Sunday, August 28, 2016

Where to Invade Next

In high school the guy who made my life hell didn’t even know I existed. It seemed like everything he did, though, was targeted towards me and my friends: every stupid, callous action, every bit of trash-talking, his overreactions and underreactions, his weak-ass moral code… And for all his hate of me and my kind, I gloried in hating him right back. I made fun of him, my friends all talked shit about him; I even used his face for a dart board in my room.

I am of course referring to George W. Bush.

I had this poster in my room.

And then I went off to college, and this asshole followed me there for another four miserable years.

But during high school I had a lot of friends who supported me. Aaron McGruder was one – when the country lost its mind and backed Bush McGruder stood firm and kept reminding people the President was an idiot. 

One of the best comic strips the U.S. ever ran.

Michael Moore was another. After deciding to go to school in Colorado, after Columbine, his documentary was very influential for me. I remember buying it on VHS while in high school – and kids in my class would get together and watch it.

Most of my VHS I’d replaced over the years, but somehow I’d not gotten the DVD of Bowling for Columbine, and, while purchasing other movies last week, found it on sale for $2. So I bought it and rewatched it for the first time since I was 17.

Parts of it have not aged well. Parts have. It succeeded, I guess, in that it made me angry all over again. By comparison, when Fahrenheit 9/11 came out my family stood in line at the theater for it – but I hardly recall any of that film, and, after all these years, remembered most of Bowling. That’s due to multiple viewings versus one, but it also just struck a chord that Fahrenheit didn’t – because Fahrenheit didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.

And I'm sure that's why Bowling won an Oscar and Fahrenheit didn't.

This problem is echoed a bit in Where to Invade Next. However, it is a weak echo. Most of the film is rather fabulous, and most of it I did not already know – or at least not the specifics. Moore travels to different countries and unabashedly cherry-picks the best elements of their societies to bring back to the U.S. Obvious spoilers ahead (and throughout the remainder, really):

Here, then, are those cherry-picked ideas:

Italy – eight weeks paid for vacations, honeymoons, and family leave
France – amazing school lunches and real sex education
Finland – how to do education right (no homework, 20 hours of class a week, etc)
Slovenia – free college tuition

So these countries thematically cover birth to adulthood. Then he focuses on working conditions in Germany with work/life balance before moving on to:

Portugal – drug tolerance and death penalty abolishment
Norway – prison reform

Here he pauses, acknowledging the socialist tone of the film so far. We’ve all known, for a while now, that Scandinavia does it better. He asks “Where next? Sweden? Denmark?” before settling on the most unexpected choice, Tunisia, chosen because it has passed a women’s equal rights amendment, with half of their parliament being female, and all women have free state-sponsored access to abortion clinics. In Tunisia. Following this thread he looks at Iceland, both its feminist culture and how they jailed their bankers after the 2008 financial crisis.

Tunisian women

Unexpectedly he takes the final segment back to Germany. Here, with a friend, they reminisce, having both been present during the first nights that people started chipping away at the Berlin Wall, and how within the week, the Wall was gone. He marvels at this, and repeats his still-present astonishment “Built to last forever.”

All of the ideas he “claims” from his “invasions” are doable in the United States. And he addresses issues like the difference in taxes (deflating the arguments in the process). They seem impossible now, but five years ago so did universal gay marriage. Especially important is how each good idea is backed by a coherent rationale. Regular people explain why the changes came about, for example studies of stress or societal norms regarding human dignity. Everyday people have been taught the societal values, considered them, and embraced them as the rational steps their governments must take to improve the lives of everyone. It was all so reasonable, and sensible, which Moore backs up by often discussing the issue in question before and after these changes – with the after always being a clear improvement.

Tunisian women have free access to abortion clinics… It was those moments which were hard to take. This is a problem, the flip side to Moore’s optimism is, of course, that it exposes and reminds you of how fucked up we are in many ways. The footage of the prisons in America was, not surprisingly but still painfully, horrible. His segment on Germany, besides worker’s rights, also addressed how their national education system deals with Nazism and the Holocaust, by acknowledging it, head on, and not pretending it didn’t happen, or burying it out of embarrassment. I couldn’t help but think of the case in Oklahoma where they tried to stop teaching AP US History because, they said, it emphasizes “what is bad about America”. I hate to break it you, but much of our history is really that wretched. And we have to own it to move on.

This should not be a thing in 2016.


So this documentary was very pleasant. It reminded me why I liked Moore’s work, and how much further we have to go. All of his conquered ideas were, to my way of thinking, good ones. I’d love to live in a U.S. where these ideas were adopted (many are straight out of Sanders’ playbook, of course). And after the Berlin Wall his very last point was to show how each of these ideas wasn’t actually derived from other countries – they had all originated right here, in the United States. We could, if we wanted to, bring them back. That’s the real way we could make America great again.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Back to High School

I'm teaching my first high school class in six years.

