the first to get picked up in the morning and the last to get dropped off. And then I met Bowen Turetzky, when we were both getting tested for the gifted program if memory serves, and we shared some nerdy interests. Kevin rode the bus too, but was closer to school, always boarded smelling like my grandparents’ house (i.e. smoke), wearing his signature jean jacket and a slightly disgruntled look. He was a little more ornery and standoffish than the people who’d become my friends and I don’t remember exactly what broke the ice between us.

But over time, and not much at that, he proved to be like so many people who initially seem difficult or defensive – a true and loyal friend. We discovered a mutual love of baseball and video games and baseball cards and playing baseball and, well, there was a lot of baseball. He came over often and I would trade him Royals cards for A’s cards (I was admittedly an A’s fan for a few years before the constant listening to Mariners games on the radio all season wore me down and changed my heart – I had decided a team to root for during the 1988 World Series when I saw green uniforms and an elephant on the TV at a point at which I only knew of two teams in the world). We would play 1-on-1 baseball in the front yard or play on my text-based baseball computer game or talk about baseball or listen to baseball or watch baseball. We talked about other things, too, like life and hopes and dreams and all that. But mostly it came down to baseball.

At some point in our Little League careers, we had the enormous good fortune of being on the same team together, a total happenstance as our coaches selected teams in a secret closed-door draft meeting at the outset of each season. Kevin was a second baseman, mostly, but really wanted to be a third baseman like George Brett. His arm wasn’t the best, though. I had been converted to a catcher a year before by my mentor Jim Paino, who dug me out of the right field gravel and taught me how to encourage pitchers, frame a pitch, take care of a catcher’s glove, and throw off my helmet at the first sign of trouble. We never won that many games – I was perennially chosen by losing teams – but there was one doubleheader we played in Cannon Beach against the best team in the league and managed to eke out the second game in the league’s biggest upset all year. I remember Zac Gonzales pitched most, if not all, of the game, and I hadn’t yelled so loudly or exhortedly in my whole life and probably wouldn’t again till a debate tournament years later. And when we got the final out, we celebrated on Cannon Beach’s field like the ’85 Royals. Once the fervor had died down, Kevin promptly asked his mom if he could stay over at my house and we spent the night recounting the play-by-play of our dramatic win.

I only stayed over at – or even went – to Kevin’s house once. His grandparents, the smokers, were quite strict and didn’t really support the notion of sleepovers or even people playing in the house. I think they may have been on a trip when I actually came over. It was late in my time in Oregon, late in the time of our close friendship, and I remember the night vividly. We watched TV and played paper football and I finally saw every one of his George Brett cards, since many of the nicest ones never left his room and I couldn’t get to sleep for the endless ticking of a grandfather clock in the living room that my tired mind simply refused to adapt to. I recall being so surprised that such a small simple noise could wreak such havoc, but I was all too aware when it passed 2, 3, 4 in the morning and it may have been the latest I’d ever stayed up till that point.

Kevin was of course over at the house a few months later when I had my magical snowy birthday in February 1993, a few months before my family moved to Albuquerque and closed that crazy coastal chapter of our Clatsop County lives. Kevin stayed behind, went to Seaside High, graduated, and found his way back to Kansas. Where, in 2000, at twenty years old, he was killed in a car accident.

He was living in Independence, Kansas, somewhere southeast of Wichita and southwest of Kansas City, but he was rushed to the hospital in Wichita and died just four and a half miles from the house in which he’d been born.

He and his girlfriend had visited my parents earlier that year on a roadtrip across the country, I think in part to see his sister Bev, who was living in Tucson. But I hadn’t seen him since we were both 13, though we’d talked a few times and exchanged a little correspondence. A few days after the accident, his mother called the house in tears to give me the news. I debated for a week about going up for a memorial being held in Seaside, ended up not going, and have regretted my absence frequently since. You can read some of my immediate reactions in the very early months of Introspection here.

His full name, as you can see in his obituary, was Kevin Christopher House. He sometimes went by KC.

I haven’t had any friends die of ebola, or terrorism. But I have had a good friend die in that most common of fatalities among the young, the motor vehicle accident. I had always been so upset about his grandparents smoking around him constantly. I remember a medical visit after which he related to me that he had the lungs of a twenty-year smoker when he hadn’t even been alive that long. I was always so sure that this second-hand nicotine was going to contribute to an untimely death.

I think about Kevin often, as I think about many of my old friends, though I am Facebook friends with most of them. None of them are particularly close right now, but we keep in touch, comment on each other’s lives, bicker (just the other day) about the role of the military and the nature of war. I have gotten to see how they’ve grown up, all the children they’ve had, the men they’ve become.

But Kevin will forever be a young man, childless and free, so much of his life seeming to be ahead of him.

The Royals are back in the World Series, Kevin. They haven’t lost a game all playoffs. Twenty-nine years since the last time, fourteen since you left the planet. They’re going to play for the title on a cool October night under the western Missouri skies. And I’ll be watching. And wishing you were here.



Automation Nation

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

Something has taken place slowly over the past few years in the United States. And it’s basically complete.

No, the whole nation isn’t one company. Yet.

There are basically no manual appliances left in public spaces. Save for the occasional water fountain (and there are automatic ones and they basically don’t work and are completely terrifying – the process is basically walking up to a machine and having it spit at you), you are no longer expected to press buttons or flush toilets or turn cranks. Everything is automated. Faucets, toilets, urinals, hand dryers (both paper towel dispensers and hot-air blowers) all have little red motion sensors that determine when the appropriate time to work is without the overt control of the humans, well, using them.

At first blush, of course, this seems like enormous convenience. No longer do we have to actually exhaust our digits by – the horror – turning a knob! Merely wave hands in the general direction of where water is supposed to spring from and – voila – it is sprung! Weep, ye ancestors of humanity who died toiling in the men’s room of the past, furiously pulling your own paper towels from their slot.

But once we get past the idea of these machines and to their actual use, the picture of perfect ease gets murkier. For one thing, the shelf life of the motion sensors is awfully short. And what this means, functionally, is that the closer to the end of the sensor’s life we get, the more it becomes like – wait for it – a button. I think we’ve all had the experience of furiously trying to get the water to release from the spigot by waving, then contorting, then sort of just pawing our hands around the vague sink area, hoping to just make the faucet work already, something never before so challenging in the history of faucets. In most instances, if you can actually just see the blinking red light indicating the sensor’s location, you can merely press your finger to it and the thing will do its job. Unless the sensor is so old that is just broken, which is an increasingly regular occurrence. I’m not exactly certain how often sink handles had to be replaced in the old days, but I bet it was less than once a decade in all but the roughest of establishments.

Which brings us to the question of the purported environmentalism of all this automation. Certainly hand-dryer blowers are nothing new to bathrooms in America, though they used to have (gasp!) buttons along with their lecturey signage about how hot air was more sustainable and environmental than paper. Which seems sort of true in a world where we don’t question where the electricity comes from or what its creation is doing to the planet. I haven’t precisely run the numbers on paper towel count vs. how much power it takes to run a blower and I don’t know exactly how to quantify x number of trees vs. y units of coal energy in terms of what it’s doing to Earth… I’m not sure this information is exactly knowable (see also: paper or plastic, which has been punted to canvas/tote, which itself has raised a whole host of environmental questions regarding just how many tote bags humans need). But I do know how much energy and/or trees used to go into faucets or urinals. That would basically be zero.

But when we factor in the replacement costs and that impact on sustainability, not to mention the process of turning every appliance in a public restroom into a little computer, it doesn’t seem like this was a terribly environmentally motivated decision at all. If this had an environmental angle at all, it seems to have been swept up in what so many such endeavors devolve into in this country: an opportunity to spend money buying something new because it’s environmental! Never mind that the whole point of the movement hinges on reducing and reusing instead of manufacturing and buying… the best way to show support for the environment is to buy Environment-Brand Stuff! I’m not saying every or even most environmentalist actually buys in (get it?) to this mentality, but it feels like the mainstream of people feel good about themselves for buying more products than they otherwise would as long as they have a vague greeny feel about them. And, like most things, this scales up in big institutions.

I guess there’s the other environmental issue of the person in the bathroom who leaves the sink running for a week or who flushes the toilet 27 times when they actually need to maybe twice. The environmental issue here is water and the thesis is that bad/neglectful people will waste more of it than very smart machines. I’d be more of a believer in this if the machines themselves demonstrated much intelligence. I am really looking forward to being able to get a Google self-driving car, but if they run on the same general principle as these motion sensors built into public restrooms, they will alternate between stopping in the middle of nowhere, then kind of stutter-stepping for a few feet before stopping forever and smashing full-tilt into whatever they can hit. It’s an unnerving and increasingly common experience to be sitting on a public toilet when the motion sensor decides that you simply must be done already and decides to throw full suction at the bowl without warning. Similarly, I’ve had to do bizarre dances and door-swinging maneuvers to try to leave other stalls in a human condition for the future user, endlessly cajoling the stingy motion sensor to release its cleansing waters.

I’m sure the process of adding a blinky red light to every appliance in every public restroom in the country helped the economy a lot and may be credited as one of the only reasons we’re supposedly out of the Great Recession. (Of course, as I’ve discussed, we’re not.) But I suspect the real reason for all this automation wave has more to do with something I’ve discussed even more recently, which is the national obsession with the outbreak and spread of deadly diseases. Or, y’know, at least colds.

It’s become an increasingly known and documented fact that our hands, seemingly our most innocuous and extendable parts, are dirtier than the worst incarnation of the Peanuts character Pigpen, while other areas we might be more concerned about, such as our thighs, are actually remarkably clean. This fact does not deter anyone from shaking hands with others or even mean that we tear down the doors of public restrooms, but it probably is the main culprit behind removing handles from toilets, urinals, soap-dispensers, and sinks in public places. The sink one is especially important, since we’d have to touch the handles with freshly-washed hands over and over again… who knows where those freshly-washed hands have… oh.

You can probably guess by now that I think this effort as a way of stopping disease, much less serious disease like, say, ebola, is a fool’s errand. Admittedly my father did raise me to flush a public toilet with my feet rather than my hands, but I really doubt a lot of people before were getting sick from public bathrooms. More likely it was from kissing people and shaking their hands and going to hospitals and all the other really contagious things that we tend to do as a species. And maybe I’m wrong and it’s marginally aiding our health never to have to touch handles in bathrooms. But my guess is that the margin, if applicable, is really quite small and is dwarfed by the expense of constantly getting new sensors installed (to say nothing of it being erased by the sensors that just become buttons).

No, like many innovations of our modern world, my guess is this one is more about the illusion of increased health, the gentle placebo that comes from replacing something vaguely icky with something really frustrating. As long as we don’t think that the public restroom is making us sick, then it’s worth any expense to be spared the indignity of turning a knob that some other human has touched before us.

Of course, people continue to stockpile ebola suits and get them for the whole family … just in case. So maybe a time will come soon when we will all literally live in our own little bubbles and never have to touch each other at all. Just make sure you sneak your cell phone inside the suit first. It’s awfully hard to text with ebola-suit-fingers.

Dave?  What are you doing, Dave?  I believe you'll find that very difficult without your ebola suit, Dave.

