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The Musty Man
Even more than the last one, this really isn’t my story to tell - I’m not even present as an interlocutory device this time around, there’s another layer of hearsay attached and it reflects even more poorly on the protagonist than the last installment, but it was, if believed, the most interesting story I’ve heard in a long time.
I have a friend who moved to Bristol to be with her boyfriend, who I haven’t yet met. We talked for the first time in two years today and when I asked for an introductory story about her boyfriend/now husband, she made the peculiar decision to tell me this:
Dan had a huskie for a long time, almost right up until he met his wife. Having a dog that size in Bristol is an odd choice, as Bristol is one of those tightly packed and desiccated slabs of latter-day English industry, not so far in character from Buffalo or Pittsburgh though delivered without the crushing levels of violence and psychotic cultural gunplay. Still, in its more modern iteration, Bristol is most frequently recognized as being the place where Beth Gibbons and Tricky did heroin in the 90’s, making it (I suppose) more the British Aberdeen than the British Buffalo. No matter what, still an odd place for a dog that size. Dan had a yard, nothing to be taken for granted among all of those rowhouses and unbroken storefronts. The neighbors had a yard too, and a five year old girl, and she had a rabbit.
For the huskie, this was hell. The huskie didn’t really have free run of the place - he was a barker, and he’d become hysterical at the sight of smaller mammals, the sort of dog who had to be kept on a very serious harness whenever he went to the park not so much because he’d maul the children as tear a squirrel apart right in front of them and then jog up to them with his tail wagging and a dripping red chin. Above all, he obsessed with the rabbit. The rabbit lived outside in what I have now learned should be referred to as a “hutch”, though it sounds much the same as a doghouse or a henhouse. The two properties were separated by one of those English wrought-iron affairs, too high and spiky for even a huskie hellbent on murder to jump. The huskie would go out, do his business, and bark so hysterically at the rabbit that Dan would come out to retrieve him. And for what sounds like quite a long time, that was it, until it wasn’t.
There’s more suspense in trying to tell it like Dan came home and felt a draft coming in through the open backdoor and just knew, but the filthy and motionless rabbit in the middle of the living room with a dog happily pawing at it was probably a much better hint that poochie had managed to get out. I’m not clear on how the deed was done - whether the crucial verb was “burrow” or “jump” or something else, but the various permutations of possibility mattered less than the dead, bloody thing curled between the muddy paws of Dan’s huskie.
Dan understood the magnitude of what had happened. Dan understood that he would, if he was truly the measure of his own rhetoric on the subject, fucking murder anyone who hurt his dog. And if his dog had in turn been fatally mauled by something larger - a hyena, maybe, or a tiger - he would (at best) knock the teeth out of the owner if not (more likely) tear the intestines out of the tiger/hyena with his own bare hands. It would be hypocritical to expect kinder treatment for his own. He thought about tears, accusations of negligence, lawsuits, demands for euthanasia, police involvement, impoundment, needles. He looked down at his dog’s bloody mouth and happily swishing tail, and he thought about it.
Ask yourself: What would you have done?
I answer: Hopefully not this.
Dan picked up the rabbit and inspected the damage, which was actually relatively superficial. The rabbit hadn’t bled much, and it seemed more muddy than brutally mauled. He carried it to the bathroom, drew up a sinkbath of lukewarm water, and did what he could to wash the rabbit off. He toweled it off, wrapped it up, and carried it outside. He noted that his neighbors were not home, so he let himself into their backyard through the side gate, walked to the hutch, and replaced the rabbit on its small pile of grass, laying curled in what he supposed was a natural rabbit position in which to expire from non-dog related causes, then walked away and shut the gate behind him.
The neighbor family arrived home late and did not visibly interact with the rabbit or the hutch over the course of the evening. The next morning, he heard what he had spent the evening unhappily predicting - the hysterical crying of the young girl, the worried but comforting sounds of parents cooing over her grief, and then school and work and the long silence of a few weekdays. Dan didn’t forget about it, of course, but nor did the dead rabbit haunt his attention. This continued until he arrived home at the same moment as the girl’s father, unloading his car in the driveway as Dan pulled into his own. The neighbor waved and walked over, asking him after a quick exchange of hellos whether he had seen anything unusual in the backyard. Dan, paralyzed, managed to ask why without betraying surprise.
The neighbor: “Well, a few days ago, (my daughter’s) rabbit died. We buried it in a shoebox in the yard - it was a big deal for her. Anyhow, she was upset for days, really inconsolable, so we promised her that we’d get her another rabbit. We told her to go and clean out the hutch first thing in the morning, so she did, and found her rabbit just laying there like he’s sleeping, you know?. So she runs in screaming and we go outside and there’s the grave, all dug up and torn to pieces. Looked like an animal did it, but then how the hell did the thing get back in the hutch? I mean, she’s five, she’s old enough to know how fucked up that is and all of her schoolmates keep telling her about zombies, so now she doesn’t want a new rabbit because she’s afraid it’ll turn into a monster. Anyhow, just asking.”
And Dan never did tell him.
Can’t wait to meet the guy!
I know I generate a lot of sleight-of-hand fiction in these parts but this ain't one of them. This is more or less a straight paraphrase I didn't know what else to do with.
I know, I haven’t been around. I changed schedules at the office sort of unexpectedly. I’m down in the other office now.
I totally agree. That late week commute is brutal. I hate spending my Fridays sitting in weekend freeway traffic but there were some personnel changes in the main office I couldn’t really get behind and I felt like this worked better.
No, nothing like that. Worse, really. So as you know, I had a pretty good thing going up there, a cubicle I liked, some legit natural light, far from the boss, and we were in a pretty good rhythm of getting drunk at 4:15 before the season kicked up and you disappeared, so you haven’t really been around for this.
So Dave gets this new intern and sets her down right next to me. Next office over. She’s in all of the time, asking questions, trying to chat, trying to get me to go over her work like interns do, really up in my shit all of the time. Totally sucked.
No, she’s nice enough. Smart too. Fun to be around, funny, plays really great music on her iPad. She’s great.
She’s really hot. Really hot.
It has everything to do with it. I mean really hot. 9.9 out of 10 hot. Magazine hot.
I can’t believe you just said that. It’s not nice at all. Having a beautiful girl... I mean, a really truly no bullshit beautiful girl in the office right next to yours is not nice. It’s completely exhausting.
It’s impossible to concentrate. I couldn’t get a thing done.
Because beauty, especially that sort and magnitude of beauty, isn’t beautiful at all. It’s totally tyrannical.
No, I don’t think that’s too strong of a word at all. She’s gorgeous and it sucks for everyone. Look at it from her perspective - because she’s beautiful, I mean really and truly beautiful, her life is totally impossible, especially professionally. If she’s too friendly, everyone will talk about how much of a flirt she is. If she’s unfriendly, everyone will say she’s a snob. Even if she somehow magically threads the needle and nails it exactly and manages to strike some impossible balance between warm and cold, everyone will eventually just talk about her anyhow. If, god forbid, she finally does make some male friends at the office, it’ll be a big question of whether she’s fucking them, or whether they want to fuck her, or some other tired bullshit that is completely inescapable and totally lame all at the same time. The last time I heard anyone mention her, it was a discussion between two of the office harpies about her boots and how they make her look sleazy. I saw her boots, by the way, and they were just fucking boots. I suppose they had a bit of a heel to them but still, please, shut the fuck up I’ve been at the office for 10 years and I could wear motherfucking clown shoes to work and I guarantee the fascination created among the overweight office staff would come nowhere near eclipsing these two legal secretaries and their twenty minute talk about this girl’s fucking footwear and what it says about her sexual availability.
No matter how much of a socially adjusted genius she is, eventually someone will make some sort of a crack about how she only got the job because of her looks, and that’ll be it. Here this poor girl just wants to do a good job and not make too much noise about it - she’s an intern, for fuck’s sake - and that’s completely impossible. She’s already ‘the hot intern.’ Even I call her that.
Fuck, no. I’m part of the problem. Like every other dude there, if she so much as smiles at me when she walks by I have to spend the next hour psychoanalyzing it. I might be aware of it but that doesn’t mean I can do the first thing about it.
You’re being deliberately naive. You’d do the same thing if you met her. This is just a thing about the male psyche that is true and non-negotiable and you can’t wish it away. If a hot girl smiles at you or flips her hair in your face in that way that leaves you no choice but notice how good it smells, some small chimp part of your brain will immediately take control and cancel everything except breathing through your mouth and trying to figure out whether there might be some remote chance you could maybe figure out a way to bang this girl.
Whatever, it’s not voluntary. And I’m not saying you will conclude that you could bang the girl, because odds are pretty overwhelming that you can’t. She’s almost always got a boyfriend, after all, and besides that, most of us who aren’t Justin Timberlake can’t bang the girl, not ever. In fact you can’t bang well over 99% of them no matter how much you apply yourself or pretend that maybe you could if you just made it to the gym more often, and you’re going to come to your senses pretty quickly about you and your odds, but you still have to go through the fucking thought process. Every time. This is the part of it I find so fucking coercive. I don’t care if you’re in a coma, I don’t care if you’re Bob Dole circa right-now, and you’re laying on your deathbed and thinking about everything you’ve accomplished and feeling pretty good about yourself and your life when all of the sudden the hot nurse walks by and you stop with the eulogizing and die with your last living moment spent wondering if maybe, just post-mummification maybe, if you played your cards juuuuust right, you might be able to bang the nurse. And I’m telling you that the only proper reaction to finding yourself thinking this way is horror and total self-disgust. No, don’t interrupt, it is. Every time this poor intern walks by on her way to work nervously at her desk and you stare at her butt, you’re the asshole and she’s just the poor slave of her own perfect asscheeks.
I’m not saying all men are rapists or anything but whole concept of the “male gaze” is no bullshit. But what you can never get the professors of women’s studies to fully apprise is that this is happening utterly against our will. We are not choosing to drop all of the actual important work we’re paid to be doing and spend twenty blankfaced and slackjawed seconds thinking sexy bullshit about a girl who did absolutely nothing to invite the attention. It’s gross. I’m gross, you’re gross, we’re gross, it’s all gross. So I figure the least I can do is just stay the fuck away from her.
Fuck no, my “awareness of how I feel” just makes me act like a fucking moron. I try so hard to avoid looking at her in an objectifying way or talk to her with even a hint of flirtation in my voice that I end up coming off like she’s getting on my nerves, or like I’m trying to hide my halitosis. Dude, I’m not good with girls in the first place. I’m already nervous. It’s better to avoid her completely. And no, I never said she’d be better off working next to anyone else, I just said I didn’t want her working next to me. Like I said, this chick is DOOMED. And because she’s not totally awful, she probably has the good sense to feel at least a little bit bad about it. I mean, she’s got to know that doors open and close for her in huge part based on this random, totally serendipitous conjugation of muscle, fat and tissue that just happens to be her face and body in a way that has absolutely nothing to do with the smart, hard-working girl she really wants to be. And that’s tragic, but it’s her fucking tragedy and I’m not getting paid to deal with it for her.
Oh, I know the data says attractive people make more money and live longer and all that, but unless they’re totally blind or totally horrid, there has to be some awareness of how much of the rest of their personality is getting burned off by their looks.