In 2010 I left Reno and my one-year contract, and spent six months sleeping on my dad's floor in the Bay Area. To pay my student loans I got a job tutoring a middle school girl. While commuting up and down the peninsula I filled out paperwork, got accepted to, and prepared to teach abroad in Singapore.

The students in Singapore were admittedly high school age. But over there those four years are 12-16. My students were past that - young adults who were doing two years of junior college prior to entering University. They were, by the test scores, the best in the world - second in math, fourth in science, fifth in reading. The reality was more complex, but it was college - my classes had hundreds of kids. I never really learned all their names. I stood in front of a crowd and talked into a mic in a lecture hall. In my seminars we just went over more PowerPoints - because that's what I was required to do. I left for Southeast Asia in December and came back one year later, to the day.

Then I spent six months travelling America, sleeping on couches of indulgent friends from college.

I landed on my mom's couch, in Boston. For a few months I searched for jobs. I'd never intended to return to the East Coast. In the under-croft of Trinity Church (where it was quiet) I landed a job at a boarding school in Connecticut.

Again, the students were high school age, but when I looked at the art on the wall...when I started teaching... The deficits were so noticeable. I told my AP students to save their money and not take the test - they always bombed my quizzes, and couldn't be bothered to turn in their work. My Art History elective had a single student to start - by the end of the semester we had three. 

The reason I'd gotten the job was I'd worked this population before - severe emotional and behavioral disorders. 

They were good kids, and I'm so proud of some of them for making it. I hope the others get there someday. The classes I taught, though, weren't really real. I had a special niche at the school for teaching the tough stuff - AP, Philosophy, Art History. I taught World History for a semester and the students flipped out because they weren't get As for participation. Parents flipped too. Remarkably, the administration had my back - most of the time it felt like an us v. them, both regarding the admin and the students.

After giving notice at the two-year mark, with nothing lined up, I lucked out and got a position back in the Bay. But for two years I've been stuck teaching middle school - which I have no background in, and the content has been technology - which I assiduously avoided when I was a history teacher.

I was told I'd be given a social studies position after a bit, but I'm entering year three, and all I've secured is a high school elective of Film Studies.

This past week was the first week back at school. And for the first time since 2010, I'm teaching high schoolers something in the social sciences department.

*     *     *

Back in Reno I'd taught Sociology (which I largely made up based on my college Social and Developmental Psych courses, peppered with whatever Anthro I could remember), World and US History. US was the hardest, since I'd not really studied it since high school myself - it was already clear World would be my specialty.

Most of the time, looking back on those classes, I'm not too proud.

My biggest difficulty has always been grading. I was never the A student - so it's hard for me to know what that looks like. I was always a C student, when my headmaster, a relic from an earlier era, used to remind parents there's no shame in "gentlemen's Cs". C was average - fine. Not bad. Nothing special, but not bad.

Now everyone wants As. And for my entire academic career I never got those. One time, from fifth grade to graduate school, I got an A+. It was Fall semester of my Junior year of college. The class was Teaching and Learning. It helped me feel like I was doing the right thing by going into teaching.

Back in Reno I had a lot of students ask for letters of recommendation. Some Singaporean students asked as well. Even a couple of kids in Connecticut - but that was the gig that changed me. I'd always been Mr. Professor - suit jacket, briefcase, all that jazz. The right sort of teacher to ask for a letter. When my boarding school students were so vulnerable I had to shed some of that. On top of my teacher role I was also in loco parentis.

Coming to teach at a normal school, working with young kids has actually helped. The age gap steadied me these past two years with redeveloping the Mr. Professor persona superficially. But the change hasn't gone away. Since Connecticut, I no longer act. Teaching isn't a performance anymore. These days I talk to students as I talk to anyone else - just watching my cursing.

So when this week kicked off the 2016-17 school year, it was a jolt to be teaching high school kids again. Many things struck me. They're less talkative. They're less likely to act out - but more willing to be rude to your face. And after two years of eleven year-olds, they were harder to read than I remembered.

I was always ill at ease at my first teaching job - I assumed the students could smell I was a phony. Every single day was an indulgence by them. They sat quietly and didn't push back too much, because they needed me to pass them so they could move on with their lives. They knew the score. So they didn't give me a hard time, not out of respect, but because I was like an edgy dog - if you moved the wrong way I'd start barking, and it was easier to tread carefully under my stare and persistent growl.

Back in Reno... Been thinking a lot about that job lately, and that part of my life. It was the only time, really, I did what I'd trained for - taught social studies to high schoolers in a typical school. (I mean, it was a low-income serving charter, but that population describes most of America's students it seems, these days.) This Film Studies elective, which has three sections, is my new chance to do it better. 

But despite all that's happened since I was twenty-three - any questionable growth - I've still not become an A+ student. And sometimes I wonder if that's why I'm still doing this teaching. Every year it's an embarrassment when, for staff morale, we share why we got into the gig. Everyone else comes off the exercise feeling the rejuvenation of renewed focus on their life's purpose. I feel shitty for having lied again.