Dave? What are you doing, Dave? I believe you’ll find that very difficult without your ebola suit, Dave.


List of Things More Likely to Kill Americans than Ebola

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



Yesterday, all day, the “ebola outbreak” in Dallas, Texas, consisting of one sick Liberian who came to the US, was the top national news story in this rapidly deteriorating country. People almost everywhere were talking seriously about this as a threat to their health and safety.

This is not a news story. The ebola outbreak in Africa is probably a news story, though it still kills way fewer people than, say, starvation or civil war or actual seemingly intractable threats to health and safety in developing nations. But ebola in the United States is not a threat and should not be a news story. There have been three cases of people in America with ebola. Zero people have died. No one has contracted ebola in the US. The two Americans who contracted ebola abroad were cured. The Liberian in America with ebola is receiving the most intensive health care and scrutiny of any person in the history of hospitals.

Ebola in the US is not a news story. It is not an occurrence. It is a distraction and the needless generation of fear, much like, say ISIS.

But hey, at least ISIS did kill two Americans before we declared it the greatest threat to American security in world history.

So here is a non-comprehensive list of things more likely to kill Americans than ebola. It’s probably also viable for ISIS, though a couple of the more obscure ones maybe be only comparably dangerous to Americans as ISIS. That latter danger is also going to increase since we sent a bunch of Americans to try to kill every man, woman, and child in Iraq and Syria.

List of Things More Likely to Kill Americans than Ebola:

    Police Officers
    Falling Off of Ladders
    Drowning in the Bathtub
    Looking at Someone Else’s Gun
    Frat Parties
    Falling Off a Cliff while Hiking
    Dropping Electronics into the Sink
    Spontaneous Combustion
    Flesh-Eating Bacteria
    Lawn Mowers
    Autoerotic Asphyxiation
    Vending Machines
    Roller Coasters
    Falling Out of Bed

And this is to say nothing of, say, actually dangerous things, like motor vehicles or smoking or alcohol or starvation or hospital mistakes, let alone things like heart disease and cancer and diabetes. So please. Please. Stop talking about ebola in the US. You might do something truly dangerous, like give yourself high blood pressure worrying about it.


Unemployment Down to 11.94%, Now Double Official Reported Figure

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

What I predicted in April 2013 has finally happened.

The BLS released their September report on unemployment today, announcing that unemployment had dropped from 6.1% to 5.9% in the United States. Unemployment did drop between August and September, when accounting for those unemployed by virtue of not being in the labor force, but by a much more modest margin, from 11.99% to 11.94%.

11.94% is tied for the lowest unemployment rate in the US in five years, dating back to August 2009. Unemployment then was only 11.76%, but was reported as 7.9%. Things in August 2009 were slightly better than they are now, but people perceived them as being 33% worse. Although it may not be fair to say things were holistically better, because unemployment was starting to skyrocket toward its peak of 13.17%, while recently the trend is decidedly flat. Unemployment has been between 11.94% and 11.99% for four straight months, and between 11.94% and 12.17% since February.

The gap between the reported figure and the real figure hinges on this insidious quote from the BLS report out this morning:

“The civilian labor force participation rate, at 62.7 percent, changed little in September.”

The way that should be phrased is more along the lines of: The civilian labor force participation rate hit a new Great Recession low at 62.7 percent in September, reflecting that more people have now left the labor force since 2007 than are currently considered officially unemployed.

It’s easy to say that things are “little changed” when they dip 0.1%, even if that reflects a new record low. The problem is that 0.1% of the labor force-eligible population is 248,446 people. The alleged decline in unemployment of 0.2% month over month was 329,000 people. So a substantial majority (76%) of the people who allegedly stopped being unemployed actually just left the labor force. Thus the real unemployment rate was only down 0.05%, not 0.2%.

Here are your graphs for this month:

Real (red) and reported (blue) unemployment in the US, January 2009-September 2014.  Source: BLS

Real (red) and reported (blue) unemployment in the US, January 2009-September 2014. Source: BLS

The gap between real and reported unemployment in the US, January 2009-September 2014.  Source: BLS

The gap between real and reported unemployment in the US, January 2009-September 2014. Source: BLS

I decided to cut the graph to starting in January 2009 instead of January 2007 as I have in the past, mostly to emphasize the contrast and let the recent trends stand out a little more.

The Reporting Gap, or what I’ve dubbed the “Crazy Factor”, hit an all-time high last month with today’s report, and now finally stands higher than the reported figure in unemployment. The Reporting Gap is 6.04%. Unemployment is reported as being 5.9%.

Put another way, 9,262,000 Americans are currently unemployed by virtue of counting in the official statistics. An additional 9,481,787 Americans have either left or never been able to enter the labor force and are currently unemployed by that circumstance. These people have no jobs and, unlike the officially unemployed, no income.

The total number of unemployed Americans is more than double what we think it is. It is 18.75 million people, not 9.25 million.

If you’re wondering, the last time the labor force participation rate was this low, it was in February 1978. At the time, there was still a significant gender gap in terms of women being expected and/or able to work, as well as a burgeoning economic crisis. But the BLS is content to call a 36-year low in labor force participation “little changed”.

In fact, maybe the starkest graph I could show you is this one, from the BLS website itself, with no extra analysis on my part:

BLS labor force participation rate, January 1978-September 2014.  Source: BLS

BLS labor force participation rate, January 1978-September 2014. Source: BLS

Does that look like a recovery to you?

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):
August 2014
April 2014
December 2013 – seasonal assessment
December 2013
March 2013*
August 2012*
July 2012* – aging 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.


Getting Spooky

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

Hit refresh on this page.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Yeah, that’s pretty different. Basically since the inception of this incarnation of my blogging, which was in October 2007 (seven years ago!), I’ve used some version of the WordPress theme Mushblue. Almost immediately after installing it, I started periodically tweaking the colors and changing the header images and pretty soon, the theme was more or less unrecognizable.

This was my first post. And in skimming over it to see how far I’ve come since then, this quote jumps out:

“Change is naturally something that seems scary to most. But change is also rivetingly exciting, and gives us the opportunity to do things differently than we did them last time.”
-2 October 2007

I’ve been kind of afraid to change the theme because I’m accustomed to the versatility I get from using that theme. But I wanted to make a change and take advantage of some of the newer, more dynamic themes that are available on WordPress and have been developed in the last seven years as the web converts to a bit more of a twenty-first century reality.

That said, honestly, when examining this, it looks like I’ve landed in a theme that’s not all that much of a change after all. The header goes all the way from end-to-end at the top and I really like the fonts and some of the stylistic choices and the fact that I can still customize the colors. But there are things I’m not in love with about this format. It does a book-style truncation of words that are too long but still doesn’t justify the text at the right side, which seems like a really frustrating compromise where everyone loses. And it posts both categories and tags at the top of each post, which I’ve been conflating for seven years as the same thing since my old theme only posted categories.

So maybe this one won’t last that long, though it will probably be here for October since I’ve just taken the time to customize it for October. Yay.

It seems like a good time to dredge up all the old theme images, though, if only for posterity, since I was working in the exact same format for the last seven years with the 800×350 pixel headers at the top:

The first header, which kind of reminds me of today's header.  Change always comes in October.

The first header, which kind of reminds me of today’s header. Change always comes in October.

Winter 2007-2008.  I think this is some of the better photo editing I've done.

Winter 2007-2008. I think this is some of the better photo editing I’ve done.

Early 2008.  Actually made after my return from the trip, since I didn't have that sweatshirt or see that elephant until the trip.

Early 2008. Actually made after my return from the trip, since I didn’t have that sweatshirt or see that elephant until the trip.

October 2008.

October 2008.

Mid-2008 until mid-2009.  Made for the depression as it came on and it stayed relevant for a long time.

Mid-2008 until mid-2009. Made for the depression as it came on and it stayed relevant for a long time.

Summer 2009.  For the trip to move across country that Emily and I were making.

Summer 2009. For the trip to move across country that Emily and I were making.

October 2009.

October 2009.

Winter 2009-2010, early draft.  I'm not sure how long this stayed up, if very long at all.

Winter 2009-2010, early draft. I’m not sure how long this stayed up, if very long at all.

Winter 2009-2010, replacement.  It was a little less cheezy than the big snowflake, I guess.

Winter 2009-2010, replacement. It was a little less cheezy than the big snowflake, I guess.

Summer 2010.  Ah, optimism.

Summer 2010. Ah, optimism.

Later summer 2010, in the wake of the separation, obviously.

Later summer 2010, in the wake of the separation, obviously.

October 2010.  Self-explanatory.

October 2010. Self-explanatory.

Fall 2010.  Way more optimistic than I actually felt, but I was trying to commit to a new season at Rutgers.

Fall 2010. Way more optimistic than I actually felt, but I was trying to commit to a new season at Rutgers.

Early 2011.  I was still trying to get reinvigorated about staying in Jersey.

Early 2011. I was still trying to get reinvigorated about staying in Jersey.

Summer 2011, for my roadtrip across the country.

Summer 2011, for my roadtrip across the country.

Fall 2011.  This image is basically about not committing suicide.  There's really no way to dress that up.  It stayed up for 17 months, even as things started improving.

Fall 2011. This image is basically about not committing suicide. There’s really no way to dress that up. It stayed up for 17 months, even as things started improving.

Early 2013, finally replacing the bridge with some acknowledged optimism.

Early 2013, finally replacing the bridge with some acknowledged optimism.

Anticipating summer 2013.  Wound up staying up a lot longer during my blogging moratorium in late 2013.

Anticipating summer 2013. Wound up staying up a lot longer during my blogging moratorium in late 2013.

Summer 2014 until yesterday.

Summer 2014 until yesterday.

Wow, that all takes me back. And now it’s time to try to move forward. If any of you out there who regularly read the blog are so inclined, I would really welcome some feedback about readability and the experience of visiting this website and what you would like to see changed as I try to perfect it. As much as I like it to be a testament to my emotional reality, it’s really a form of communication that is only as effective as its conveyance. I don’t do comments here because of the nature of Internet comments, but you can always e-mail me.


On Waiting

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Tags: , , , ,

It's rough when a 375-minute wait-time proves to be an underestimate.

It's rough when a 375-minute wait-time proves to be an underestimate.

Yesterday I went to the DMV to become an official resident of Louisiana, changing over the car registration and getting a new driver’s license. (I was allowed to smile this time, unlike in New Jersey.) It’s interesting, perhaps, that driving is such a ubiquitous expectation for members of our society that changing one’s vehicular status seems to be the really defining part of residency. I have often tried to discuss with people how strange it is that driving is a universally expected skill, even though it’s reasonably difficult and arbitrary and the consequences of this expectation kill 40,000 people a year in the nation (or, as I prefer to put such statistics, cause 13.3 9/11’s a year). When Alex and I went to Texas two of the last three weekends, we noticed these oddly disturbing but effective electronic roadside signs. In stark yellow letters across a black field, they announced that 2157 people had died on Texas roads this year so far, so we should drive safely.

I still think a more appropriate reaction might be that we should stop driving cars and find more efficient, safe, and communal ways of getting around the nation, but hey. One 9/11 can cause endless war, but 13 of them a year trigger only the exhortation that people should reduce the speedometer reading by 10%. USA!