Friend? FUCK no. So we can start hanging out outside of work and I can listen to her talk about her boyfriend and try really, really hard not to be that terrible fucker who has female friends mostly as sick cows he’s waiting to go full vulture on when they show a moment of weakness or get dumped by their boyfriends? I’ll cut my dick off myself, thanks.
That’s precisely the sort of thing I would say if I was trying to rationalize it, but whatever. You have your perspective and I have mine. It doesn’t really change things. You don’t have to work with her.
See, that’s exactly the question I don’t like asking. I’m married, dude. Happily married. I love my wife. And I’d like to continue loving my wife without the unwelcome intrusion of unrealistic thoughts about some girl who I will never really get to know. And when you put it into some totally irrelevant hypothetical question like that I still have to go through the work of crunching some sort of silly applied study in probability. It’s impossible, and it doesn’t matter because it could never, ever happen so why the fuck do I need to spend any time thinking about it, even for a second?
Well, that would be different, and I don’t really know what you mean by “realistic”, but I still prefer to think that I wouldn’t.
Yeah, I’m sure, I guess. Mostly sure. I mean, I certainly hope I wouldn’t. But that’s the thing, I don’t know. Better not to ask at all.
I’m sure several of you had Occupy experiences of your own. Far from Washington D.C. and the hubs of actual financial influence, concerned citizens set up camp wherever they could, determined to be a wrench in the gears of some variety of machine, even a small one far from anything important, if only for the demonstrative splendor of actually doing something. I understand they even showed up in places like Boise and Tulsa. We had one of those in Portland, too, and a pretty big one, despite our not being the home base of any financial institution without the words “Credit Union” at the end. They set themselves up in a public square immediately across from the courthouse, set down tents and performed some very agreeable experiments with protest and leaderless democracy, especially at the beginning of the movement. And then the movement expanded and tried to offer things like beds and showers and food to everyone they were housing in this tiny and muddy square, and these expansions eventually brought in the other one percenters, the homeless, the drug addicted, the schizophrenics. And despite real gallantry from the suddenly conspicuous original organizers - the optimistic, not-necessary-anarchic post-feminist post-grad post-economic big hearted sorts who never did, as far as I could tell, stop doing their damnedest to keep it all together even though they’d never set out to make the filthy, fecal soup kitchen they ultimately ended up with - the movement got more and more distracted in squabbles with police and eventually fell apart, having not so much to galvanize the resistance as to expose how little resistance there really is. (a note - insofar as there may be a global financial conspiracy, spending your resources fighting with the police and eventually migrating your focus from “financial inequity” to “police brutality” is exactly what they want you to do)
For the few early fall months I passed them on my way to work, they remained a source of constant fascination. In my naivete, I routinely assumed that the general animosity of District Attorneys toward the Occupy movement was mostly scared posturing by a bunch of people afraid of losing their jobs or irritation that they were making it all about the police. I wasn’t out in the street because I couldn’t take the time off, and I couldn’t take the risk that someone would see me, and I couldn’t make myself risk my not insignificant slice of the pie on the very real principle that the pie is not being divided fairly. So I silently acknowledged my cowardice and wished the younger and braver the best for taking the risk I was unwilling to take. I tried to smile at whoever was sprawled nearest to my side of the walk when I walked up to the courthouse every morning, kept my face slack no matter how bad it smelled and never did anything to hint at how worried I was about the ancient trees and brutalized landscaping suffocating under all of the tents and feces. I occasionally thought about striking up a chat with somebody, making vague and conciliatory gestures at solidarity of a sort that would make me feel included and make them feel like somebody had taken the time to listen.
My tie kept me from having the conversation I might’ve wanted to have with the Occupy Portland people. At least that’s what they were yelling at me as I walked through Chapman Square, something I sort of had to keep doing even when it was suddenly filled with protesters with signs, and then tents, and then hay bales and stinking, burping generators running all night so loud you could hear them all of the way across the river, and then weird makeshift clinics and libraries, and then finally dudes on skateboards with tattooes on their faces and criminal records who I recognized from drug court. These latter entrants were the ones who ultimately tried to give me my important education on class and their purposes. It went something like this:
(us, stopping and turning, three Deputy District Attorneys dressed in the Agent-Smith-cum-Nordstrom-Rack, humorless duds and monocolored ties that we buy straight off of the discount shelf, shoulder to shoulder as a pair of dudes and their pitbulls, all wearing bandannas, come up out of the sea of tents and blocked the one walkway through the outdoor bazaar that was Chapman Square 25 days into Occupy Portland)
“Hey, motherfucking one percenters, we don’t want you here!”
(us, to eachother, “hey, this dude thinks we’re one percenters,” mutual compliments on suits, shoes and hair, attempt to continue on our way)
(now blocking our path)
“Get the fuck out of here, this isn’t for you, go back to your office”
(office is delivered as a venomous word carefully considered for maximum impact. I debate telling him that my office doesn’t have a window and was once used for storage)
(my companions now stopped, amused but a little angry, also aware not just of the phalanx of police on the periphery of the camp but how many of said police we know personally, how many times we’ve bailed them out on shitty cases or dragged ourselves up at 4 in the morning to cover their goddamn search warrant requests and how easy it’ll be to turn the tables on these guys if they try anything)
“If you don’t get the fuck out of here, we’re taking your fucking ties.”
(buddy, looking down, fingering his tie)
“My wife gave me this tie.”
“FUCK your wife.”
(DA’s laughing, still very aware of the police, jokes about wife fucking)
“Anyhow, sorry guys, I figure I’m at best a... what... 14 percenter. And my tie was 15 dollars. Sorry.”
It was never really in question whether we would be able to leave the square without real trouble (we did) and I’m not bringing in the sort of political agenda that would have me present this as representing anything but a pair of street kids puffing out their chests on their borrowed Occupy Portland letterhead but the exchange, which quickly became internally famous in our office, ultimately led to us getting bored at work and finding a website somewhat affiliated with the Occupy movement that allows you to punch in your annual income and get it translated to a percentage of where you fall within the 99%.
Unbeknownst to me until very recently, this fixation with economic percentage has become something of a national meme, enough so that studies have been commissioned and completed, and the punchline always seems to be that almost nobody has an accurate sense of how much they’re making relative to anyone else. Harpers Index maintains that a full 18% of Americans think of themselves as in the Top 1%, even as at least a third of the Top 1% see themselves as much lower. There seems to be something paradigmatically American about both ways of misthinking - the perennial optimism of people who don’t have as much as they think they do versus the paranoid disconnect of the really rich, bridged by the narcissistic but ubiquitous tendency to assume that the amount you’re making is as close to “normal” as you can get without coming off like a jerk.
For my part, I assumed that my job as a mid-level criminal prosecutor for a medium sized city known more for its food carts than its economic vibrancy would put me somewhere around 74% - I don’t pick that number by accident. Ever since I finished there in law school, I tend to put myself “Just out of the top quartile” at anything I’m sorta good at. “Just out of the top quartile” was near talismanic for me for years, a convenient shorthand for my tendency to put forward enough to get by comfortably without being the sort of person who will ever set a record for anything. Proficient, but not enough to escape blandness. Affluent, but not really. Flipped to use the same metric as Occupy, this would put me in the 26th Percentile.
As it turned out, I was in the 9th percentile. 91% of Americans make less than I do. This did not make sense.
My first thought: If I’m in the 9th percentile, who is buying all of the fucking boats?
I’d been wondering this for awhile. After work on the nice days, a buddy and I walk across the river from downtown to the side of town where people actually live, and on such nice days the river is crowded with all of these boats, many of them large and most of them presumably owned by people who actually live in my big-but-not-huge urban area. The most cryptic have always been the floating boners captained by some bald dude with a paunch and his shirt flapping open in the front alongside a couple of his similarly middle aged buddies and a small harem of mid-20 something girls in the sort of bikinis nobody actually wears in the Pacific Northwest, and I wonder who the hell they are, what sort of jobs they have and whether there might actually be that many drug dealers in one urban waterway.
Every body of water has a dock. Every dock bristles with boats. Every lake has a launch, every ocean town has its pier, all of them crowded with watercraft, each belonging to somebody who can presumably afford such things. And not one single motherfucker who I actually know, lawyer or otherwise, actually has enough disposable scratch laying around to own one. My old boss, who is apparently in the 3rd percentile, waives these things off as “not for him”. But he’s old, and he’s making a lot more money than I am, and as you get to the end of the curve, the distance between the percentages starts to get a whole lot bigger. (for example - the gap between the 98th and 99th percentile is bigger than the gap between the 1st and 90th percentiles).
Upon reflection, I guess I do know somebody with a boat, but he’s the father of my ex-girlfriend and the managing partner of one of the area’s more elite law firms, making him one of only four legitimate one percenters I’ve ever really known, and the only one who lives in my hometown. His boat seems to constitute his only real immodesty, polished wood and chrome and heavy accessorizing from whatever cybernautical superstore serves as the nearest analogue to The Sharper Image. So he has a boat. I’m sure it cost him at least ten times more than my car.
I always assumed the thick switch of dudes better off than I was were accounting for all of the boats, since a boat always seemed not just like something I couldn’t quite afford but something I couldn’t afford at all, not even after a series of quick promotions, not even if I managed to hop another few percentile before the dementia and cirrhosis inevitably make boating unsafe for me some time in my 7th decade of life. And alongside boats are a whole gaggle of other quasi-lux items seemingly available to the upper-middle class as recently as a generation ago, slotting in next to things like beach houses, overseas vacations and cars less than a decade old, none of which I can readily afford. There are caveats aplenty to be had here - I’m young, I don’t actually want any of those things except the overseas vacation and those do happen occasionally, even if there are still hostels and parasites involved, and all spending is inevitably an exercise in marginal cost - anything you purchase represents as a negative everything you elected not to purchase instead. But there’s still something significant in here about the state of the American economy, and how the middle class actually fits into it, and what being in the middle class, even the upper middle class, does and doesn’t mean right now for people young enough to have completely missed the boat on all but residual baby boomer prosperity.
I’m not trying to engage in any class-warrior theatrics here, and nor do I want this to be read as a not very subtle way of writing a whole long thing on the internet about how I make more money than what I statistically assume is at least most of you. Those of you who actually know me are likely well-versed in my undying belief that there is no real demonstrable connection between merit and salary. A lot of you do important things and are paid nothing for it. A few of you are up to some out-and-out bullshit and are gettin’ made for it. The last recession made open the old secret that many of the highest earners in the American economy can’t really be said to be generating anything of real value. My job still passes the Lego test - it’s basic enough that they make a Lego man who does what you do (lawyer, judge, etc). There are Lego teachers, Lego firemen, Lego police officers, Lego ninjas. There are no Lego systems analysts, no Lego hedge fund managers, etc. But I digress - my job (since vacated) was itself something of a Baby Boomer residual - one of the last corners of the public sector not completely decimated by this last great retraction of most of our basic principles of Public Democratic Governance (compare: The Teacher, The Librarian, The Social Worker), still paid well enough to function under the illusion of relative affluence in a way that conceals that the doctors, surgeons and small business owners are the new “upper middle class” (insofar as they make more than 98% of us but still make only a 10th of the people a percentage above them) or which exposes that the upper middle class, at least as conventionally defined as the Top 25% or so often no longer make enough money to own a house before the age of 40. My point isn’t that I make more money than anyone else but that the amount of money I make does not give rise to the set of lifestyle circumstances I associated growing up with something called “upper middle class,” and if I’m in the 9th percentile, expectations need to shift way downward for all of us but the hedge fund manager.