While at the DMV, however, I was reminded of what a universal American experience said motor vehicle offices are. I had put this visit off till the penultimate possible day (the Prius’ Jersey plates expire tomorrow) in dread of the long lines, crabby employees, and overbearing fluorescence of the trip. None of these factors were any less potent in reality than they were in the anticipation of my mind. The office could have been straight out of Piscataway or Oakland or Albuquerque, replete with the red digital board announcing that one’s number was interminably far away, the absolutely least patient and considerate humans currently employed in customer service worldwide, and low hanging buzzing lights that augmented the shadows on the hangdog droop of one’s long-suffering plastic-chair-bound comrades.

Americans are not accustomed to waiting, as a general rule, and we do not handle it well. This is a society that complains like the bitterly oppressed and imprisoned when a webpage takes thirty seconds to load instead of two, when cars ahead do not simulate the squealing launch of a NASCAR race as soon as a streetlight turns green. It is not merely that waiting brings to mind the opportunity cost of precious seconds that could be spent in rapturous adoration of a television or smartphone, but that impatience is kind of drummed into us as a cultural virtue. We crave instant gratification, revere fast food, proliferate the drive-through because getting out of a car and walking across half a parking lot is just such an impediment to the immediacy of our needs. One shudders to think of this country being confronted with miles-long walks to fresh water or even Depression-era bread-lines. No doubt many red-blooded patriots would choose to defiantly expire of starvation, rather than participate in the self-abnegation incumbent in getting in such a queue.

It is worth noting, then, the exceptional circumstances that do lead to Americans voluntarily standing in lines. Much has been made lately of the kind of badge of honor that trendy New Yorkers wear by waiting, sometimes overnight, in lines for various hip New York experiences, e.g. cronuts, new iPhones, the experience of rain in an art museum, etc. And it is perhaps telling that our most line-prone urbanites have their own nomenclature for such waiting, being the only American sub-species who call such waiting “standing on line” as opposed to “in line”. Indeed, I have found that this slip of terminology is perhaps the best way for immediately rooting out a New Yorker from an otherwise sane batch of people – they are totally incapable of saying “in line” like the rest of the nation. And to anyone not raised in New York, “on line” sounds infinitely clunky and even misspoken. I have often wondered whether the NYC lingo for queues is responsible for the Internet being called “going online” – perhaps a New Yorker was the first person to complain of the bleeps and bloops of 1990s modem signatures and declared that this was like camping out for Yankees playoff tickets.

I have to believe that there is something about New Yorkers’ reputed impatience that makes line-waiting such a vital part of the New York experience for those who choose to partake in it. It’s like people who grew up poor flaunting their access to cash with some flashy unnecessary purchase. Look how much time I can waste amidst all this rush and bustle! Look how much and how passionately I care about the two new features of this portable telephone! And, as in all games and most of life, this patience is rewarded. If we can call the opportunity to spend too much money for something that’s probably not that great a reward.

It is this type of line-waiting that Alex and I engaged in over the summer in Orlando, Florida when, on 8 July 2014, we attended the official grand opening of Diagon Alley in Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter and rode the new ride Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. We spent a cumulative 10 hours waiting to ride one ride.

We had first considered heading down to Harry Potter World years ago and when it was announced that a whole new section of the park would be opened and dedicated to the boy wizard, it seemed like a no-brainer to try to go this summer. But Universal became especially cagey about when precisely the new part of the park and its new ride would open just as we were planning our trip to New Orleans, so it was basically after the plans had been made (though I rarely finalize plans fully, in part to capture just such opportunities as this) that they announced the new ride would open on one of the days we were already slated to be in Orlando.

Part of the problem is that the escape from Gringotts as a scene in both the 7th book and 8th movie of the Harry Potter series already seems like an amusement park ride. One can’t help thinking that J.K. Rowling herself wrote the imagery with something like Universal Studios in mind, so the craving to ride such a ride has long been patiently waiting inside every HP fan. The other problem is that we were able to waltz into Diagon Alley the day before it opened, in the evening of July 7th, during a “soft open” that it was doing, so we naively assumed that there would be no line for the same area on the official opening day.

It is worth noting here that if you like Harry Potter, you should do everything you can to go to the Wizarding World in Orlando. I simply can’t recommend it enough. Hogsmeade is really impressive and all but one of the rides there are great, but the attention to detail, craftsmanship, and just pure love that went into Diagon Alley are rarely matched in any theme park or place of American entertainment. It feels, for all the world, like visiting the place, like the Alley itself has been made manifest, giving it a sense of place usually exclusively reserved for, well, real places. And I know part of the whole HP themeology is the concept of blurring what is real from what is not and questioning the importance of such distinctions, but rarely is such a question asked so poignantly as in this location.

So not only did Alex and I not make an effort to get to the park as early as possible on the 8th of July, but we spent the first 10 minutes in the park bum-rushing for the entrance to Diagon Alley rather than trying to find the end of the line to get in. Having no idea there would be a line because we’d gotten in so easily the day before, we missed the chance to be probably 45 minutes earlier in the line as people streamed in, shortcutting directly to the entrance and then walking all the way back along the length of the line to find our place in it.

Despite dire warnings that the line could be upwards of six hours just to get into a place we’d gallivanted through in wonder the night before, the wait for the Alley itself only proved to be a little over two hours. At first, we were able to get in and out of line and I even walked onto the Simpsons ride, which proved quite fun, while Alex held our place. But soon they cracked down on such shenanigans and there was nothing to do but settle in, try to hydrate in the wake of the intense Florida sun, and get to know our line-neighbors, a pair of Australian young women who worked at Disney and were making a budding career as journeying theme park cast members.

Alex had also followed the absolute cardinal rule of line-waiting, which is Bring A Book. During most of my life, I wish I were reading more and I actually have grown to love mass transit and even some other opportunities to wait in line because they “force” me to read. There is probably something interesting in play about our screen-based and fast-paced society that makes reading something hard to choose over other, more exciting seeming options, even if what I really most want to be doing is reading. Part of the problem is that reading is often soporific by nature, especially since most people recline when reading, and thus big plans of a night spent reading for hours often yield a half-hour of reading followed by sleeping more than one wanted.* Which, for all its other foibles, makes the subway or the streetcar or even the fluorescent-drenched DMV office or auto repair waiting-room an excellent refuge for actually getting to read.

*I realize, of course, that “sleeping more than one wanted” is possibly a concept unique to me, especially as an adult American in his mid-thirties. This is the difficulty of trying to bridge one’s experience into more universal ones.

I honestly have no recollection of why I forgot a book that day. I may have assumed that the lines would comport to some reasonable standard of timeliness and that I would be bouncy and excited instead of bored while waiting. I may just have wanted to reduced the load in my backpack or I may have, incomprehensibly, left my backpack in the car and asked Alex to carry a couple things in her purse. There have been so many quick trips to places that somehow yielded unexpected waits, though, that I almost never violate the Bring A Book rule and am constantly admonishing myself to follow it, much like its equally important cousin rule (in my life), which is Bring A Layer. But for some reason, I had no books. Alex had brought Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

In the sun-soaked line for Diagon Alley, we joked idly about Alex making significant progress in said tome during line-standing. Shortly after stowing our stuff in the requisite lockers in Diagon Alley (the locker-line itself taking on the order of 40 minutes while Alex sat in Knockturn Alley’s dank to recover from the sun), we discovered that this progress might not be such a joke. When we entered the line for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, the sign warned us that 375 minutes of waiting (6.25 hours for those scoring at home) may, well, await us (see image atop this post). Since entering the Alley an hour prior, this number had steadily been increasing as I waited for a locker and we downed some cool refreshments and gawked at how well crafted the overall place was. The safe assumption seemed to be that the wait times would only increase, that if we waited another hour, the sign would say 500 and another hour after that might close the line altogether and deprive us of our chance to experience the ride. (We were leaving the next day for New Orleans, though we ended up going north up the coast for an amazing sea turtle experience instead that I may someday recall in a different post.)

So the only thing to do was to get in line.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to talk about the experience of waiting for what proved to be 8 hours in a line without a book.* I was trying to capture my observations and the different feelings during the experience, but nothing much stuck or was terribly salient, the probable result of the inevitable brain-scramble that comes of such experience. And while my waiting experience pales in comparison to the life of those in Guantanamo Bay or some other detainment facility, let alone the millions our society keeps incarcerated round the clock, it does have the counter-point that it was voluntarily chosen. And thus an experience for which I had no one to blame but myself. Which is probably not how DMV or auto-repair purgatories feel, but a little like cronut waits, I guess.

*Can you believe that they do not sell a single book in Diagon Alley? This is the place’s largest flaw, by far. One can acquire the entire Harry Potter series in Hogsmeade, but no book of any kind is available in Diagon Alley. I would have paid an exorbitant markup for just about any book some four hours into the wait.

It should be noted that we were allowed, by virtue of there being two of us, to get out of the line and return to our original position. We didn’t discover this fact for the first 3+ hours of the wait, when it first occurred to us that they had to let us go to the bathroom at some point in a 375-minute span. When assuming there was a bathroom somewhere in the swirling line matrix, I was told to simply proceed to the rest of the Alley and find a normal bathroom out there. Which opened up a new world of relief possibilities, including alternately going to get food, beverages, look at the cool things in this part of the theme park, and get cool in Knockturn Alley. Unfortunately, riding other rides or exploring the rest of the park was not an option as it would entail another 2-4 hour wait to return to Diagon Alley, so our options were still relatively limited.

The other issue in play was that the ride kept breaking down. Being a brand-new ride and one suddenly ramped up to the expectations of thousands of simultaneously descending American tourists, the attraction buckled under the weight of being asked to constantly run at capacity. Frankly, it probably wasn’t ready for an opening they’d already delayed and equivocated about. But engineering is no match for the advertising dollars of an announced opening, so there we were facing extended delays periodically announced in a fake British accent over the tinny loudspeaker. These would occasionally be refuted by a more joyous announcement that they were pleased to tell us either half or all of the ride was functioning once more and we would soon have the experience that we truly had all been waiting for.

How to capture the backflips one’s mind starts to do in hour five of a wait? How one grows tired of standing, gives up and just sits on the ground, grows tired of sitting on the ground, sits on the rails of the switchback line-holder, grows numb from that, starts dancing in place, thinks about something else. The biggest problem with waiting in line is how powerfully the act itself captures one’s imagination, how being in line makes one think so chronically about being in line. Sure, one’s mind is able to wander a bit to other things, but most of those are uses of time that one could spend that are not being in line, even those in the theme park itself, and the inevitable question of whether it was, in fact, worth it to get in this line in the first place and at one point it might have made sense to follow a handful of people seen leaving the line after 1, 2, 3 hours. After about 3 hours, no one leaves. That seems to be the tipping point at which one is “pot committed” to borrow a poker phrase, the point of proverbial no return.

Or how to illustrate the horror of looking back in line two hours deep and realizing how much shorter the aggregate line now is, that one could have saved the majority of the last two hours by simply doing something, anything else? That those things would have been active and fun and nothing like the fate that has not only befallen the last two, visibly wasted hours, but that one has two more sessions of two hours just like it ahead. The amount of palpable regret in the process is almost as painful as the feeling in one’s feet after four hours of mostly standing.

How to describe the elation of finally leaving the outdoor portion of the line, most of which was at least covered and had some industrial fans posted and blowing on the lucky few for a while, entering the hallowed halls of Gringotts and its pitch-perfect depiction of the solemn white marble entranceway, complete with surprisingly lifelike animatronic goblins who blink and stare in a quizzical way that one only thinks at this stage, hour 5, is meant to question one’s life choices at voluntarily being in this line so long?

How to explain the incredible effort it takes for a deeply introverted woman who is actually, horror of horrors, in this line alone (and without a book*) to start talking to me in hour 4.5 of the line? This person going on to explain that she is an annual local-pass holder and was here for the Hogsmeade opening as well, the last part making me question why we spent extra money on individual tickets to be here when there are some people who are doubtlessly here for free, save for the already much-thought-over opportunity-cost of being in this line instead of any of the other fun parts of the park which, no doubt, have almost no line since basically everyone who is in this park is here to be here, namely this interminable and constantly extending line.

*Worth noting, also, that the aforementioned lockers indicated that one is supposed to carry nothing onto this ride and thus, also, nothing into the line to wait for the ride either, except disposable things. We actually tested me pocketing Alex’s copy of Chamber of Secrets three times to ensure that we’d be able to keep it on the ride. Although, by hour 3, it’s pretty clear the value of the book and that we would be willing to buy a book that we’d be forced to dispose of three hours hence just to have those three hours with access to a book!

Or whether to bother with the bubbling resentment for the fourth member of the party of teenage girls that, unfortunately, can only be described as a “gaggle”? The one who, just before it was impossible to have return-to-line privileges, showed up for the first time all line, in hour 6, yes, hour 6, to join her friends after 6 carefree hours* running around the various empty rides and attractions of the park while the rest of us, her three cohorts included, toiled away in the psychological gymnastics of standing in this interminable line for three minutes of fun, albeit new fun, at the end.

*Admittedly some of these 6 hours must have been spent in the same 2-4 hour line that we all endured to get into Diagon Alley in the first place, though since we did that too, it is not a marginal harm of her avoiding the first 6 hours of the Gringotts line.

When I was in high school, we had to do various “experiential education” trips, which was just a codeword for hiking/camping as sponsored by the school. There was, at one point, an entire curriculum around it, but I think that had more or less died out by the time I got to the Academy, possibly because the department was chaired by my least favorite educator at the school of all-time and the one I was convinced was the least intelligent, which was something I used to be very mean about. This being the same guy who, in the nascent days of e-mail, my friends and I created a group e-mail chain relating the mistakes he made about American history in his two sections of AP US History, this being a daily occurrence, usually with multiple instances from each class. I kind of suspect he had just been too active in certain outdoorsy extracurricular activities popular in earlier decades, which were in no way part of the curriculum of so-called “experiential” education.

Regardless, we got to choose our sophomore-year trip and, traumatized from a Philmont trip in which it had rained torrentially for five solid days, I opted for a more minimalist venture, the Wilderness Solo, in which we did a brief group hike to a serene lakeside mountain spot, then hiked around a bit alone to scout out some spots for the next day, then embarked early in the morning for 24-36 hours of completely solo time in the woods.

The two trip chaperones of course checked on us twice, once actually having us acknowledge them directly, which I guess was necessary for liability, but it kind of spoiled the sheen of the event for me. What I didn’t realize, of course, is that a disproportionate portion of our trip’s cohort were drama types not just because this trip was less exhaustive than most but because it was the easiest to sneak alcohol and/or drugs into and most of the folks on the trip used the whole adventure as an excuse to get entirely wasted in the wilderness. I, of course, not being that type of person whatsoever, actually had taken the guides seriously the night before when they talked about getting us to refrain from reading or writing or other “distractions” and really trying to get into our “theta waves” of a totally meditative and relaxed state without normal stimuli.

I almost went crazy.

And it wasn’t just the typical camping crazy of late-night sounds and the “oh my, even though I’m normally not a fearful person, the realization that it is dark to the point of invisibility out there and I am protected by very thin nylon and a flimsy zipper and every gust of wind is surely a giant wildebeest with a craving for human meat” crazy. It was some serious crazy. Like “am I really a person?” crazy. Like “life is probably just a simulated illusion meant to inflict pain on us as some sort of trial” crazy.

I also distinctly remember that I spent a majority of my solo time with the Kinks’ song “Lola,” annoying in the best of times heard once, stuck in my head. A song which I only knew a small portion of the lyrics to, making the loop of the repetitive refrain of it being stuck internally shorter, making the entire feedback loop of having a song inexorably in one’s head that much more catastrophically frustrating. Doubtlessly, the perfection of contemplative nature-bound meditation is just no match for pop culture’s infectious rhythms in even the most introspective brain.

When I started to get too crazy, I just broke down and read, which had been my plan all along before the impressionable prior night of theta waves and the rapture/enlightenment that would surely come from simply doing nothing in the woods all day. As though I had briefly lost my mind and forgotten that doing nothing and boredom had been lifelong sworn enemies which I had created entire imaginary worlds to combat. I was pretty big on enlightenment in those days and the quest therefor.

I think the Wilderness Solo was the last time before 8 July 2014 that I felt so crazy and in my head, so self-doubting about an individual decision to sign up for nothingness. And, like the Wilderness Solo, the process of resurfacing to normal levels of stimulus was euphoric. Just entering the building and seeing adornment, the decorated hallways of Gringotts and its various winding vaults that still comprise about 90-120 minutes of line-waiting was a total thrill on the order of a first drink of water after days in a desert. There is this little small part of the ride that you get before the actual ride, that you think is the actual ride, which consists of an elevator into the deepest parts of the vaults as they go over safety procedures, and that felt like winning the World Series. Of course there was a commensurate letdown when we stepped out of that and not onto waiting minecarts but… more infinite line. Snaking through the fake-stone circuitousness to a spiral staircase that ostensibly led up to the real line.

We lost another 45 minutes in there, but this wasn’t by design. The ride broke down when we hit the steps and didn’t resume for a good long while and we all had to contemplate the possibility that our 7.25 hours thus far were all for absolute naught, that this really was a torture chamber and there wasn’t even an inkling of gold at the end of the rainbow. But this extra span gave Alex just enough time to charge through the last few chapters of the Chamber of Secrets, our subterranean time matching Harry and Ron’s, such that she completed the entire tome while in line that day.

The ride was amazing, for a ride. It was truly impressive and awesome and we even got to go again right away because it broke down at the very end and we didn’t get the full experience so they put us on 5 minutes later to start all over and that time it worked. The two-for-one (1.75-for-one?) experience was an extra elating bonus, but the deflation experienced right after exiting and hitting twilight in the expanse of the park made December 26th look like Christmas. It was, objectively, a crazy thing to have done. It seemed, altogether, a waste. Though something kind of cool to have experienced and gone through nonetheless, a fable for the children and grandchildren, though possibly when they are at an age to not so impressionably take the irrationality of the decision to heart.

If nothing else, we concluded, heading over to ride the Hogwarts Express, it would make a good story.

I’ll let you be the judge of that.

But there’s something in waiting, also, that I think is about the lack of knowing exactly how long you’ll be waiting. And I think, not to get too political at the end here, this is what distinguishes Guantanamo Bay from even an extraordinarily long prison sentence. While surely cynicism about ever leaving must be kicking in now for those who remain, those in Gitmo never know when they’re going to leave. Any day they wake up could be their last in that situation. But they don’t know. They have no way of knowing.

And I think waiting as a test of patience can be conquered if one has a definable sense, especially if it’s exact, of how long one has to wait. It can be counted down and quantified and realized. This is why they at least try to post a reasonable wait-time estimate at the gate to these amusement-park ride queues. It is the not knowing how long one is in purgatory that made last year so impossibly hard for me. And what makes Gitmo worse than a normal detention center. What makes being held without charge a universally reviled crime. And what makes getting in line the first day of a ride a very irrational decision.

One never makes good on the promises one makes to oneself in such a setting to savor every non-bored minute thereafter. But at least the remembering and the going through it again can be a bit of a start. You are not in Gitmo. Go out and do something awesome.

Or at least read a book.


Game 162

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

Eight days ago, my girlfriend and I traveled to Houston, Texas to watch two baseball games between the Seattle Mariners and the Houston Astros. You can scroll down and read the last two posts on this blog for some context about the Mariners’ 13-year playoff drought and the magnitude of the games we were facing. When we arrived in Houston for last Saturday’s game, Seattle had just won 10-5 on Friday night and stood a half-game out of post-season position. Chasing Kansas City and Oakland as they’ve done for most of September, the Mariners were scoreboard-watching and preparing for one of their best resurgent pitchers, Chris Young, to shut down the Astros.

We were in the best seats I’ve ever been in for a Major League Baseball game, purchased secondhand on the somewhat cheap through StubHub since most Houston fans had given up on one of the lowliest teams in baseball during their penultimate and ultimate home contests. So we had a great view of the field, the M’s dugout, even the out-of-town scoreboard as it piled up good news.

The scoreboard around gametime, featuring a loss by Kansas City and a near-loss by Oakland.

The scoreboard around gametime, featuring a loss by Kansas City and a near-loss by Oakland.

Then, the M’s got drubbed. 10-1. It was horrifying and hopeless as the Astros hit homer after homer after homer, chasing the starter and abusing the long reliever they brought in to mop up. At least we were coming back tomorrow, we knew. And the Royals and A’s lost so we were staying just a game out of the first Wild Card and a half-game out of the second. It was still possible for us to leave Houston in playoff position.

In the Sunday matinee, with the roof closed, the Mariners actually had a lead, 3-2 in the 5th, then carried a slim 4-3 deficit into the bottom of the 7th. Hisashi Iwakuma, their second-best pitcher, had racked up 8 strikeouts even in the absence of the K-meter we were considering making on posterboard for the broadcast. He was in the dugout by the time Yoervis Medina threw a pitch to Jake Marisnick, he grounded it in front of the plate and the catcher threw him out. End of inning.

And then they called it back. The third-base umpire signaled that he thought Marisnick had fouled it off his foot even though the home plate umpire right in front of the play had ruled it fair. The home plate umpire changed his decision, called Marisnick back to the plate, and three pitches later, he hit the ball over the left field wall for a 3-run homer. The M’s wound up losing by a final of 8-3.

We drove home from Houston despondent. The Royals had already won and Alex’s phone told us about halfway back to New Orleans that the A’s had won in a walk-off in extra innings. We had lost ground against one of the worst teams in the AL, lost ground in two great sets of seats in the only live Mariners games we were going to see this year, lost ground when the opportunities were golden with our great pitching staff.

But everything was on the Toronto series. Seven games to go, only a game and a half out. Four in Toronto, three at home against the best team in baseball, the LA Angels of Anaheim (California). Toronto was basically eliminated and giving up. I dutifully watched the first two games of the Toronto series on MLB TV.