Anyhow, here’s what it really means to be in the 9th percentile relative to my buddies who hang out more in the 50% range, which will statistically cover most of you:
1. We eat better.
2. Buying a house is a possibility.
3. I am not constantly worrying about money, and I’m able to save some of it.
That’s not it, but that’s a lot of it. And these things matter, each of them immensely. Eating matters because food is the ultimate regressive tax, and not having money or the time to cook is where Doritos happen, and while the split isn’t really as stark as good shit versus McDonalds, you can get caught on the spread when you are pressed for time (which Americans always are, always) and don’t have time to cook and you’re stuck letting your wallet dictate what type of take-out food is right for you. There are plenty of areas where quality doesn’t matter as much as the advertising wants us to believe. Cars are a big one. Wine is another one. Clothes are criminally bullshit in their pricing. While there are a few shortcuts with food, they’re usually inconvenient ones requiring a working knowledge of beans and that other thing none of us have, time. Great for all of you people who can get it together to make a ten quart pot worth of some ultra-healthy, ultra-tasty, ultra-economical kale and lentil paste that you’re paradoxically happy to spend the next six consecutive days eating for both lunch AND dinner. Your bowel movements must be incredible and I bet you’re a jogger. You’re also your own sort of one percenter. The rest of us are eating too much corn syrup because corn syrup is in all of the quick and easy shit that actually tastes good. Unless you have money. And then you can actually buy kale and lentil paste right at the store, already made! There is a “corn syrup cut-off point” somewhere in there where the ability to avoid processed food becomes a casually available lifestyle choice rather than a second job.
Buying a house shouldn’t be that hard. FMA loans, even now, only require some ridiculously small down payment, but then you get screwed on the monthlies and end up repaying the margin over and over in interest payments over the 30 year life of the loan. So putting down a tiny downpayment, even in our extremely generous interest environment, ends up being a WHO GIVES A SHIT YOU CAN’T AFFORD A DOWN PAYMENT, FUCKER! BECAUSE YOU HAVE STUDENT LOANS, AND YOU ALWAYS WILL! And for a lot of you, your student loans basically are your mortgage. Throw in a car payment and a city where shit ain’t cheap and student loans + car payment + mortgage might realistically be $3k a month all by itself. For you to make $3k a month after taxes requires you to make more like $4.5k a month. That means you make $54k a year, and that assumes that you’re willing to spend every fucking cent on the three things I just mentioned. If you want to live comfortably, you really want another $15k or so a year. At that point, you’re basically making $70k, and you’re not doing particularly well, but you own a shitty house in a shitty part of a city worth living in. Good for you.
Get up into the high 70’s and low 80’s, both percentage-wise and as an expression of kilos per, and it starts opening up. You can start breathing a little. But you’re still driving a 2001 Honda Accord and living a half mile south of where you’d like to be living. But you can put the sushi dinner down on your debit card without thinking about it, and if your car breaks down you can deal with it, and if the heater explodes you can have it fixed, and none of this will require you to actually worry about much beyond logistics. Occasionally I’ll hear about some friend (just one, really) buying a second house or a second car or sending a kid to private school and think “You the fuck are you, dude?” He makes the whole question simpler by seeming unhappy a lot of the time but that’s his prerogative, not applied fiscal demography.
I suppose the real upside is that bit about the water heater. It blew, and I bought another one, because I had some savings. Some other bad stuff happened, and I paid for it too. And while none of it happened without a certain measure of budgeting, none of it made me lose sleep, or panic, or take a second job or give up doing something else. When I’m sick, I go to the doctor. When my tooth hurts, I can go to the dentist. When the tire goes flat, I can buy a new tire. I can do this more or less without thinking about it. That’s as far as it goes.
And that, my friends, is life as a nine percenter. I’ll be in my boat.
Now that I've finally left the Office of the District Attorney after six years of marginally loyal and mostly productive public service, I would love nothing more than to immediately wheel around and start spilling all their secrets, scuzz out a tell-all of my time as an often reluctant prosecutor, betraying everybody I worked with to try and get myself noticed and out of the lawyer gig forever. But I can't, even to the honestly modest extent that stuff is in there at all, as I find myself in both my old and new positions so tied down by confidentiality agreements, ethical obligations and the outright fear of reprisal that it is difficult to say anything anything about my job(s)* at all. Even in these final days of Livejournal's relevance, I still wake up in the middle of the night panicked that somebody important found my blog, and despite the palmsweaty friendlocking of anything remotely personal and subsequent treatment of self as a minor character, still found something in here to humiliate me and the people who have recently hired me. But there are some things, even important things, that fall far enough into the category of "open secret" to be tentatively disclosed and violate no confidences, and so it is that I can tell you this:
Those District Attorneys are a really good looking bunch.
Not all of them, of course, but so many of them are so much more so that it leaves me wondering if there is some higher directive, a non-spoken policy to hire only the square shouldered and strong jawed or the swoopy haired and leggy (this preference for attractiveness cuts across both genders). After all, only 50% of the population of any group should be statistically describable as "better looking than average" without something going on behind the curtain, and the DA's office seems to consistently push that number into two out of three, with another small but significant fraction of lucky folk who must be almost always the best looking people in any given grocery store.
I conclude this even more emphatically because neither Lawyers nor Pacific Northwesterners are a particularly good looking bunch. Sorry, we’re not. Most lawyers are prisoners to their jobs and cellmates to their coworkers and it shows. We're often living in Gollum’s extended family, pale, haggard, stressed, waxy looking, prone to alcoholism and neurosis. The men frequently have bad haircuts and the women are clearly concluding that most of what is expected of American female appearance is a waste of their fucking time (which it often is) but both genders tend to present as paunchy. We struggle as a profession to get enough sleep, to maintain a diet, to exercise and not capitulate to the much higher than normal rates of suicide and severe alcohol abuse that also characterize the profession. None of this is easy on the eyes.
We have this one.
Pacific Northwesterners also don’t bother too much with the specifics of their appearance, and it’s great. A lot of people are making some sort of “point,” a lot more are just trying to wear something rain-resistant, a ton of us just don’t give a shit. It doesn't help that the sun never shines and the fabric of choice is fleece, and it's actually part of why I like it here. Being freed from the pressure to have the best abs or shoes without holes in them allows us to spend our time on other things, and we spend a lot of time biking and climbing and running around. We're athletic, we're energetic, we're certainly educated, but despite our microbrewed illusions, we're not nearly the lookers as the Texans, Californians or East Coasters. I'm not entirely sure we compare favorably to Minnesotans, though I will continue my parade of grotesque regional overgeneralization to suggest that we age better than they do. We are the Norwegians of the United States. Not hideous, but certainly not the Spaniards or Italians, and totally freaked out by non-Norwegians.
So for this many people who would be considered conventionally attractive under not just a regional but a national standard confounds probability and suggests design. And I use the term "conventional" deliberately. This is the most boring, heteronormative, and majoritarian of all possible definitions of attractiveness. Like in politics, the good looks of the District Attorney’s office skew toward the middle, the obvious, the cautious. The men are mostly tall, slender, broad shouldered, strong jawed, usually dark haired, usually light eyed, invariably former or present athletes of some degree. Very few are overweight, short or bald. Very few wear glasses. The women are long haired, slight, thin-wristed, narrow-waisted, handy with lipstick and heels, well-coordinated. While not every lawyer in the office quite matches this description, still only 8% or so of the office could ever really be described as overweight.
We definitely have this one.
People notice, and usually not in a good way. Predictably, this is most often attributed to the horndog hiring preferences of someone high enough up the hierarchy to stack the office with eye candy for their own masturbatory purposes, or some old boy network ploy to attack feminism by insisting on female attorneys who look like old guard legal secretaries, but both of these theories are wrong.
The real answer is simple: Jurors.
The jury system came around back in Ye Old Tymes (UK) as a way of protecting ourselves from corrupt magistrates who were openly working with the crown and who often treated the fact of conviction as something of a formality. The notion of being judged by a “jury of your peers” was a tremendous populist gesture, a hard fuck-you to the power structure that it could not adjudicate away your freedom without serious and occasionally uncertain hoop jumping and it absolutely deserves the credit for democratizing the criminal justice system into what we have now, flawed as it is. At the same time, the system sucks, because jurors are like voters - so stubbornly heterogeneous and random in their composition that the only presently reliable way to appeal to all of them at once is to use the same combination of cynical demography and slick marketing that attack ads do - to pander to everyone at once, irrespective of where they come from or how smart they are. In the same way that Barack Obama visibly struggled to use small words and speak slowly during the Presidential debates, good prosecutors train themselves to use slogans, bylines and “attention steps” designed to reduce a complex criminal case down to something like “if the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.”* While it’s inevitable that this approach will intellectually insult certain members of your jury, they’re incapable of getting out of their seats and doing anything about it. We have the same psychological approach as a campaign attack ad. And like with politics, we’re doing it because you want us to. Just as the right to vote carries with it absolutely no obligation to know the first thing about what you’re voting for, the approach of the typical juror comes down to TNT’s Law and Order.
We have, like, 30 of this one.
The effect of television on the criminal justice system has been called both the “Law and Order Effect” and the “CSI effect” but basically comes down to this: Lacking other inputs, jurors often resort to what they see on TV in assessing what a criminal trial should look like. Because of this subconscious expectation, presentation styles which adhere to not just the rhetorical style but aesthetics of a television trial tend to come out on top, and the most basic level is looking the part. Scientists apparently employed by the Devil himself have already established that strangers tend to rate attractive people as more trustworthy, so in a career where the ability to establish credibility in a hurry with a collection of complete strangers is central to success, I suppose it makes sense that the District Attorney tends to go for chisel-chins and legs. Of course, this doesn’t explain all of us and it certainly doesn’t explain me. While I take no quarrel with the general premise that attractive people are preferentially treated all of the time in ways that would offend us if we were actually aware we were doing it, I think the equation really isn’t as much “hire the hottest people you can find” as “hire the people who look like TV prosecutors.” This isn’t quite the same thing, and it explains my inclusion in this group, as well as my good buddy with the facial scars and the asymmetrical ears. He makes it, because looks like a bouncer, a dude who learned about crime the hard way. I make it, because I look like I barely finished wiping the hangover off of my chin. There are room for these archetypes in the universe of televised crime dramas.
Would you believe we even have this one?
(Just the one)
All of this would worry me less if it was confined to the simple business of getting convictions - I’d still be concerned and disheartened, but I see this sort of pandering as the natural consequence of investing decision-making power in a randomly selected group of people who are not required to have any specific knowledge of the sort that would help make a smart decision, or even to stay awake.