Monday: Blue Jays 14, Mariners 4
Tuesday: Blue Jays 10, Mariners 2

In the midst of the 7-run 5th inning in the latter game, I gave up. I made it official, like everything is these days, by putting it on Facebook:

Good season, Mariners. Maybe next year you can handle the pressure of the playoff race in the last week of the season.
-23 September 2014

It had been Felix Hernandez’s start, the man who is all but a mortal lock for his second Cy Young Award this year. It was the worst start of his entire 10-year career. 2,055 innings and he has his worst five in Toronto at what looked like the end of a long-shot playoff race.

It was totally and completely obvious that the pressure had gotten to the M’s. They were pressing. They were trying too hard. They were not having fun, unable to relax. And baseball is, fundamentally, a game. Yes, it requires patience and talent and precision and skill, but it also requires you to treat it like a game. You have to want to be out there, not dreading that every next pitch could spell your doom if you’re not perfect.

Doom it was. I barely even cared about watching Wednesday’s game. It was 0-0 when we went to get food in the 3rd inning and it was still 0-0 in the bottom of the 8th when we got back. The batter at-bat when we came in the door, who we first saw, hit a bloop single and knocked in the first run of the game. It was suddenly 1-0, Jays, spoiling Taijuan Walker’s heroic start of 7 2/3rds shutout innings. The M’s got the first runner on in the top of the 9th, pinch-ran with their speedster and my favorite new Mariner, James Jones, only to have him picked off for the first time this year. I thought that I couldn’t have my heart broken by this team anymore. After all, I’d given up the day before! But somehow, events conspired to break my heart in a game I’d even decided to not really watch. Blue Jays 1, Mariners 0. Chances beyond over.

At that point, the M’s were on the very brink of mathematical elimination. They were 3 games behind both KC and Oakland with 4 games left to play. To win a playoff spot outright, they would have to be perfect and the Royals and A’s would have to lose everything. To tie, there would be one game to give in that equation, exactly one game the M’s could lose OR the Royals/A’s could win.

At that point, I became a lot more circumspect, philosophical, and even detached. The Mariners had lost four straight games by a combined score of 42-10, then capped it with a fifth game of 1-0. They were utterly defeated and hapless. They were on the brink of brinks. The season was over. But I also could read some of the Mariners blogs writing tributes to a surprisingly good season, to unexpectedly good pitching and amazing dividends on the Cano signing, and all these other little factors that objectively made it a way better season than it should have been. And I remembered something that my good friend David Gray told me after the San Francisco Giants’ 103-win season in 1993 in which they missed the playoffs (two years before implementation of the Wild Card would prevent such good teams missing). That he was more invested in baseball and his favorite club that year than any other he could remember, except maybe the 1989 World Series trip, watching such a close race come down to the wire. There is something about baseball as a daily game, a continual opportunity to watch one’s hopes and dreams, and the significance and closeness of how only a baseball game can unfold, that makes one’s entire life in a close race about the team.

And for a Mariners team that hasn’t been in a close race at all since 2007, or this late since 2003, it was worth appreciating. Savor this baseball, keep watching till they’re officially done. You don’t know when, even with a young and talented core of players coming back next year, you’ll have this chance to care this much about baseball again. And caring this much, even with the losses and the heartbreak, is fun. It’s exciting. It matters. It feels like something. And feeling, emotionally, is probably about the only reason I do much of anything. So I decided to watch every inning, just in case.

Alex even asked me why I was watching when she came home to see the game on, asking if I hadn’t given up. I had to explain how epic a comeback would be if they did it, how I couldn’t miss that, just in case. ESPN put the odds of the Mariners making the playoffs at 0.1%. But it was a chance.

Thursday. The Mariners won in Toronto, finally, salvaging a game and avoiding the sweep, 7-5, on the back of two incredibly clutch and exciting home runs from Logan Morrison. Kansas City won, Oakland lost. Two games out, three to play.

Friday. The Mariners jumped out to a 4-0 lead and clung on as the Angels clawed back, ultimately winning 4-3. Meanwhile, Kansas City won and secured their first playoff berth since 1985. I thought of my old friend Kevin House, who passed away 14 years ago, and what he would be going through now after the Royals clinched their first playoffs since their World Series win when he was 5. The A’s, meanwhile, won as well. Now the best we could do was tie. Two games out, two to play. Catching the A’s would mean an extra one-game playoff before a one-game playoff.

And then yesterday. Saturday. The A’s/Rangers game was paced about an hour ahead of the M’s/Angels contest. We got home from a movie marathon day in time for first pitch, watched an intense pitcher’s duel unfold in Seattle. The Angels took the lead on a fluke infield single off Seager’s glove that rolled just far enough away for the runner to score from second. It looked like Taylor, playing behind him, would have fielded the ball cleanly and ended the inning. But we were only down 1. The M’s managed to strand an Angel at third with no outs in the 6th inning with a strikeout, a short lineout, and another strikeout. Still 1-0.

Then came the 7th inning. Still down 1-0. The Rangers were clinging to a 5-4 lead in the 9th inning, with Dave Sims offering more of a play-by-play of that game than the Mariners’ one during the M’s TV broadcast. Seager got to first base on a leadoff walk. Then Sims shouted when nothing happened in Seattle and announced that the Rangers had just won. A minute later, Logan Morrison doubled into the gap in right-center and Seager was waved home rounding third and slid just ahead of the tag, tying the game, 1-1. There was life.

The M’s managed not to score anymore, but then nail-bit their way all the way to the bottom of the 9th, still 1-1. Single. Walk. Pinch-runner (Jones!) on second. Sacrifice bunt that the Angels threw to third, but were too late to get Jones. Bases loaded, nobody out.

I don’t know if you follow baseball, but you probably do if you’re still reading this particular post. Bases loaded, nobody out is basically a lock to score a run. It’s almost impossible to not score. Your odds are something like 85% of scoring in that situation. Usually the pitching team is happy to just try to get a double-play that scores the run to try to avoid a huge inning. Of course, in the bottom of the 9th, any run will do, so they can’t make that trade-off. So the Angels brought an outfielder in to play infield and then watched, tensely, as two Mariners in a row struck out. And then Austin Jackson flew out to right and we’d squandered a chance to walk off in the bottom of the 9th.

The Angels got a runner to 2nd in the 10th, but didn’t score. The M’s had 1st and 2nd, one out in the 10th, but didn’t score. The Angels got the leadoff man aboard in the 11th, but didn’t score.

We got a one-out double from Brad Miller in the 11th. Then a single from Chris Taylor that was just bloopy enough to only advance Miller to third. First and third, one out. A huge scoring chance, but nothing at all compared to bases loaded, none out. But a huge chance still. Austin Jackson up again. Alex yelled at the computer “just don’t hit into a double play!” And then Jackson grounded a pretty perfect double-play ball to second.

Except that he charged down the line as fast as he’s ever run in his life and the shortstop bobbled the ball just a tiny bit in making the transfer to throw to first and Jackson was safe and the Mariners won and it was over.

We had to hold our breath a little as the Mariners mobbed Jackson and fireworks went off in Safeco Field because this is suddenly the age of replay and they could call it back for a tense review. But they didn’t and it was over and now Sunday’s game mattered.

One game out, one to play.

The Mariners need two perfect outcomes today. They need the Rangers to win and they need to win. They are two binary outcomes and they both need to be exact. And if they win, the reward will be playing tomorrow against Oakland, in Seattle, for a chance to get to the Wild Card game. And if they win that, the reward will be playing Tuesday, in Kansas City, for a chance to get to the Division Series. Which will be against these same Angels. Who, if we get there, we will have just swept.

The Mariners have Felix Hernandez, AL Cy Young favorite, pitching today. And the Rangers may choose to send their best pitcher, scratched yesterday because of a migraine, to the hill for their season finale. The Mariners have a lot of momentum and the A’s must surely be pretty freaked out.

The A’s game starts one hour before the M’s. I will watch that hour, then switch over to the M’s broadcast, trusting Dave Sims to keep me apprised.

This is baseball at its very best. There’s a line in Three Nights in August, one of the best baseball books ever, about feeling nervous, shaky, on the verge of a heart attack, and unable to watch, and this being the way you want to feel every day of your life. (I tried to find the precise quote, which is very well written, but Google basically doesn’t work the way it used to for finding anything unadvertised and relevant and I can’t find my copy on my newly disorganized shelves either, so this paraphrase will have to do for now.) Maybe it’s disproportionately effective thinking for someone who has not only consigned himself to be a Mariners fan, but also just recently was a college debate coach and now aspires to play poker professionally, but this feeling of desiring constant nervous tension is endlessly relatable. I will watch, flailing, writhing, clapping, yelling, and churning. And loving every minute, whichever way it goes.

Brad Miller scores the winning run and looks less excited than I did at this moment.

Brad Miller scores the winning run and looks less excited than I did at this moment.

One game to rule them all. The 162nd game of the year.

Let’s go M’s.

Play ball.


The Trouble with Memory

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

Yesterday, I told a story here about the 2001 ALCS and the shadow it’s cast over the next 13 years of my Mariner fandom.

There’s just one problem with the story. It wasn’t entirely true.

It was true as I remembered it at the time. “True to the teller,” I believe the phrase goes. But it was a dangerous combination of real memories and the ironclad realism of the Internet’s record-keeping that actually fabricated a memory in the conflation of 2001 and 2000.

You see, 2001 was not 2000.

The story I told was actually about the year 2000, before 9/11 and all it entailed, and about an entirely different ballgame (literally). I can probably be somewhat forgiven for the confusion from some of the details: both the 2000 and 2001 American League Championship Series (ALCS) pitted the Mariners against the Yankees. Both were won by the Yankees. And both, improbably (or probably, depending on perspective) involved pivotal moments in which Arthur Rhodes came on with a late-inning lead and coughed up a pivotal home run that led to a Yankee victory.

But the story I was trying to tell and picture in my mind’s eye was about Game 6 of the 2000 ALCS, not Game 4 of the 2001 ALCS.

The key detail that got me thinking about this was in mulling my post after writing it and realizing that my most vivid visuals of the night in question were definitely situated in Russ’ senior mod. Russ was a senior in 2001, not 2002 like me. The following year, we lived together, in the same house, the fabled Mep House, which had a TV downstairs in the main room on which we played countless hours of FIFA. Yet I distinctly recalled that we were holed up in Russ’ small room of his mod, upstairs, where the infamous Brandeis debate party of that year’s tournament had been held. And as much as I tried to tell myself a story wherein friends of Russ’ were living in that mod and we went over there to watch the game, it made zero sense. We would have gone downstairs to the Mep House where there was more room.

The other thing that didn’t sit well about my constructed recollection was the image of Lou Piniella tapping his left arm. This is the signal to the bullpen to get the lefty out to the mound, but it is not conventionally done on pitching changes between innings. The manager only goes out to the mound to make this symbolic gesture when making a switch in the middle of an inning. Otherwise, he just has the pitching coach call the bullpen and the pitcher runs in while the grounds crew is raking the infield. So as I was reading the play-by-play of Game 4 of the 2001 ALCS and trying to remember the fateful moment, it seemed bizarre to me that Rhodes had been hauled in between innings. I definitely remember screaming at the television while watching Lou tap his left arm. I believe I was screaming “Don’t you dare touch your left arm, don’t you dare bring Rhodes in right now!” during his mound visit.

If only I had some sort of record of my daily feelings and emotions and actions from that period of time in my life to confirm.

Oh wait, I do.

“Sigh. I’m applying for the job of Seattle Mariners’ manager within the week. When Lou ran us out of the inning with a Dan Wilson-based hit-&-run, I shouted at him not to. Much more importantly, when he brought in Arthur Rhodes, I screamed “noooo” at the top of my lungs. Clearly, I’m far more qualified to guide the team with the greatest potential in baseball to their first World Series. & I’ve been telling everyone all week that Rivera was due. & he was. But the damage had been done by incompetent managing (Lou) & pitching (Arthur). Crudbuckets. March is a long way away.”
-18 October 2000

I definitely watched the other game, though I don’t quite remember if it was with Russ or at Mep House. It was just after the Vassar weekend of “Justice!” with Eric Sirota where we ran the tipping case in his first out-round ever. I was a little more succinct in how I felt at that time:

“Damn Yankees.”
-21 October 2001

In the prior game, Game 6 of the 2000 ALCS, the closest the M’s had ever come to the World Series, Arthur Rhodes entered the game with 2 on and 1 out in the bottom of the 7th. The Mariners led 4-3. He promptly gave up a three-run homer, two more hits and an intentional walk, and left down 8-4 without getting a single batter out.

And that was the decisive game. That was the haunting memory, the one that has stuck with me the longest, almost as deep as Edgar’s double in the bottom of the 11th in 1995 or the 9-1 one-game-playoff against the Angels earlier that year with Randy Johnson’s dominance and Luis Sojo’s improbable run around the bases.

I think it was my haste to make the recent post about the poetry of 13 years of waiting and the promise of fulfillment of all that lost time that led to this mistake between 2000 and 2001, aside from all the other similarities. And if I hadn’t been able to find a game wherein Arthur Rhodes coughed up a key homer late at Yankee Stadium in 2001, I definitely would have caught the mistake before it “went to press,” so to speak.

I periodically go through bouts of thinking that the M’s made the playoffs in 2003 because they had such a good year then, but they finished 3 games back of Oakland that season despite winning 93 games. Their record that year was better than 3 playoff teams, including both Central champions and the NL Wild Card (the 91-71 Florida Marlins, who went on to win the World Series that year). We were 2 back of Boston for the AL Wild Card, having survived almost the entire season to be eliminated on September 23rd with a walk-off loss to the Angels. We had had an 8-game lead in the West in June, but it all went away, like the glorious strike season of 1994 (but this time we got to play it out).

I really fear that we’re facing another 2003 season. For all my optimism in yesterday’s post, Kansas City won last night and a fateful pitching change yielded disaster in our game against the Angels, with Lloyd McClendon (who I generally love) pulling Paxton after a fluke single and error put him behind 1-0 in the 7th after a tightly-matched pitching duel. Lloyd elected to signal for the righty, Danny Farquhar, who promptly coughed up a game-ending (functionally) 3-run homer. We lost, 5-0.

It’s September 18th and we’re 2 behind both wild card spots, Oakland and Kansas City tied therein. We have 4 games left against the Angels, 4 against Toronto, and 3 in Houston this weekend.

I’m hoping to be there to see at least some of the Houston series live. Hopefully that will leave more rock-solid memories 13 years hence.

Arthur Rhoes stares down into the murky sands of memory.

Arthur Rhoes stares down into the murky sands of memory.


Diary of a Mariners Fan, Circa September 2014

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

I wear a Mariners jacket frequently in the cold cold poker rooms I’ve been trying to turn into my office of late. Sometimes I wear a matching hat that attests to my fandom. When I was nearing the money-bubble of the tournament I wound up winning last month in Biloxi, Alex and I were admiring custom card-protectors that an independent vendor was selling. We decided to get a Mariners one if I cashed. But then Alex snuck off and got me the M’s one anyway and plopped it on my table for good luck. Worked pretty well. Now I bring it with me everywhere, even though I’ve now had a bad week that’s starting to make me question the whole project as only poker slumps can so routinely do.

With all this adornment and living in Louisiana now, I frequently get mistaken for a tourist from the northwest. Maybe I always have been, in a way, though my sense of home is receding more and more every day having now added another major region of the US to my list of lived locales. An Atlanta tourist on my left yesterday asked if I lived here and I said I just moved and he said I bet I can say from where and I said you’d be wrong. I’ve actually never lived in Seattle, never been there for more than a week at a stretch, if even that. Probably four days is my longest consecutive stint. People can’t really imagine what someone who hadn’t lived there would be doing with all this Mariners gear, though my interest was of course initially local. I explain “I lived in Oregon when I was growing up and got into sports.” And then people often ask about what it was like to be in Oregon in my teens or twenties and by the time I get to the Bay Area or Jersey on my corrective list, their eyes are glazed from all the movement.

People want to relate to people in a poker room, make a connection. The practice can be almost as solitary as writing sometimes, the struggles with one’s own discipline just as intense. Other people help as a distraction or a buffer, a way of making the idea of sitting at a table with strangers and trying to take their money more pleasant and palatable. And so many people in New Orleans are tourists and hoping to say that they know what your hometown is like too, that they have a past experience that connects with yours. But unless they are Cubs fans, they probably don’t, at least not when it comes to my jacket and card-protector.

In 2001, weeks after September 11th, I holed up with one of my best friends, a Yankees fan (Russ), to watch Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. The Mariners were down 2-1 but had just crushed the Evil Empire 14-3. It wasn’t totally PC to call the team the Evil Empire in the wake of them losing the city’s two tallest buildings the month prior. But after setting an American League record for wins (116) that season after consecutively losing Hall-of-Fame-caliber super-stars Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, and Randy Johnson in three straight seasons, it seemed like the M’s had finally found a way to outwit the perennial favorites, who were sitting on a paltry 95 wins by comparison. The matchup pitted Paul Abbott against Roger Clemens, the back-burners of the rotation for each team that year despite Clemens’ reputation.

The game was a nail-biter to end all nail-biters. Both pitchers escaped danger, gave way to bullpens that did the same. No one scored till the 8th. The M’s scratched a run, Bret Boone belting a homer, Russ threw something, and with the Mariners bullpen that year, it looked like we were bound to tie the series in Yankee Stadium and shades of 1995 were coming back. In 1995, the first year the M’s ever made the playoffs, they lost the first two games of a series with the Yankees only to win 3 in a row, including an 11th inning comeback in the decisive Game 5. Dropping the first two to the Yankees, even at home, was nothing.

And then, at the start of the bottom of the 8th, Lou Piniella went to the bullpen. I couldn’t believe that he was touching his left arm. A smile started to curl on the side of Russ’ face. He was going to get Arthur Rhodes to pitch the 8th.

I love Arthur Rhodes. He’s one of my favorite Mariners of all-time. But that year, he was struggling mightily down the stretch. You could just tell something was wrong with him, every fan could see it. It was the weight of the series with the Yankees or the magnitude of events unfolding in the country that had pushed the ALCS back to October 21st. It was the cold. It was something. And everyone involved with the Mariners knew there was a problem, except for dear Sweet Lou. He blithely stood by his veteran lefty and let the chips fall where they may.

The chips fell in the outfield seats. Bernie Williams clocked a 3-2 pitch out of the Stadium and my yelling at the television since Rhodes had been brought in died down. There was nothing to do anymore but watch.

By the time Kaz Sasaki, record-setter that year for saves by a Mariner, gave up a home-run to Alfonso Soriano, it seemed like I had known the script the whole time. From the moment Lou tapped his left arm or maybe even from the 116th win or maybe from the time the towers fell. This was a Yankees year. You can’t fight destiny. I silently departed Russ’ dorm and he silently let me go, both of us knowing that had the outcome been the opposite we would have been screaming at each other. He’s a sore loser; I’m a sore winner. We are both quiet and contemplative the other way, him seeing winning as his natural state and me the opposite. A lifetime of rooting for baseball franchises with these outcomes.

Game 5 in the series was a formality. The Yankees scored 4 in the 3rd and won by 9. The Mariners have not played a playoff game since.

October 22, 2001.

Two nights ago, I watched the Angels put that kind of a beat-down on Seattle. I made myself watch every inning, every pitch, even when we were down 5-0 early, then 7-0, then 8-0. An 8-1 loss. The M’s are chasing Kansas City for the second wild-card and Oakland for the first wild-card and sort of Detroit, who is winning the AL Central, in case they drop into the wild card. Oakland was off, but Detroit broke a 6-6 tie with 2 in the 9th and won. Kansas City was down 3-0 for most of the game and down 3-2 in the ninth when they used a wild pitch and an infield single to beat the Minnesota closer and win. After spending all summer tempting fans into believing that this could be the year that 13 years of suffering and the memory of Arthur Rhodes end, it looked like one bad night in mid-September was gonna wreck it.

And then there was yesterday.

Yesterday, the M’s were down 2-0 and unable to get any runs. They were getting shut down by another middling starter as they so often do, the bats just refusing to connect with the ball, Seattle looking lost and frustrated. I was deciding how much longer I could watch this series in Anaheim, a matchup with baseball’s best team this year, a series the Mariners desperately need to win if they are to stay in the race. And then, the Angels somewhat inexplicably pulled their pitcher.

It was only the 5th inning.

Walk. Hit by a pitch on an 0-2 count. Bunt that was initially ruled safe at first but overturned on replay. Double, 2-2. Double, 3-2. Pitching change. Strikeout. Double, 4-2. Intentional walk. Groundout.

Okay! This we can work with. The M’s new pitcher, a replacement for Roenis Elias, who had gone down with an injury (because why not?), went 1-2-3 in the bottom of the 5th. Hoping for a little insurance in the 6th…

Single. Double. Single, 5-2. Hit by pitch. Fly out. Single, 6-2. Pitching change. Sacrifice fly, 7-2. Single and a misfired throw to third, 9-2. Single, 10-2. Pitching change. Double. Lineout.

10-2. Holy cow.

The Mariners won 13-2.

Kansas City lost. Oakland lost. Detroit lost.

And suddenly, the Mariners were 1 game out of one playoff spot, 2 games out of a better one, and had remembered how to bat.

That was last night. There are twelve games left in the season.

The Yankees will not be making the playoffs this year. Their biggest star from last year is now a Mariner, though Ichiro Suzuki is still a Yankee. The Mariners have five more games against the best team in baseball. Who they just beat, 13-2. Who fatefully collapsed in 1995 to save baseball in Seattle, leading to the playoffs and the ALCS and eventually blowing up the Kingdome.

Twelve games to decide the fate of thirteen years. Even if the playoffs now can just be one game. A one-game wild card “series” to determine who has the right to play for some real October baseball. Twelve games.

All I can do for now is grab the card-protector, put on the jacket, play my best, and be home for gametime. 9:10 Central. Let’s go M’s.

I know this is stressful, Roenis.  The runs are coming.

I know this is stressful, Roenis. The runs are coming.

NB: This post confused events in the 2001 ALCS with those in the 2000 ALCS, as clarified and corrected in the subsequent post. This original post remains unedited, however, save for this note.