This is already bad, cynical stuff, but it gets even worse if you let yourself believe that this emphasis on the tawdriest aspects of democracy extend not just to when we impose a criminal sentence but to how we make the laws at all. I got into trouble on MZA’s journ a few days ago for saying something about how we don’t have nearly as much crime as we think we do and then failing to explain myself. What I didn’t mean is that we are a crime-free society. By all accounts, we’re a crime-plagued society, the thieves and rapists of the first-world and not merely as a lefto anti-globalization metaphor. But while we have enough crime to justify some amount of the culture of incarceration and certainly enough to warrant worried, quasi-epistemological analyses from the PEW institute about why Americans like to shoot eachother more than Canadians or Japaneses* do, I’m worried about how laws get made. My take is that it often goes something like this:
A nineteen year old gets into a consensual sexual relationship with a twelve year old and gets her pregnant, because both of these things are sadly capable of happening. The parents are outraged, the community is scandalized, and they should be: This was a bad, bad thing. A twelve year old is not capable of articulating consent, especially to a nineteen year old with insurmountable cognitive and experiential advantages. For weeks without interruption, local newspapers obsess over smallest details of the nature of the sexual relationship, place puffy-faced headshots of the weeping child above the foldline, run outraged citizen testimonials. Articles follow about how children are out of control, the prevalence of fellatio on school buses, used condoms found on playgrounds. The community calls for blood and the legislature delivers it, passing a law that states that children aged 15 or younger are incapable of consenting to sex, whether or not they want to, and that anyone who has sex with someone 15 years or younger is guilty of rape and should be convicted of a felony and forced to register as a sex offender. In so doing, we mostly forget or choose to ignore that the typical person having sex with a 15 year old is another 15 year old, give or take.
Lost in the anguish is a clear-eyed look at the frequency of this sort of offense. It is a weakness of human neurology that we retain narratives far more easily and completely than we do statistics. Laws are often passed on narrative over statistic. Like judges to juries, elected legislators are far more able to discard compelling outliers and focus on results, but the constant inevitability of the election cycle makes a certain suicide out of being “soft on crime”, especially in the red sea of foregone districts or the few purple patches where the outcome is still legitimately in question. For our love of narrative, we will pass laws to lengthen sentences at the very moment crime is dropping. For our love of narrative, we will allow profound incursions into our freedom because a plane once flew into a building and it scared us. For our love of narrative, we will force a high school senior who has consensual sex with his freshman girlfriend to spend his life as a registered sex offender. And for our love of narrative, we will trust, if only a little more, the prosecutor who looks the most like Sam Watterson.
*Obama has several liabilities as POTUS but I think his inability to talk stupid may be first among them.
**In service of this point: I’m no longer a prosecutor, but Google scares me so badly that I’m not willing to disclose what I do now and those of you who do know should respect my wishes and not mention it. There will be a friendslocked post up that will tell you what I’m up to. I’m sure there aren’t many stalkers left. Those who remain must agree that this is a necessary consequence of stalking.
***Didn’t want to say “the Japanese” because of indecision about whether the sentence would be improved by also saying “the Canadians” and whether this selection implies a subconscious privileging of one culture over another. College.
A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat is $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
Answer at the end, because the eye will cheat you no matter what the brain says.
A more interesting question:
If you woke tomorrow to find yourself a storied proctologist, that would be pretty weird, huh? I mean, last night you went to sleep as a school teacher or a fashion expert or an alienated civil rights attorney and woke to find yourself an expert in butts and buttholes and your days the analysis of such with all manner of probes and apparati that your present self would probably find all sorts of strange. But set this aside, and focus on your method. Suppose that in your new existence as storied proctologist, you are confronted with a methodological decision
Technique #1: Proctological examination lasts for twenty minutes, and is equally uncomfortable throughout.
Technique #2: Examination lasts for seven minutes, and features two pronounced pains - once upon “entry” and again upon “departure”, but is otherwise unremarkable and more uncomfortable mentally than physically.
Like most of us, I would opt for the second procedure, both for myself and my clientele, on the true-since-childhood theory that it is wiser to tie one end of a string around your loose tooth and another around the knob of a slamming door than it is to torture the thing loose with a thousand small prods of the tongue. This is one of many small but demonstrable mistakes of intuition about which most of us are almost constantly guilty - that bit with the ball and bat is another.
It comes around to memory. Despite our intentions, our brains aren’t very good at remembering the unremarkable stretches between landmarks. In this proctological example (which actually appears in the literature - see Bryan Kahneman, Thinking Fast And Slow). We tend to compress our longer experiences down to three retained impressions which aggregate to form memory: The best moment, the worst moment, and the last moment. This phenomenon applies to everything that needs to be remembered as a unit of time which encompasses many smaller instances but which is nonetheless remembered as a singular experience - whether you stayed too long at your last job, whether you liked a movie, whether you really like Indian food. The science on the subject seems to characterize this as a residual instinct from our old lives as semi-arboreal monkey nomads - it was more important to remember the stomach pains of the white berries you shouldn’t have eaten than the exact nature of all of the blue ones you liked, so profound experiences (whether fantastic or horrific) are retained beyond the more authentic mundane which I suppose dominated the lives of our predecessors no less than it does you and your daily latte.
We are easily tricked. I don’t remember anything about last year’s backpacking trip up the Quinault River except that I wore the wrong sort of underwear and it got all soaked and chafey with ballsweat after the tenth mile and I ended up with bloody nads from the trail rash. A part of my brain knows that the waterfalls were wonderful and the omnipresent bears more funny than threatening but I can’t remember anything but the nine miles spent shaving millimeters off of my nutsack, which were the last nine miles. The two days spent essentially fit and happy are harder to recall. The rest is a green tunnel remembered with gratitude but only deliberately, a conjuration that requries me to get past the nut stuff long enough to flip through the mental photo album, which corresponds almost one for one with the actual photo album, which seems to be how we fight back against our otherwise extant tendencies to obsess about whatever ends up being your chafed nutsack, unexpected rainstorm or other bad apple. The casual memory is all about my balls. I’ve been on enough hikes to know how much memory we pour into remembering the blisters.
Challenge: Assume that this is true about everything, that you are usually acting as a distorted register of the last and best/worst thing that happened, and apply fallacy to your last relationship. If the neurology is correct, it all comes down to the ending, and fairly remembering an ex who left you all bloodied up after four good years is much harder than fairly remembering the summer fling who you liked but never really loved and who went back to college or France or whatever not but 12 hours after that last great fuckfest on the beach against the Adriatic sunset. Fill in the blanks. The good days are hard to remember precisely because in the best relationships, the good days aren’t the remarkable ones. The good days are the ones where you eat takeout Thai food together and smile at each other and watch Breaking Bad half-drunk and fuck in a casually compatible way and go to bed early, but those aren’t the days you are wired to remember. You’re wired to remember the fights, maybe, or the time you had sex on a train, or the time you visited the Grand Canyon. You’re definitely, definitely wired to remember the fights, especially the big one, and especially the last one.
I’ve watched the better of the judges in criminal court pay attention to this principle. It is my pet theory that you can send someone to prison in a few importantly different ways. You can just do it, or you can do it and then lecture the dude who is already headed to prison about how he brought this all on himself and has no one else to blame, or you can do it and then make the dude laugh a little bit. I like to think that laughing dude is the guy least likely to reoffend ten minutes after release, but he’s probably just the guy least likely to blow up my house, or maybe that’s bullshit too. I’m not old enough for proctologists. But remember - it’s actually better to just let it sit in there for awhile before you pull the thing out, even if it takes a little longer. I’m sure you know what I mean.
Anyhow, the ball and the bat. I’ll pose the problem again:
A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat is $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? And why is this so hard to get right the first time? Better to just forgive everyone.
There are plenty of songs about murder, and most of them are boring. By this I don’t mean the music itself is boring, though much of it is because simply writing a song about murder doesn't save you from the inevitable long odds of songwriting, or that the murder itself is boring, but most songs involving a murder announce themselves with a lack of subtlety that could never act as the backbone for a plot anywhere else. I don’t know if it’s a generational or genre affectation that most of the people murdered are women - I suppose it’s always been that way in music, unless it’s dudes offing themselves with motorcycles, Leader of the Pack style, but that’s not really murder except in the generic way we can be assassinated by our testicles.
Women come to peril most often in rap music but that’s mostly bluster, all "bitch I’m gonna to cut you, but I haven’t cut you yet. This lyrical style is relentlessly forward thinking. Rap cannot help but be progressive in its assumptions because the rapper is always assuming that he will be more important in the future than he is now. And then there is the backward face of country - I shot my wife a long time ago, and now I’m in prison, or I’ve been hung, or I’m a ghost, whatever. Country cannot help but be regressive in its assumptions because the assumption of the singer is that they will diminish in the future or (more likely) have diminished already.
Nick Cave is something of an aberration for actually shooting, stabbing, gutting and skull crushing his ladies in real time, but his lyrical experimentation with the present tense leads to some awfully awkward couplets, like this one from “Where The Wild Roses Grow” (w/Kylie Minogue!):
“On the second day he came
With a single red rose
He said give me your loss and your sorrow
I nodded my head
As I lay on the bed
If I show you the roses, will you follow?”
I am surprised this line worked on Kylie Minogue, because none of the ladies I have ever asked to give me their loss and their sorrow on the second date have seemed sexually excited by the proposal. The lyrical gesture in the direction of real time is interesting, but it still fails to capture any ambiguity. Nick Cave meets Kylie Minogue, Nick Cave deflowers Kylie Minogue, Nick Cave hits Kylie Minogue with a rock.
(I’ve already been over the Decemberists’ various sad digressions into lady murder and I’m not inclined to go back into it here except to reiterate that they too write highly specific murder ballads and theirs are far more lyrically awkward.)
I am aware of only two songs that manage the otherwise common trick of concealing, at least partially, the fact and circumstances of the murder, or if it was a murder at all. I suppose it’s hard to convey ambiguity in 4 minutes, which makes these all the more impressive. Of course, they also have the common quality of being two songs nobody seems to think are about murder except me. I hope but doubt that I am a quiet machine for the manufacture of murderous subtexts. I suspect you will all agree with me. My coworkers aren’t interested in these things.
The Smiths - Girlfriend In A Coma
He put her in the coma, right? Otherwise, why all of the obsession with whether or not she’ll pull through? Why all the talk about strangling? I understand, caring boyfriends care about their everloving girlfriends and don’t want them to remain in interminable comas and perish after weeks of silent wasting. But something about his phraseology is less concern about her and more concern about getting caught. The back and forth about wanting to see her makes me think he’s trying to come up with a way to finish her off, his constant inquiry a calculation about whether or not he needs to start running for hills and/or border. None of my previous girlfriends have seemed overly enthusiastic about this interpretation. The video is also here to remind us that there was a time when Morrissey would not have worked hard to fuck your girlfriend, and it is only his magnanimous nature/gayness that kept him from pulling a Genghis Khan on the Western hemisphere.