US Announces Airstrikes to Target Ebola

Categories: Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Primary Sources, Tags: ,

ARLINGTON, Va. — Speaking at a press conference today at the Pentagon, President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a comprehensive plan to “degrade and eventually destroy ebola” through the use of targeted airstrikes.

Citing ebola’s willingness to kill indiscriminately and even target children, the very old, and the very weak, Obama and Hagel were unflinching in their insistence that ebola must be eradicated. “We cannot erase every trace of ebola from the world,” Obama admitted, “That’s why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge.”

The plan will involve airstrikes on the nations hardest hit by the recent most deadly outbreak of ebola, including Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria. Airstrikes will target those currently with ebola, though those near them will also be impacted. Hagel noted in his statement that those nearby are likely to be infected anyway, so their deaths would be inevitable. “Those currently not suffering from ebola may soon become sympathetic to ebola,” he elaborated. “We must strike this disease at the root if we are to eradicate it.

“Even now, some Americans are infected with the deadly scourge of ebola,” Hagel went on. “They hold American passports. All they need do is get on a plane and they can bring ebola to our homeland’s shores. We must wipe them out before this is allowed to occur.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one White House aide admitted that the cost of the air campaign will exceed $100 billion and there are, as yet, no appropriations set aside for this spending. When questioned about this, Hagel retorted that “We cannot put a price on freedom. And make no mistake, ebola hates freedom. It destroys your organs, making you unable to move.”

A predator drone off the coast of Liberia launches an initial missile into an ebola-infected village.

A predator drone off the coast of Liberia launches an initial missile into an ebola-infected village.

Obama was quick to observe that this is not merely an African epidemic. “If left unchecked, this disease could pose a growing threat beyond that region — including to the United States,” he said.

Republicans were quick to criticize Obama’s plan as falling short of the decisive action necessary to deal with ebola. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell questioned the plan to only kill Liberians currently carrying the virus. “Shouldn’t we have a more comprehensive strategy to destroy the entire country?” he asked in a response statement issued following the President’s press conference. “After all, those in Liberia without ebola could someday get it. And then they will hate freedom. I question whether the President truly cares about homeland security.”

The rapid emergence of ebola has taken the country by storm, terrorizing Americans everywhere and capturing the nation’s horrified imagination. Shortly after the announcement, a poll showed that 94% of Americans favor the strikes to kill every man, woman, and child with ebola, and 55% say they do too little to stem the disease’s inexorable spread.

Obama promised that America would not be the only nation striking at those with ebola, noting that Somalia and North Korea had both pledged to send missiles for the war effort and that Myanmar was considering joining the fight as well.

Concluding his remarks, Obama noted that this mission would not be without danger to Americans abroad. “Now, it will take time to eradicate a cancer like ebola. And any time we take military action, there are risks involved — especially to the servicemen and women who carry out these missions. But I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ebola wherever it exists, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground.”


Revolving War

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

“And our own safety — our own security — depends upon our willingness to do what it takes to defend this nation, and uphold the values that we stand for — timeless ideals that will endure long after those who offer only hate and destruction have been vanquished from the Earth.”
-President Barack Obama, 10 September 2014

Obama, last night, with the flag of the eagle.  Please note that the arrows are all visible, while the olive branches are neatly tucked away.  Everything is just as carefully crafted as this flag to make you support endless war!

Obama, last night, with the flag of the eagle. Please note that the arrows are all visible, while the olive branches are neatly tucked away. Everything is just as carefully crafted as this flag to make you support endless war!

Last night, Barack Obama finally made me fully proud and vindicated that I did not vote for him in 2008. Yes, there have endless disappointments with his presidency and I’ve been glad that I didn’t give, say, his mandates a mandate, or the drone strikes my support. He is about as progressive as Reagan on most issues and has done a great job of cementing the political “divide” in this country between the right-center and the far-right, all the while making it look like some sort of actual historical left vs. right battle. Trust me, there’s been almost nothing I’ve been able to point to about his presidency and say “Yeah, I’m down with that.”

But last night he cemented himself as exactly what he’s been leaning toward all this time, George W. Bush II. The policy of endless war, revolving war, war without end or hope of end as the American Empire continues to try to prove itself to the world was reinvigorated. After years of winding down failed wars in failed states abroad, Obama finally found the war that he was willing to start, officially, after carrying on secret ongoing murder-raids for the duration of his six years in office. He took to the national airwaves on September 10th to make a Bush-like case for a war that will outlast his presidency so that we can ensure that every President comes into office a horse in midstream, a warrior with the same war to keep fighting. It’s always the same war.

Last time, it took an unprecedented terrorist attack on American soil to prompt the regeneration of war-without-end. Yes, there was a lot of fearmongering and sleight-of-hand to include Iraq in the war cycle, but both Afghanistan and Iraq were fundamentally prompted by 9/11. And whoever actually carried out 9/11, at least most people were convinced that it was people who were somehow associated with the countries that we were demolishing by air, land, and sea, so that seemed like a reasonable response.

This time, it’s two dead. Two. ISIS killed two Americans, albeit brutally and publicly, and they get the endless war treatment.

I look forward to the time when an American exchange student visiting a foreign country gets poked on the playground and the President takes to the airwaves next day to announce that all of the poker’s countrymen will die.

Look, I understand that the beheadings were shocking and appalling. We just went over this yesterday, how violence seen is infinitely more horrific than violence unseen. I am not defending beheadings, any more than I defend any violence at all by anyone. It’s all wrong and it’s all abhorrent. But, as I’ve discussed before, we created ISIS. The invasion of Iraq single-handedly created this organization and all of its nefarious deeds. To my surprise, the entire US mainstream media agrees with this assessment. Everyone understands this. And yet, when confronted with the exact same decision and the exact same mistake, no one seems to think it’s a good time to pause and wonder what new monster we might be creating by attacking this one.

It’s almost like there’s an ancient Greek myth we could turn to about a monster that kept getting stronger and regenerating no matter how much you attacked it. And as I explained, it’s not because the “monster” is innately monstrous, but mostly because it’s mourning all the family that the US killed last time and the time before that. Killing people makes their relatives angry. Then they want to kill. Repeat ad infinitum.

Why was the speech on September 10th? So that all the assessments and feedback about it could carry the date this post does: September 11th. Because we are a nation so in love with our own PTSD about the one day we were vulnerable in the last sixty years that we are committed to punishing the rest of the world for our suffering forever.

There were three absolutely shocking moments in the speech itself, which I watched live, that really shouldn’t shock me at all. But I watch little enough mainstream media news that it kind of floored me that Presidents can get away with this kind of hubris and be lauded by even people from their “opposite” party directly thereafter. But this is the Cowardly New World we live in.

“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”

I almost choked when I heard this line. These secret wars, conducted throughout the Obama Presidency, are something that brought denial and refusal to comment for most of that term. These operations consist of the “kill list,” where Obama decides personally who should be assassinated in foreign countries through undeclared wars, obliterated from the air, often taking families, friends, neighbors, and strangers with them. There is no evidence that there is anything resembling “success” to this strategy. Somalia remains an anarchic failed state and both Somalia and Yemen remain hotbeds of people who hate the United States, most often because they live in a country constantly perused and bombed by anonymous unmanned killer planes from said nation. And yet we are expected to hold up these operations, which the administration denied for years, as models. It’s like if Nixon had held onto the presidency after Watergate, invaded Cuba, and touted our secret war in Cambodia as the example of successful action that proved this war would be unlike, uh, Vietnam.

“My fellow Americans, we live in a time of great change. Tomorrow marks 13 years since our country was attacked. Next week marks 6 years since our economy suffered its worst setback since the Great Depression.”

Using the “change” line here for any actual progressives still listening to this speech was such a low blow that I still feel like I’m physically recovering. I wasn’t on the front-lines of supporting Obama, didn’t even vote for him, but I sure understood the fervor and excitement he generated. I wanted to believe in it, even though I knew better. I got swept up at times, the person citing visionaries and progressives of the past, saying that we didn’t have to wait any longer because we were the people we had been waiting for. It was contagious and infectious. And just because I didn’t get the full-blown disease, I was sick enough with the fever to get my hopes up.

Here’s the thing that’s so insidious: there is no change at all in any of Obama’s actions. The things he cites, 9/11 and the Great Recession, existed before he took office. This is not change we can believe in or the change he was going to bring. This is regressive, retrograde, W. Bush stuff. Saying “Gee guys, did you know there were some planes in the towers a while back” and bailing out the banks were the last administration, the last war. The people who put Obama in office did so to get away from that kind of rhetoric, they believed there was a change from these kind of citations coming. But there is no change. There is the exact same policy and the exact same approach. We can quibble about whose boots are on what ground when, but the policy of war-without-end, bomb-em-all, let’s start a fight in Iraq, guys, is the exact same thing we’ve seen for most of my lifetime. This is the fourth straight President of the United States who announced to the country that what it most needs to do for “peace and security” is to drop explosives on the people of Iraq.

And we keep lapping it up. Every one of those campaigns has met with majority approval at the time of announcement. Every one of those campaigns has been a disaster for the US, let alone the long-suffering and infinitely war-torn people of Iraq. Do you think it’s a coincidence that every time we bomb Iraq, the enemy is more ferocious and angry than the last time? Do I have to walk you down the “Red Dawn” thought-experiment about if your nation had been bombed to oblivion by the same blunt idiotic foreign superpower for a quarter-century? Are we really this stupid?


“We cannot erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm.”

“…long after those who offer only hate and destruction have been vanquished from the Earth.”

At the outset, when he’s trying to be reasonable and build the case slowly, Obama recognizes the fundamental truth that I’ve been trying to express in different ways on this blog for years. You can’t just kill everyone who disagrees with you. That is not a successful strategy. The lesson of the arcade game whack-a-mole is that there are always more moles that will pop up and maybe, just maybe, the moles keep fighting you because you keep bashing their friends over the head. But by the end, it’s the old lie and the old myth. Our strategy is to vanquish. The American Empire subsists on the lie that we can bomb everyone and everything into submission, that if we just kill enough “enemies,” eventually everyone will agree with us. Even when in the same 15-minute speech, Obama acknowledges that we cannot do this. The failure is built right into the recipe. He’s telling you that this doesn’t work.

But he’s also telling you it will never end. He’s telling you that the policy is that small groups of killers will always exist and we will always fear them and always attack them. That the official stance of the United States of America in the world is that it must always be conducting these kinds of wars against anyone who harbors ill will toward the country. This is a game that has no end. There is no exit strategy, no strategy at all other than to play whack-a-mole forever while people commit themselves to a state that scares them and the industries and machineries of war make select Americans rich and the victim nations poor. Winning isn’t even the objective. As soon as we “destroy ISIL,” we’ll have new and scarier enemies to target.

In my teenage years, I used to lament that I’d been born thirty years too late, that the great moment of pacifist activism in the US had passed and that I’d missed out on the opportunity to show the ills of war to this country. Now, I just lament that we have been so fully manipulated and that the military-industrial complex has so thoroughly consolidated its power and abilities that the idea of protest or disagreement is somewhere between passe and ridiculed. I remember how depressed I was going into work in 2003 on the day that we invaded Iraq, how my boss told me the war would be over soon. The war will never be over, as long as this country persists with these kinds of policies. We will kill and kill and kill and enact the very horrors on other people that we so fear for ourselves, all in the name of safety.

We are, for a long time now, become our enemy. It’s almost like we’re all in it together. Do you think, for one second, that ISIS beheaded those journalists and thought the US would react in any way other than exactly as it has? If not, please explain why you think they conducted those actions. Your only viable alternatives are the American exceptionalism to believe that we do things for reasons, but all other people are barbaric animals who just act on impulse and instinct for no reason (discussed earlier) or that they are the most naive and stupid people ever to live on the planet. ISIS wants this war even more than Obama. They know it will be just as successful for the US as the last one and just as galvanizing to their cause.

The war is what ISIS wants. You think that attacking ISIS, that bombing Iraq is fighting ISIS. It is working with ISIS. It is doing exactly what they were trying to get us to do.

There is this section of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which I just finished, where the narrator struggles with the phrase “fighting with” and how sometimes that means fighting against and sometimes it means fighting alongside. And how context in language makes that same phrase useful for both purposes and that people seem to get the author’s meaning regardless. And how much of a struggle that makes for her in her efforts to be clear, which is pretty much the struggle of the whole book.

But it’s the perfect illustration for us today. We are fighting with ISIS. Both/and. Both meanings. By fighting against ISIS, we are supporting their goals and objectives and fighting on their side. Forever and ever, amen.


(Seeing) Violence is Shocking

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

Another Rutgers Rice is in the news for committing violence on camera, getting lightly punished, having the video leaked, and then getting the book thrown at him.  Left: Ray; Right: Mike

Another Rutgers Rice is in the news for committing violence on camera, getting lightly punished, having the video leaked, and then getting the book thrown at him. Left: Ray; Right: Mike

By now most of you have heard about Ray Rice, formerly of Rutgers, most recently of the Baltimore Ravens, being fired by the Ravens for punching his now wife, then fiancee, in an elevator. Or, more aptly, he was fired for the outcry created by this incident being caught on film and released to the public. When people saw him throw the punch that landed his fiancee unconscious, suddenly the vague words “domestic violence” became something unconscionable and the Ravens and NFL, both of whom had previously defended and knuckle-rapped Rice had to destroy him.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it so eerily parallels the Mike Rice (former basketball coach at Rutgers) situation, it’s uncanny. He chucked basketballs at his players, not his love interest, and none were quite knocked out, but all this was no biggie till the film hit the press and then everyone was outraged. The parallels run especially deep when we look at how top administrators deal with the idea that they had/had not seen the video and what that means for their accountability for the whole situation. Rutgers President Robert Barchi went as far as the rather far-fetched notion that he’d had the video of Rice hurling balls and obscenities at his team sitting around his office but hadn’t bothered to take a gander. The Commissioner of the NFL and the leaders of the Ravens are now making more or less the same claim, though theirs is slightly more plausible since some trashy tabloid held the rights to this video not, uh, the team/league itself.

The Onion got near-universal acclaim on Facebook and elsewhere for skewering this whole incident with its article entitled NFL Announces New Zero-Tolerance Policy On Videotaped Domestic Violence. As is par for The Onion, the title is the most amusing part of the piece and basically all you need to know. The idea here being that as long as you can avoid the videotape, things are hunky-dory, but as soon as the tape gets out, forget it.

While there is certainly some hypocrisy in the idea of punishing people harshly only once they’ve been publicly viewed by all and sundry doing whatever dastardly thing they were already known to have done, the fact that it happens is less about hypocrisy than we might think. Or perhaps it’s about a larger hypocrisy that we enact society-wide.

You see, violence is pretty shocking.

And seeing it is really the only way, short of, say, feeling it, to understand that.

When we actually see violence in front of us, be it a bombing or a beating or an attack or a chucked basketball or 9/11, we are immediately repelled by it. It fills us with disgust, rage, revulsion. This, I would contend, is because violence is antithetical to everything humanity is working toward. It is innately repugnant in all its forms and this is self-evident as soon as it’s displayed to us.

Unfortunately, as visual and rather concrete creatures, we have a really hard time abstracting this to violence we don’t see. Like, say, domestic violence that is not leaked to us publicly by a trashy tabloid. Or, perhaps, every American bombing of foreign countries ever. This violence is perfectly acceptable to us, or at worst a little unfortunate, precisely because we do not have to deal with it. It is not in our face or even close to our face. It is merely an ethereal concept that can be described with the anesthetic “domestic violence” or “collateral damage”. These offer us nothing of the visceral horror that grainy tape of someone being pummeled can offer.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at Rodney King, not unique among African-American men targeted unfairly and demolished by police officers in the United States. But uniquely caught on film and thus bringing a whole generation of outrage to the question of police beatings, racist cops, and injustice in America. Or perhaps you prefer the imagery of the planes hitting the World Trade Center, over and over and over again. You think it’s a coincidence that the American media offered you that spectacle approximately 12 times a minute for weeks after 9/11 but never once showed the results of American killings abroad? Violence has an immediate and powerful effect on us. We feel sympathy for the victim and rage at the perpetrator(s). And thus what we see is ultimately what we get. What we don’t see is hard to understand and can be dealt with more esoterically.

I don’t think it’s a mystery which of these is a better reaction for us to have. The fact that those who saw the Rodney King beating or Mike Rice or Ray Rice immediately knew that what was being done was wrong and should be stopped and dealt with harshly is probably a good indicator that these sorts of things are wrong, regardless of whether they happen publicly. And thus it would seem that a key tool for civil society would be ensuring that those who are subjected to violence have a chance of being filmed so that their perpetrators can be publicized and their misdeeds judged on their actual merits.

Increasingly in our society, this isn’t really becoming a debated proposition. It’s here and it’s live. Certainly the last few months have informed everyone that every elevator in the country, seemingly one of the most enclosed and vulnerable locations imaginable, is being taped constantly. Pretty much every business on the planet has a near-infinite number of cameras catching every angle, door, corner, and hallway. Police cameras are up on many corners in many cities. And every person over the age of 11 is walking around with a highly sophisticated video camera in their pocket, ready to use at a moment’s notice.

Now I know that for three generations of Americans raised on Orwell’s predictions, the idea of the perma-telescreen is scary. And I get it. And there are some very compelling arguments in The Circle, a fantastic recent book, for why we should be cautious about some of these developments. But I’m sorry, this is another great point for the death of privacy. As always, my primary caveat is that there has to be a level playing-field of information and that there cannot be information asymmetry. If we have universal video where the elites, the rich, the corporations, and/or the politicians are both immune and have greater access, then it’s trouble. But the reason it’s trouble is for the asymmetry, not for the information itself. Because that information is stuff that can both illustrate the real horrors of violence as it is enacted and, by extension, deter it better than a million threats of incarceration.

I’ll give you a thought experiment here and one that should probably come with a trigger-warning for those who like that sort of thing: Think about how hard it is to convict rape cases in status quo and how many people brush off rape allegations like so many gnats. Universities especially, as has been widely publicized in the last couple of years. Now imagine that one had video footage of a rape in progress. Surely the few efforts to depict something like this on film in a fictional setting have garnered some of the greatest terror, outrage, and bleakness of anything ever committed to film. The idea that the depiction is real and not fictitious would be transcendentally horrifying. Suddenly, it’s hard to imagine anyone using the vague and demeaning language so often thrown at rape victims in the wake of having to witness their violation on screen. And while the idea of publicizing such footage is itself a difficult ordeal for the rape victim in question, it does seem like it would make justice far more likely and, in turn, increase deterrence against this most heinous of crimes.

I have to ask again: what is so great about privacy? And even if there are things that we like about privacy, do we really like them enough to come with the baggage of enabling and allowing rape, domestic violence, and abuse by those in power? Again, I stress that if it’s just one group of people getting to watch another and not being watched in turn, that’s highly problematic and everything Orwell rightly warned against. But assuming we get to watch the watchers and everyone is playing each part equally, doesn’t this just make everyone a better person?

If you’re not willing to come with me that far, let’s at least agree that someone needs to start filming the results of American warfare, declared or undeclared, abroad and get that on some US media. There will be the occasional gung-ho nut who cheers for every house falling over and assumes the entire nation of Yemen is populated by terrorists and no one else, but I think the vast majority of people will react sanely and be appalled. Just as America and even the NFL, a sport dedicated to people tackling each other, was not largely defined by a couple fringe sexists who felt that Ray Rice’s actions were acceptable.

Violence needs witnesses to be stopped. Gandhi understood this, King understood this, and they probably would not have been successful were there not witnesses to their victimization. Ideally, we would all abhor it just as much in the abstract as we do in front of us. But realistically, I’d rather take my chances on getting more cameras out there than getting more people to find empathy without their eyes. And here, these men of Rutgers have something to teach us. The cameras are not the enemy so much as what some will do when they think no one is watching.


Unemployment Remains Stable… at Double Reported Figure

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

Was going to post a longer thing about the nature of cameras and privacy and all the Rices from Rutgers that get rung up by audio-visual equipment, but that’ll keep for now, especially since everyone under the sun has something to say about it. Not least of which is The Onion, whose point that only people who get caught on camera doing things wrong get punished sort of misses the point underscored here, which is that everyone is on camera all the time now and that may not be as bad as everyone wants to think. But more on that later, when I’m not quite as sick or I haven’t made it to 1:30 PM and failed to eat today, especially when sick. Go me.

I took most of the summer off from reporting on unemployment, in part because I just wasn’t in much of a blogging groove in general for most of the last year. So here we are again, revisiting the figures I last posted in April.

At that point in the year, the reporting gap, or the gap between real unemployment and that figure the B(L)S puts out monthly, stood at a record-high 5.87%. Now that figure has hit a record high in both June and August, modestly up to 5.89%.

Here are your graphs:

The red line is real unemployment, accounting for those who have left the labor force.  The blue is the reported figure.

The red line is real unemployment, accounting for those who have left the labor force. The blue is the reported figure.

The gap between real and reported figures.

The gap between real and reported figures.

You know the drill with this by now. Nothing is changing much in terms of unemployment. The public narrative about stagnation of unemployment and the “recovery” is actually right for once. But it’s right at 12%, not 6%. Unemployment currently stands at 11.99%, up from 11.94% in July. That July number is the best it’s been since August 2009, when unemployment was still skyrocketing, which was 11.76%.

But 12% unemployment remains 2% higher than the supposed peak of unemployment in the Great Recession, which was in October 2009 (reported at 10.0%). Unemployment actually peaked 2 months later, at 13.13%. It’s periodically touched 13% a few times since then, most recently last October.

The Reporting Gap (second chart) remains a perfect index of the crazy factor in our current perception of the economy as it affects real people on the ground. And that remains at its peak. And the way we would be publicly treating the economy, jobs, and public policy if it were publicly disseminated that unemployment has been hovering between 12-13% for FIVE YEARS is so radically different than the status quo as to make them different worlds altogether.

You’re not crazy. The jobs are not coming back. Someday, we will change the model of our economy. But for now, it remains ostrich time.

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