Josh Ritter - The Curse
This is a song I can wholeheartedly endorse from a guy I can occasionally endorse. If nothing else, this is my all-time favorite song about a mummy. The video doesn’t add much, and might dispel a bit of the ambiguity which is the only thing that really makes the song interesting. Ritter writes a fairly conventional sad romance about a mummy left in a pyramid who wakes up when a woman anthropologist finds him. On the ship ride back to civilization he exposes himself as alive and starts talking to her in her own language, which he taught himself before revealing his secret. But he’s immortal and she’s not, so she has to get old and die. It gets sadder, he neglects her before she dies, but the ending is never really in doubt. And that would be it, but she keeps asking him if he’s cursed and he keeps dodging the question, and there’s a lot of lyrical emphasis on how she is getting weaker at the same pace that he’s growing stronger. And then there’s the last bit, which I find so heavy with menace that I almost can’t listen to the song without thinking of it as a different kind of conventional mummy story - the kind where the mummy can’t come back to life without draining the life of the living. Here’s the last stanza:
</i>Long ago on the ship, she asked “Why pyramids?”
He said “Think of them as an immense invitation.”
She asked “Are you cursed?” He said “I think that I’m cured!”
Then he kissed her and hoped that she’d forget that question.</i>
And that’s all. It can’t always be a big deal. Give me your loss and your sorrow.
(written in November, but that’s how we’re all rolling)
It’s looking like we might not have a pro-basketball season this year. This is a biggish deal to me, but there are lots of people for whom this is a still bigger deal, not just the endless players and coaches and Pepsi dispensaries for whom the league represents a very real livelihood but also and especially those endless packs of people with special hats and jerseys who, you know, breathe this shit, who plan their weddings and the birth of their children around the playoffs, who get into very sincere fist-fights with people who don’t feel the same way they do about whether Kevin Garnett ruined Stephon Marbury or vice-versa. For me, basketball is mostly a way of getting through Western Oregon’s long season of lightlessness. While the rest of the country has spent the last 12 months mostly frying in its own marinade, the Pacific Northwest has been non-enjoying our coldest year in recent memory (except for maybe the one before it) with only one summer day above 90 and our first 80 degree day coming somewhere around the 4th of July. We’re not unaware of the Biblical/Man-Made Hell Summers which are dry roasting the rest of you but we’ve been so long now in our fleece and Timberlands that we can’t help the occasional Twitter/Facebook status updates about Juneuary and Novembruly. We don’t mean to be assholes. Even when things are normal, our glorious dry season can’t be counted on for more than about 4-5 months of non-precipitation, not coincidentally the 4-5 months when the NBA is not in season. For a guy who spends most summer weekends hiking and only recently got over his adolescent resentment of the rich middle schoolers who could afford to go skiing and snowboarding, the NBA removes some of the pressure of constantly finding ways to stay interesting to myself from October to April. I used to play a whole lot of basketball before I destroyed my best ballin’ ankle playing drunk in the spring of 2002. I like watching the games, I like playing basketball themed video games, I like arguing about basketball and basketball themed video games. I read endless blogs about basketball with a patience I can’t even manage to apply to pornography. I’m glad when basketball ends every year, partially because the season is really too long even for serious fans and partially because it signals that it is officially time to step away from all electronics and go outside.
Fantasy basketball, on the other hand, aims squarely at the workplace (both insofar as it is something I do entirely at work and because the most serious league is always the one done with your coworkers) and I would happily do it all year. Fantasy basketball is less a mimicry of the sport itself and more a mimicry of predictive economics or applied statistics. There are multiple successful theoretical approaches which do not require a knowledge of how basketball is played beyond that needed to assign appropriate weight to each contingent variable represented by player performance, fragility, etc. The basic structure, and I’m only telling you this so I can use it to change the subject in a minute, goes like this:
There are usually nine categories to fantasy basketball (points, rebounds, assists, 3 pointers, steals, blocks, field goal %, free throw %, and turnovers). Your goal in a given week is to beat whoever you’re playing in at least 5 of those categories. More is better, but in most leagues it doesn’t matter how badly you beat somebody in a given category - winning by one steal is the same as winning by fifty. This creates a near limitless number of approaches to assembling a team, and the best approach is almost never as simple as drafting the best player on the board. You can draft big and try to win rebounds and blocks and field goal percentage, you can draft small and try to win three pointers and assists and steals, You can build your team around centers who shoot three pointers or shooting guards who block shots. You can draft a bunch of old guys who put up good numbers but might get injured or a bunch of young guys who could turn out to be the next LeBron James but probably won’t. There are analogues to many of these considerations in the stock market, sure, but that’s too messy and besides, almost all of us gave up on the idea after the JP Morgan execs couldn’t quite stammer their way out of a Senate inquiry a few summers ago.
Most of my coworkers are migrating in a pack over to fantasy football, a game I can occasionally stand to watch but have no more interest in than the rest of you have in basketball. For sports to watch in the absence of basketball, soccer seems the clear heir apparent (all the more so because Portland has a new MLS team and most of my friends played soccer) but soccer fails to generate the same frenzy of statistics needed to turn it into something I can enjoy in spreadsheet form while I’m waiting on a courtroom back bench because some dude shit his pants on the bus on the way from his holding cell and everything has been pushed back forty minutes.
So with fantasy basketball seemingly dead in the water, I’ve been at a loss for something similarly statistically intense to burn through in my occupational deadtime. So the group of us nosed around the idea of trying to do fantasy something, less a function of needing a sport to follow and more our reluctance to give up one of the few ways we have of staving off the immensity and humorlessness of the legal bureaucracy. We need our little insurrections, fluid enough to fit into small moments but complex enough to sustain endless pointless discussions. The obvious pick was fantasy football but I can’t give a shit. There were similarly brief considerations of baseball, soccer, tennis. We even discussed some sort of fantasy stock market (such things exist) but when a dozen thirty year old men find themselves discussing a theoretical portfolio everyone just sits around being angry about how broke they are in real life.
We finally settled on Google’s nascent and somewhat underpublicized “Fantasy Geopolitics” information aggregator.*** This side-project of one of Google’s endless banked genius legionnaires basically takes statistical information from a very large number of sources - CIA country pages, IMF reports, World Bank annuals, Freedom House lists, International Atomic Energy Commission reports, Amnesty International broadsheets, simple almanac data, etc, and places obscure enough that I did not recognize them but could locate each through the helpfully embedded Google toolbar. In essence, this program, which is still in its beta phase, crunches these numbers down to categorical hierarchies which are then processed into a rating. There are Economic Categories, Social Categories, Technological Categories, Military Hierarchies, Quality of Life Ratings, each with enumerated subcategories (carbon footprint, calorie intake, number of academic articles referenced per year, submarines, windfarms, cases of leukemia, literacy rate, etc). The machinery of how the system works is incomprehensible to me despite attempts by the designer to make everything accessible and, as much as possible, open source. I understand that the statistical engine expresses Petroleo Braziliero’s discovery of a the massive offshore Tupi deepwater oilfield and the cessation of Russian natural gas sales to Ukraine and Georgia as positives in multiple categories, but I am not sure how Google decides which one of these will be scored more significantly within their respective category or why. Events can also be scored both positively and negatively - the announcement of drilling in Alaska, for example, had a positive impact on the USA’s net economic rating but a negative impact on the environmental rating. Other events, like Herman Cain’s withdrawal from the presidential race or the death of Michael Jackson, seem to have been processed by Google’s engine (this is at least suggested by their inclusion in the “news ticker” you can read from the main screen) but the nature of their algorithmic contribution remains opaque. I am at least passingly aware of an earlier attempt to create something similar to the Fantasy Geopolitics project, though more from the comments to the metacritic.com entry which helped us find Fantasy Geopolitics in the first place than from any actual experience. I understand that this website was quite popular in the late 90’s: Apparently, the creator of Fantasy Geopolitics was influenced by something called SimWorld, which basically tried to do the same thing that Google is doing now but relied completely on their users for inputs - each week, players would review major global news stories and vote countries up or down and the value of a country would fluctuate as a result. Players started that game with a certain amount of money and could bid on countries to form a portfolio, which could then be bought and sold. This system, which I would’ve liked to have seen, predictably and rapidly degenerated precisely at the moment it became popular. Players from the United States, Brazil and South Korea (the three most represented localities within the player base) would regularly vote their own countries up at the expense of all others, and what forum discussions which could be had given the language barriers between large player groups (this was well before Google Translate) were thick with trolling and racial abuse, and by the time the denial of service attacks started the sysops were ready to walk away.
Fantasy Geopolitics adds one very clever innovation by scoring for both totals and growth - you can’t seem to win by just adding the large countries. If you pick the United Kingdom, for example, you’ll have a large total economic score but very little economic growth. If you pick Chile, you have a moderate total score but tremendous growth potential and might even win the economics category in a head-to-head matchup against a team built around UK. The United States has a very large military but Saudi Arabia’s is very fast growing (this might be a little misleading - now that I look more closely, the United States would destroy Saudi Arabia points-wise in this category).
Of course, every team has 8 countries so it’s hard to tell at a glance why you’re winning or losing and again, none of us have played before. We’re only 2 weeks into our “season” and I’m already worried that I did it wrong.
From what I’ve read, China has been the trendy first pick in public leagues for almost a decade, but smarter players understood that while China would pretty much hand you the economic growth category by themselves and came pretty close to doing the same thing for resources, they were overrated in the military and manufacturing categories and would straight up sink you in the education, quality of life and environmental categories. This isn’t to say that China doesn’t work as a first-round pick - it’s a rare league where China slips further than fifth. But Germany, with its unique combination of stellar manufacturing, astronomical quality of life, careful environmental management and resilient economy remained the pick of those in the know throughout the early part of the decade. Part of China’s supremacy was the dumb luck of my buddy Schmidt getting the first pick. Schmidt is a strategy guy - he’d sit down with his CIA yearbook and IMF rankings and decide on an angle and stick to it. This year, he’d decided to play “big” - military and resources - and just kiss off the social demography angle completely. It was a risk play - he’d have to hold military, manufacturing and resources in every round - but it opened him up to bid on heavies like Iran, Venezuela or Nigeria early and ignore tempting Scandinavian second rounders of the sort who usually dominate the generalist players looking to snag the best country on the board. Steve took Brazil second and we all shook our heads over our braus and breves at the sad state of Mattstridt and the casualties thereof but Jeff put all that noise to rest in the third pick by taking Germany, maybe even two or three picks early because of the Greece/Ireland/Portugal clusterfuck. I’d drawn fifth and dodged France for the same reason the Germans sank, picking up safety pick Japan. Everyone groaned when the United States went next at sixth. In most leagues featuring American players, the selection of the United States (usually in the backhalf of the first round) represented a significant moment in the development of the draft. For those players not selecting the United States, it was the moment of the lifting of the pressures of patriotism. Deciding when to pick the U.S. is a touchy moment. For one thing, picking the U.S. locks you into a totally schizophrenic strategy. Picking China has its liabilities, sure, but it also provides utter dominance in a few areas while almost completely ignoring the others. You’re going to lose the environment category, you’re going to lose the quality of life category, you’re going to lose the cultural influence category, but the growth categories in military and economic categories are yours. With the U.S., you are completely ascendant in a lot of the absolute categories but dead in the growth categories, which are more heavily weighted in the overall score. You’re number one in economic terms but your relative score is dropping. Ditto for cultural influence, military size, quality of life... it isn’t so much that we’ve fallen off of a cliff in most of those categories but that our nearest competitors have started gaining a lot more quickly in relative terms. You’re getting your ass handed to you by Brazil in almost every category just because of their rate of improvement. But at the same time, if you have a 50/50% pick between the U.S. and, say, France, everyone is going to spend the next year abusing you for your Latin voluptuousness and Gallic laziness. It’s just poor form to wait any longer than you strategically have to before you take the U.S. I understand it is not this way in everyone’s game but it is in mine. France followed predictably, with Russia, Canada and the United Kingdom to round out the Top 10. Israel was a natural pairing with China at 11, Hungary joined Brazil at 12 on what was already looking like Team Growth.
It goes on like this - everyone with their sleepers and their strategies, reaching for Azerbaijan in the fifth round because it looks like the Baku-Ceyhan Pipeline is buried too deep to get popped by a Russian or Iranian aerial strike, or Chile for their countercyclical substitution of Californian agriculture in the American winter grocery market. Peru for their mines, Ghana for their direct-import substitution industrialization. Etc.
And then there are the undrafted rejects: Mexico, whose combination of general lawlessness and obedience to a weakening dollar leaves them on the table. Italy, with their vast extranational obligations and spastic parliament. Portugal, left unchosen in a league where Bulgaria is taken in the third round. Whether this reflects a new and honest world order, a new system of hierarchy which no longer reflexively privileges Western Europe beyond all comers, or if it’s just the contortions of a bunch of dudes poring over the Economist and crafting their own idea of supra-national trendiness because there was no basketball to watch. Likely both.
I built my team around Japan and Singapore, tentacle porn and public canings. A month in, I traded Japan and Bolivia for Bulgaria and Kenya. I’m in fifth. I’ll keep you posted.
What I suppose I’d most like to see is some version of Fantasy Everything, where you can trade Nick Drake for Jeff Buckley, or Jeff Buckley for Shaquille O’Neal, or Shaquille O’Neal for the YUM! Brand, or the economy of Ecuador for the economy of Everquest, or Barbara Kingsolver for the opportunity to feed Barbara Kingsolver to a lion, or you for your body weight in beef jerky.
*A brief note here on the purpose, real or imagined, of reading the newspaper: I grew up with the assumption that staying up to speed on what was happening in, say, Ecuador, was a good thing to do, maybe even a wise thing, because it “let you know what was happening in the world.” While this was a somewhat easier claim to make before the internet busted “watching the news” into a billion contradictory blog narratives while simultaneously tearing the lid off of the idea that the press was to any degree capable of “objectivity”, I have continued to cling to the idea that I should make it part of my basic self-definition that I make an effort, whenever possible, to read up on the Greek currency default, Chinese cancer towns, North Korean arms sales, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, whatever, all of it carrying a real cost in time and morale, and all without any expectation of self-betterment or progress beyond this slippery notion that I am somehow enriching my understanding of the world by reading all of the ways in which it is prone to disappointment and brutality. The ascendant feeling of this scholarship is usually guilt of the hetero-racial and socio-economic variety tailed by the popular but compelling suspicion that everything is going to shit all around us. As a recreational activity, I find any devotion reading the news for its own sake very hard to defend. At best, I come away from this topical disquietude with a somewhat enhanced ability to sound smart at parties, but this is in turn counterpointed by those who find such a peacock display repellent and the inevitable policy wonks who see any such discussion as an invitation to paw at me with their own trick deck of sad statistics. For those of you who continue reading the paper or the sort of secondary digi-media we are all taking as a substitute, how do you explain yourselves? What good is any of this really doing you?
**If, over a lifetime, I could reassign all of the hours spent reading and musing over international politics to, say, learning Chinese, I would by now be fluent and probably much better off. Reading the news is the habit of feeling powerless. Think of global warming - this is the sort of issue which is all over the news but has reached such a critical mass of awareness that it has crawled out of the pages like the girl from The Ring and seized our collective throats. Not but ten year ago only the environmentalists, policy wonks and people who read The Nation were all that concerned about global warming. Being part of the vanguard certainly didn’t really empower you to do anything about global warming, it just handed you another decade of being freaked out before the shit made the front page of The Oregonian and everyone started getting nervous. The news is full of shit like this, and most of it never goes anywhere. You can drive yourself crazy reading about how Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is displacing all of the wildflowers in the Columbia Gorge and destroying your favorite hikes for your grandchildren or whatever, but three months later all of the articles about garlic mustard go away and we move on to something else and when you squint at an odd patch of brush while you’re halfway up a cliff-face, you’re not quite sure if your generational legacy is being defiled in real time or if maybe it’s just a thistle. And this is the LOCAL news. Apply the same theory to Indonesian deforestation in response to bioethanol subsidies: This was all the rage a few years ago - does anyone know what happened? Do they even know it’s Christmas? Did we save the whales? There’s never closure, just more anxiety. Every story is like this.
***Livejournal has deteriorated to a point where I no longer feel even residual obligations to honesty, accessibility or accuracy. When life gives you AIDS, make lemonaids.
Tags: stuff that ain't real
Current Mood: !
I'm tempted to write about how strange it is to be writing like this but it's much more honest to write about how strange it isn't. I've been in my office in the dark before, though the scarcity of exterior windows and the intensity of the omnipresent florescence do much to make the office run on a shopping mall's sense of time, and so the winter blackness is always something of a surprise - it was light enough at lunch, the last time you had a clear view of the sun. I'm tired at my desk and wish I was asleep but that isn't a new feeling either. I resent being here at all but hey, get on the bus.
I didn't set out to sleep in my office. I'm not sure anyone ever does. My Dad once slept in his father's office on Christmas Eve because his parents threw him out after he asked if Jesus would be blowing out the candles on the birthday cake my grandmother baked for him. I know another guy who slept in his office because he'd been fucking around on his girlfriend and she finally busted into his E-Mail and caught him and his friends were so mad at him for what he'd done to her that not a single one of them, myself included, would tolerate putting him up for a night. And now I'm just tired, and it's raining harder and harder and it's started getting dark so early that there are no visual cues left to separate the end of work from bedtime, and even though there are still a few inconvenient buses still theoretically to be had, it's hard to talk myself into a soaked and freezing mile from bus stop to doorstep when I know I need to be back at my desk in seven hours. By my count, provided I get to sleep in the next hour or so I can get in an additional two hours of sleep for the minor and permanent indignity of sleeping on the couch in the breakroom.
The quiet is distracting, if only because it announces the sudden primacy of the electronics. They're on at all times, humming and clicking and groaning behind the conversational white noise of the workday but it is only now that I realize that these things are loud, all of these computers with their fans running, the random downshifting of the coke machines, the printers talking themselves through automated status checks, the occasional distant hysterics of the lobby fax machine. Twice now I've heard a phone ringing somewhere deeper in the dark and have had to fight back the urge to tear through the halls and cubicles playing Marco Polo in four rings. If the phone rings again I'm going for it.
The night I slept in my office turned out to be a Tuesday and Tuesdays are always busy. The reason it ended up being this particular Tuesday is because I took an audaciously self-indulgent three day vacation, the first I'd taken of any duration in six months except for the one day I played sick and went to the corn maze for my birthday a year ago last October (just before the swine flu!), but I would've admitted even if I hadn't essentially been told by my boss that if I'd been better organized about keeping my shit in line before I left, I would've made it home by seven tonight, eight at the latest, and slept in my own bed next to my girlfriend. I burned a little too much time bullshitting with my coworkers, all of whom wanted to know how the trip had gone and I was a little proud of himself for never having just said that it was a funeral, fucker, how the fuck do you think it went? I just asked what I missed (another defendant shat himself in court, another cop shot somebody). Jobs are like any of us when we are too attached to somebody - they don't want you to leave, they pout when you get back, they hide things and play retaliatory little headgames and do whatever they can to make it clear to you that you should never, ever leave them alone again. I came back to a mess big enough that I caught myself resenting my uncle over how cancer is so inconvenient and dying so hard to plan around. I'd gotten the phone call that he was a few days away from passing and promptly updated my filing, implemented redundancy plans and rearranged what needed to be rearranged, asking coworkers to make emergency coverage as needed and generally putting everyone on high alert that something big was about to happen, and then he went and toughed it out for another three months of deep sick and hospice care and when he finally passed on my contingency plans had all gone stale. I'd tried to move all of my cases around so my coworkers would need to do as little as possible - I'd written memos on every case I couldn't move and tucked them behind the front page with a sticky note and an arrow labelled "TO DO". All the same, a warrant had been served without any warning on a really bad guy and the defense, aware that I was off somewhere in the plains states, immediately filed a motion for a hearing to have him released that nobody knew about. I felt my BlackBerry buzzing in my pocket while I stood for prayer at the funeral in the suit and tie ensemble I normally wear to work on Thursdays (it was the cleanest), felt it again as my cousin choked up halfway through her father's eulogy and had to be escorted off of the stage, finally faked an emergency potty break as I held my mother's elbow walking back up the aisle, then dropped her arm and hooked past the bathroom around the back of the church where I shivered against the Idaho prairie wind through four separate voice messages left by my coworkers warning me about the storm brewing and then the fifth from my boss, tense with the sort of vocal self-control which implies there would be more yelling if we didn't all have to be so goddamn sensitive about funerals (he was the only one who knew).
Fourteen consecutive hours later all crises have been averted or mitigated and I am the sort of tired that is willing to compromise away anything if I can just lay down at the end of it. My desk is a battlefield of manila and empty Coke cans. My hands and keyboard are sticky. The monitor has a halo and I can't stop rubbing my eyes.
(Fifteen minutes later)
I took a walk around the courthouse. I'd decided to walk back out to the bathroom to try and wash out the sugar coating of flat coke, granola and the distant rancidity of my afternoon latte still hanging on - no toothpaste and the water here tastes like a bucket of nails, but it's almost a relief to swap that terrible licked-a-quarter metallic tang for the corn syrup lacquer on the backs of my teeth. I look good, only a little bleary and red eyed, and I shouldn't have much trouble passing myself off as an early riser and hard worker if I can make sure I'm up and out of the breakroom before anyone gets here. Of course, I have no idea when the earliest arrival shows up, never having been that person myself. It occurs to me that the possibility of somebody showing up at 6:00 am might do a lot to unravel my extra two hours of sleep but this thought comes about the same time the last bus is pulling away from the courthouse for the night and I find myself committed to sleeping in my office by default. So I decide to take a stroll.
Debate tournaments in high school provided many occasions to wander around odd institutions at night. Most high schools keep their main corridors at least partially lit at all hours, but this creates a lot of scary high-contrast dead space in the corners and lots of scary windows onto pitch black classrooms. High schools are extra disorienting at night because they are so invested in leaving no stone unturned during school hours, throwing fluorescence everywhere big enough to hide a cigarette or a blowjob. The courthouse is about the same (perhaps even more obsessed with security) and I walked the broad and marbled hallways knowing that somewhere just over my head there was a completely functional and fully operational jail with its own resident population. If I screamed, a guy with a flashlight and a gun would be there almost immediately. Up in the rafters, a small green light every twenty feet signalled idling security cameras. Six floors below, somebody could see me on a monitor. I waved. I wasn't alone but there's lots of fun to be had in pretending.
I'll confess to trying the occasional doorknob and even now, I can't tell you what I was thinking or what worthwhile upside there might’ve been in slipping into the private chambers of a random circuit court judge shortly after midnight on what has only now become a newborn Wednesday morning. Put on the robes, maybe, or bang a gavel really quietly. All were locked.
I've been in the breakroom a thousand times but never really considered its logistics as a sleeping quarters. There's a large and useless table perpetually covered in jigsaw puzzles and the sort of magazines that spend a lot of time worrying about whether Miley Cyrus is growing up too quickly, a refrigerator, a microwave and a farty gray couch that looked to be just barely big enough to sleep on. Stretching out on it for the first time, I found that it was in fact too small for comfort and left me debating whether to hang my feet over the far armrest or spend the next 7 hours in the fetal position.
I was always confused growing up by the fathers (and they were always the fathers) of friends who never seemed to be around for anything because they were always off working late or headed into the office on a Saturday afternoon. With my Dad essentially a blue-collar railroad man and dedicated slacker who would happily skip a shift at the slightest provocation, I had no childhood perspective for the dads who would regularly miss dinners, birthdays and anniversaries. They were simply perplexing, always in absentia, and remarkable for their mysterious, hurried cameos on the fringes of mother driven play dates. It was over two decades later that I started to hear the first seductive whispers of the office. You might be a bad husband, a confused father or a tentative lover, your finances might be a shambles, your stairmaster a relic and your belly a glacier slowly annexing the slope of your pelvis, but many of us are good at our jobs, or at least can understand the essentially finite rules which govern their operation. And those of us who have offices are given a space of our own unassailed by toys or dirty dishes or music we don't select for ourselves. It's easy to be swept up by the internal logic of hiding away at work, even in recasting it as altruistic, the "I work hard to put food on the table" prioritization of the needs of the family over your own. I find myself wondering how many of the legends of our youth, the hard working men who just couldn’t make time for birthdays or groceries or the cleaning of dishes were actually lingering at work, setting up and executing little traps against their free time, coming home at 7:30 and sighing about the long day and the absence of options, not so much as an apology but "what can you do" shrugging and then immediately cracking a beer (lowbrow) or a book (highbrow) because they were just so damned tired. None of this is to say that I prefer work to home, but I have started to understand how it can become the place of maximum agency and minimum anxiety, your barstool at Cheers with a paycheck attached. “Going to the office" is the answer that can fill all defaults. Not sure what to do with your empty Sunday? Go to the office. Wife mad at you? Office again. Don’t feel like going jogging? Go to work. I do know a few maestros who use this as casual cover to conceal all sorts of graver misdeeds - cocaine, long infidelities, gambling problems - but I believe that most of these Dads really weren't hiding anything but the ability to sweep themselves apologetically out the door, show a badge to a friendly and long-known night security guard and shuffle upstairs to their last truly personal space, put on the Chamillionaire album too profane for the kitchen, check the fantasy basketball team, spread out the paperwork and pretend at self-direction for a few more fluorescent hours. I finally understood, but that understanding had flooded its banks at the first hard rain and never felt good. This is a sanctuary, sure, but I'm not supposed to sleep here.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that’s actually very difficcult to sleep at your office. There’s the simple discomfort of it, your medusa’s blanket of suit pants and ties, and there’s the fear of not waking up in time, of rubbing your palms against your eyes and yawning to find a random cross selection of co-workers, giggling and pointing their iPhones. The psychological weight if it does occur to you, how you’ve suddenly become the kind of guy who will occasionally sleep in his office, and no matter what the underlying reason might be, that’s still not the sort of guy you thought you were going to turn out to be. But I’ve slept in harder and rockier places, often for recreation, and the couch in the lunchroom really isn’t in the same category as a screefield at 6,000 feet so it is really only a matter of time and inattention before sleep is possible, even with the glow of the vending machines coming in under the edges of the tie I’d wrapped around my eyes to trick them into thinking I might be somewhere else. And in the last seconds before sleep, that’s what I spend my time thinking about. When I was younger, I often had the same thought before sleeping, not quite a dream, about how great it would be to sleep in the Portland Zoo. Although I understood it to be a criminal act, it always seemed somehow exempt from the rules, like even the police would understand my basically noble purpose and leave me dozing. The zoo, especially back then, wasn’t a high tech place and covered a very large area, and it had a train which rain from an exterior park into to the zoo and the park section was completely unguarded, not even fenced, with plentiful parking and not much lighting. It wouldn’t be more than a half mile walk in the dark along some tracks and up a hill to enter zoo grounds, and although my adult self understands the popularization of motion detectors and webcams between 1987 and 2011, I also assume that this was one of those things you probably could get away with, if you ever got around to doing it, if only because it’s just such a hassle to maintain any meaningful level of security across such a large area and so far from the city, to pay a security guard to sleep at his terminal while nothing ever happened for 1000 nights running. As for why the zoo and not something else, I have no clear answer. Something about becoming the sole observer, of not having my gaze diluted by the gaze of the crowds, of the animals reduced to shadows and sounds, the resurrection of the terror of the nighttime. But this makes it sound very gothic, a sort of horror movie tourism like looking at a cadaver to remind myself of mortality, and that’s not what I meant. What I had in mind was more a simple walk around, just one, and then maybe laying down on a clear night in the small lawn between the Elephant’s Paddock and what used to be the Alaskan Tundra, listening to the conversations of the elephants and the whisking grasses of the pacing wolves and knowing we have no choice but to accept that the world is full of wonder.*
*Caveat: I never slept on my office. There was a funeral, but it was two years ago. The part about the zoo is true. In the end, I did catch that last bus home. I really did try to sneak into a random judge’s chambers. The door really was locked. The absence of readership is changing things a little.**
**I’m out of here as soon as I can convince myself that it will be better somewhere else.***
***This may never happen.
Current Mood: She Works Hard For The Money
There are years, and a surprising number of them, when it is possible to pinpoint the moment of the end of summer - not any sort of calendared equidistance from equinox or almenac'd averages but the last snap of hot weather, the 10 day forecast with no happy ending. It's possible to get headfaked by October, find yourself blundering into a last gift of 86 and cloudless, but usually the last day for suntan lotion and riverbeer is somewhere in the middle part of September. It is far rarer that the last warm breath falls on a weekend and far more climactic on a Sunday than Saturday but so it was this year, sitting at the side of a river gone dark by 4 pm with the shadows of autumn in a canyon, clear in that way that turns the light green even this far from the Equator, cutting through pools already lousy with dead leaves.
Dogs are a primary theme of two of my favorite novels of all-time. The first, The Lost Steps (Alejo Carpentier, 1953) places the Age of Dogs somewhere back before the Age of Horses, back when we slept predominantly in huts and caves and the night was still a collection of terrors from which our dogs gave us our only real rescue other than fire, as far back as any time other than the Primeval, the "relentless and profane natural fornication" from which Herzog seems to borrow heavily in his lamentations against the Peruvian jungle over the filmings of Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo. The second, Riddley Walker, (Russell Hoban, 1980) takes one of the only interesting turns of post-apocalypse novelizing (fuck The Stand, which must also mean fuck The Passage) while also playing better games of etymological dysfunction than Cloud Atlas , but makes our story with dogs into a major point of an otherwise typical aftermath of one of those poorly specified, civilization destroying nuclear exchanges (no more interesting on its own terms than zombies or vampirism), as in the ensuing panic and shortages of digestible proteins, both dogs and people abandon their timeless understanding and set about eating each other out of necessity but in the mutual distrust that followed find themselves longing for the dimming memory of shared mealfires and scratches behind the ears. Both authors make the point that while we have domesticated everything from dolphins to tigers, only dogs truly choose to share our pain. And this is the cat lover's endless rally - "I can't respect an animal that chooses to make itself our slave." For you, then, there are not only cats but birds, bats, crickets, alligators, trilobites, mosquitoes, orangutan, most everything but the dog. The dog is unique in its capacity for joyful subjugation. There is sincerity in the wagged tail.
I signpost myself too loudly for this to surprise you but I'll say it anyhow: I've wanted a dog since forever. Like just about anybody, I grew up with a dog who I loved intensely and over whom I wept endlessly when she died quietly of old age at the end of my freshman year of college. Since then, I've cohabitated with a few random dogs for whom I was only marginally responsible and openly coveted the puppies of my more established friends. And I would've had one by now, if I could only forget sitting at four AM in the full lurching blush of my last moments before the whiskey puke, fumbling my house keys down the stairs behind the door, pawing quadripedal past the stacks of my dirty dishes and thinking in the last moments of even the echoes of lucidity that this, this apartment, this mess, this life, this absence of order, all of this sharp edged shit laying around everywhere, THIS IS NO PLACE FOR A FUCKING PUPPY. Puppies need fenced yards, puppies need clean floors, puppies need you to come home before dawn, puppies need to do the bulk of the vomiting. And so it is that the idea of the puppy gradually developed as one of the last few truly authentic remaining signposts (see also: children, cancer). In a time when many of the major bases have already been rounded - career steady, friends I won’t get bored with, hobbies challenged only by the absence of time, relationship questions answered, high-quality live-in booty from a very agreeable source, etc - the purchase of a dog seems like a crown point, a purchase which both presupposes and celebrates the existence of all of this other ultimately well entrenched and happily predictable shit, finally having it together enough to walk and water a dog without worrying who will handle it for me on those nights I don't get home from work until 4 in the morning (and those nights still occasionally happen, but I've got infrastructure).
But there's an inverse to all of this. If dogs could talk, they wouldn’t tell you about the catch, the Dark Side of Domestication, because this is their greatest trick, no less than grass being nice on the feet and cows being made of food. And so it is that Stacie and I have come to serve in the court of Queen Roadhouse* the First, the fluffy tyranny of the sort you get from a creature who has coevolved to rely on you for absolutely everything, to stick her wet nose in your neck in a way that says both "I love you" and "you and I have entered into an irrevocable arrangement and I do have my conditions.” Fifty five pounds of awkward muscle and teeth who just ain't had a real way to learn her own strength except on your skin and furniture, rolling the dice on a nightly walk tied to a creature with no sense of appropriate or polite or even friendly, all wagging tail for the two guys with pockmarks making a deal under a streetlight and nothing but growls and hackles for the five year old going by on the bike, even betraying her own basic canine mythologies ("they just know, you know, they can sniff out the bad people") with her wild errors of judgment. Slopping out into the rain at 9 pm for your nightly run because there are fewer people out, and who the fuck knows what would happen if she saw another dog. She bolted out the front door yesterday and terrified us for a very long five minutes with her dashes into the neighbors’ lawns, puppy paws slamming into flower beds, bounding around like Christmas came early and wagging her tail right up until my hands hit her collar at a full sprint. She sets us against eachother - the puppy is being bad, the puppy is just a puppy, do something, don't do anything, let her out of her crate, don't let her out (it's what she wants), she peed on the floor, she nipped at the kids, a houseguest actually slid in the shit neither of us new the puppy left at the top of the stairs, the mortification of this mannerless beast, all kisses and disaster, babystepping her way into "sit", "stay", "oh god, please don't jump on that baby." Dogs are not necessarily uniters.
But they do change everything. You find yourself weighing everything in terms of incentives and disincentives, deciding everything from how close you sit to the dog on the couch to whether you make eye contact with her during dinner based on whatever subtextual messages you might accidentally be sending. And this spreads, and pretty soon you’re doing the same thing with the defense attorneys and the baristas, trying not to reward negative behavior, trying to reaffirm good behavior, always alert to the accidental mismessage. In a funny way, this is a triumph of pure economics, of trying to craft the world around semi-rational systems of risk and reward, reconfiguring your whole life in terms of desired and undesired behavior. I saw a pair of parents who ride my bus cooing over their three year old child at the exact moment he started screaming and throwing cheetos on the floor of the bus and I remembered thinking that they were guilty of bad incentives, of subconsciously coaxing their child to throw cheetos, and in that moment I didn’t like them very much.
And this is the other great power of dogs. Cesar Millan, who I have started reading obsessively but not without an aftertaste of taciturn suspicion, like the dude is making it too easy in the same way the Crocodile Hunter used to make it too easy, does make the point that dogs end up being wrecked because it is so easy to allow them to become a referendum on your own personhood. He attributes this to their supernatural ability to become corrupted by body language, negative energy, the bad day you’re emoting but not admitting. I’m less ethereal - I think dogs get fucked up because they are always the failing product of your idealized self and not your actual self. The actual self jags around being ambivalent and moody and human, but every last lisp of literature on the subject says you can’t be that person around the dog, you have to be perpetually calm, you have to remember to always exit the room before the dog, you have to be calm-assertive, not angry-assertive, and you have to do this all of the time. I suppose the same principles would work as well on nasty co-workers, screaming children, angry spouses, but it is only for our dogs that we are expected to suddenly become Buddhists. For these other antagonists, we admit our frailty and settle for screaming and backbiting. The idealized you also would not buy a dog unless you were prepared to go running for an hour every day to give the dog the exercise they need. You have never been willing to run for an hour before now, even though it is no less the exercise that you need. Even if it’s raining, even if you’re tired.
This hope flares eternal. You’ve never been able to do it for yourself, not ever, but you somehow believe you will do it for the dog.
And then the dog proves you right. Or wrong. Either way, you’re suddenly running a little more often, because the spaz on the couch doesn’t act right until after you’ve run her around the neighborhood and besides, the guilt of puppy eyes is just so much worse than your own softening midsection.
I see why we buy them and I see why they really do manage to change us around from time to time in ways we’d never managed to do for ourselves. I also see why the typical American canine has far greater nutritional standards and resources than the average citizen of Ecuador. We understand intellectually that they do not actually care if the food is organic and might actually rather eat shit than eat the barley/cod/arugula kibble you’re buying for eight dollars a pound but that doesn’t matter, you’re externalizing. You might not have time to eat a salmon fillet and brown rice for dinner but fuck you, the dog does. There’s something appealing about the inherent neurosis of dog ownership, like you might be able to take this totally disproportionate love affair and make it into something that doesn’t leave you or the dog worse than when you found eachother. And of course you can fuck it right up, too, for both of your sakes. But just look at her!
For you, my kingdom.
*I let the kids name her. It’s Roadie for short.**
**We haven’t trained her to roundhouse kick. Yet.
So I've been gone a long time again. Some of this has to do with summer, unquestionably the season in which we are most beset with better shit to do, a smaller part of it is probably the slow, sad hemorrhage of interest in livejournal itself, but the biggest share of my inattentiveness is down to something totally new - for the first time in my life, I'm bored with the internet. All of it. And this is new, because I have no doubt that as recently as 2007 I was very pleased about the Internet, excited about it's intellectual and social possibilities and not thinking of the hours given over as lost or wasted. But now I'm tired of Facebook, tired of metafilter, tired of metacritic, tired of E-Mail, tired of memes, tired of the honey badger and the double rainbow and the constant demands of contemporaneity. Most of all, I think I'm tired of Google Reader, or at least blame Google Reader for why I'm so tired.
I'm highly ambivalent about Google Reader to the point where I have never reached a full conclusion about whether I consider the technology to be absolutely indispensable or one of the worst things to happen to me and my basic ideas of reading, pleasure and leisure. I suppose I put it in a very special set of essential but evil technologies along with the car and the cellular phone- legitimately life-changing, but not without forcing me into a bunch of habits I don't enjoy. The car compresses distance and lets me see places and people I couldn't get anywhere near without it (consider that anyone further than 10 miles away would mostly fall into this category and so almost every hike I go on is directly attributable to the car), but this in turn has obligated me to spend more and more time in the car itself, or attending to the car, cleaning the car, feeding the car, finding places to stash the car, worrying about whether this fourth beer might be too much for the larger prerogatives of the car, paying monthly gratuities against risks that may not happen because the car is so pregnant with latent dangers that I must tithe against the possibility of their consummation. The cellphone, similarly, has done wonderful things for efficiency and connectivity but has also institutionalized the 24 hour work day, partially eliminated the sanctity of the weekend and made us into social abominations..
When I was younger, I got ahold of a Dungeons and Dragons manual, not so much to play but to get intoxicated and flip through with my friends and scribble notes in the margins. One of the best sections was our long list of slightly parodied magical items, +2 staves of buttfucking, rings of overcommitment, etc. My favorite was the Endless Bag of Fried Chicken.
Google Reader is the Endless Bag of Fried Chicken.
I won't go into the dreary mechanics of why Google Reader is an endless bag of fried chicken - I think anyone who uses it understands - but the metaphor for force-feeding seems fair. I spend all morning eating a lot of chicken - really fucking good chicken, chicken of a sort I know I enjoy and went looking for on purpose - but the bag keeps refilling and is full again by the afternoon. Take a hike, there's more chicken waiting when you get back. Run a bath, more chicken. Make a phone call, more chicken. And if there gets to be too much chicken it can be thrown away, but not without the twinge of real remorse about wasting all of that great chicken and besides, not all of the chicken is the same. Some of it is less good and some of it is great and occasionally the chicken isn't chicken at all but some sort of comedic or existential God Chicken which you forward to all of your friends and spend a lot of time being glad you found.
What I've come to suspect about Google Reader is that even apart from the vague anxiety of trying to have a meaningful interaction with the 90 or so meticulously robot-selected entries generated per day, I'm not actually retaining anything I read. I have a certain sense of enjoying what I'm doing - the articles are usually interesting (that's why I chose them) and I like reading them while I'm doing it but an hour later I usually can't say much about what I've read, except insofar as I know enough to be able to get back to it through Google (thanks again!) if I decide I want to check back in later on. This makes sense - I don't actually read 90 articles a day, but just flipping through the tag lines means a rough 2700 separate topic headings to be briefly considered per month with a smaller subset more vigorously read. And because we are invariably overambitious, partially because of all of the dopamine involved in the information drip, we've got too many of those things coming in at a time. I would love my Google Reader ten times as much at one tenth of the entries but then I would run askance of the other great subtextual motivator of life both on and off of the RSS feeder - the Fear of Missing Out.
(It is ever possible that the next article is the best article and you WILL NOT KNOW IF YOU DON'T CHECK JUST TO BE SURE)
So now Google Reader tells me (without even robot irony) that a neurological study has concluded that the internet is changing the ability we retain information - basically, in lieu of retaining the information itself, we retain a specific sense of where the information can be found, almost in duplication of our browser's bookmarking function. The study itself tested recall ability for items which participants were told would or would not be cached and made available later if needed. Naturally, our brains are more attentive to information which is temporary, ephemeral or uncertain. This makes sense, but in a time when everything is cached, the neurological preference is to remember the source over the content.
I wonder about this and what it means. I can make a clumsy relation back to the old preferencing of spatial memory - remembering where to find the berry patch, which mushrooms are poisonous, etc - but I also wonder back to a time when books were relatively scarce, expensive and generally found in libraries. Scholars were obligated to memorize what they wanted to learn precisely because they could not rely on getting to another copy of the same book. Even now, I find myself recalling more when I read a magazine off-line than I do reading the same copy on the internet. I suspect that half of this is attentional, since I can't have another 15 tabs open and compulsively click across them at 30 second intervals, but that the other half has something to do with knowing on some level that the magazine will eventually either get tossed out or stashed in a cabinet somewhere and the odds of actually returning to the article are relatively small. This is still somewhat true on the internet but Google places all of our intellectual corpses on a permanent altar of resurrection. I can run searches for overgeneralized sketches of my source material and get right back to what I wanted in 30 seconds or less - among Google's greatest strengths is the ability to make sense of our half-forgotten approximations. And so coming back to 900 unread entries starts to seem like a real bummer, not just because reading all of that REALLY INTERESTING SHIT starts to seem like work even as the idea of just skipping it trips the weird fear of missing out on the good shit I might be missing and the reading process itself plays icky alchemical games with my cognitive neurology. I suppose I also get fatter, just sitting around like that, but whatever.
For all of this, I have absolutely no desire to do away with or stop using Google Reader. Unlike the car and the cellphone, both of which have the significant collateral effect of allowing our employers to more effectively intrude on the sanctity of our nights and weekends, google reader is a technology far more on the side of labor than management. I've always been of the opinion that while the self-employed may arguably sin against themselves by slacking, those of us working for essentially indifferent bureaucracies should view ourselves at war with a force interested in extracting ever more labor for ever less cost and rationalize this predominantly with a mythology of meritocracy and promotion (actually paranoia and competition) which can be resisted partially through Google Reader. Otherwise stated: I get my work done on time, fuckers. The fault is gluttony, the inability to keep from adding additional feeds, the instinct to eat all of the chicken and the strange hesitation (guilt or whatever) that we feel when we stop eating with food still on the table. I can't imagine life without Google Reader, insofar as it already seems like too much work to dig through all of this depressing noise. If the two options are abandonment and perfection, I suppose the only real option is perfection - finding the right feeds and holding. So here's what I propose to the 8 of you who are still listening:
Those of you who use Google Reader, list out your Top 5 most indispensable feeds, with a premium on anything which doesn't hit me with 95 updates a week.* I'll do the same, and maybe I can finally perfect the internet. And even as I realize that a solicitation for new kinds of chicken is a terrible response to gluttony, I'm as curious what y'all are eating as I am concerned with the dynamics of eating too much. So I'll ask.
My Top 5 Google Reader Feeds (in no order):
The Onion A.V. Club - Obvious, but still the best widesweep of all media I've found in one place.
Basketbawful - I watch basketball not so much for the game.
And then there's this place, introduced by ElGee Maria Sputnik and briefly, shiningly my favorite of all blogs before it became irregular at precisely the moment I discovered it and shortly thereafter suffered a terminal drop off in frequency and quantity.
3QuarksDaily - Spastic and pretentious but a good "Best of" aggregator which is brainier than Kottke and less paralyzing than Metafilter, which is a great resource for people who have absolutely nothing to do. Found via colinmarshall who is himself one of the more interesting (and prolific) feed(er)s both on and off the ElJee.
OKCupid.com - OKCupid has one of the largest and most interesting voluntary datasets around and they do awesome and horny things with their statistics. Lots of graphs and penises and threesomes.
Do not list PostSecret.
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