One of my good professors, Greg, asked me once. I told him the truth:

"Teaching is seen as noble."

And when someone says they admire the work I'm doing - having never seen me in the classroom, it kind of sucks. I've no real faith I'm one of the good ones, because my answer is not everyone else's. Nor are my answers to the other questions we get asked. This year it was "What's something you learned from a student?" I couldn't come up with anything. For five minutes I sat, and glanced at others writing. A week later and I'm still blank. After an hour of listening to how relationships are so important I feel awkward, not glowing. I don't want to get to know my students. It's hard enough to put names to faces. Their successes and failures are not why I get up in the morning. The great teachers I had in my life aren't like me. They cared.

I know I've made a huge difference in the lives of a few, and that's nice, if not motivating. At my first job, only, I mentioned the other reasons I'd gone into teaching. Besides society's noble view, which could maybe help me down the line, it was also out of a concern for civilization. The teacher I was sharing with was fascinated. Her response had been the standard - to make a difference in children's lives. Entering the field that reason, that motivation,  hadn't even really occurred to me. Teaching was bigger than helping needy kids - it was to be a vanguard of civilization. Teachers make sure society doesn't end up batshit crazy and stupid. We fight to preserve reason. That excited me - and doing it through the lens of history, sharing the fascinating stories I was so passionate about.

Returning to high school social studies, even just Film Studies, brought a bit of that back.

For two years I've been hitting snooze on my alarm - because I have no desire to go to work in the morning. (Except Wednesdays, when I hang out with my fabulous Tech department coworkers. Only fun part of the week.) Halfway through the first year of Tech I redid the curriculum to incorporate more history, just so I wouldn't want to jump out a window from boredom. But when I taught history in the past, I never had to hit snooze, because I was going to spend the day doing something fun and important - teaching history to the rising generation, that they might learn the crucial lesson that reasons we're here are arbitrary, and therefore we have the power to change our world and make it in the image we see fit. That's the attitude I'm trying to bring to this elective, even though I've no idea whether or not I can do my job, and still feel like I'm faking it after all these years.

On Friday, after I provided manically excited context for the rise of German expressionism in the 20s, a girl in Film Studies said "You should be a history teacher."

And, honest to god, I don't know if she meant it sarcastically or sincere.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Académie Américain?

Many years ago, never mind how long exactly, I learned of the French Academy. I immediately thought it was a cool idea: 40 seats, each one rotating with the greatest minds of the Arts and Sciences - the most notable contributors to French culture and life. In place since 1635, it is a veritable 'whose who' of great French people. Their not-subtle motto is "to immortality".

The seats are numbered, and have included: Seat Two: Montesquieu, Seat Three: Georges Clemenceau and Marguerite Yourcenar, Seat Five: Joseph Fourier, Seat Seven: Henri Bergson, Seat Thirteen: Jean Racine, Seat Fourteen: Pierre Corneille and Victor Hugo, Seat Seventeen: Louis Pasteur and Jacques Cousteau, Seat Eighteen: Alexis de Tocqueville, Seat Twenty-Four: La Fontaine, Marivaux, Sully Prudhomme, and Henri Poincare, Seat Twenty-Nine: Claude Levi-Strauss, Seat Thirty-One: Jean Cocteau, Seat Thirty-Three: Voltaire, Seat Thirty-Five: Georges Cuvier, Seat Thirty-Eight: Anatole France and Paul Valery, and so on.

Now, the purpose of the Academie is to protect what the French hold most dear: their language. But as I conceived of an American version of this traditional body, I figured it would be best to have such notables advise the country in a meaningful way. The Seats, too, should be fixed, so as to not end up with lopsided membership (fourteen novelists, for example).

After considering the roles that would be suited to the task I went ahead and made some basic rules:

American Congressional Academy

Purpose: To make an annual report to Congress and the public of the areas in which the United States should direct its energies, financial, intellectual, and professional, with a focus on problem-solving.

Membership requirements: 1) American Citizen and resident for at least 10 years. 2) Significant innovation or influence in the field. 3) Not currently serving in the United States Legislature, Judiciary, or Executive branches of government in an elected position. 4) Must be able to attend the three annual meetings in person

Foreign membership requirements: 1) Significant innovation or influence in the field, of global recognition. 2) Must be able to attend at least one of the three annual meetings in person.


Organization: The Academy consists of twenty-five permanent Seats, each representing a different facet of American life. One individual serves as Secretary General, whose position must also reflect a significant contribution to the field of Activism. All of the Academy Membership requirements apply to the Secretary General. The Seats, initially filled by Congress, are lifetime appointments, allowing for an Academy Member to resign at any time, with possibility of reappointment. Seats are appointed by a 2/3 majority of the sitting Academy Members. The Secretary General is also appointed by 2/3 majority of the Academy Members. In addition, five International Seats will also be appointed by the Academy Members, by 2/3 majority. Being an International Member provides the same contribution privileges, however they do not vote on new membership of any type except Secretary General. As with Academy Membership, International Members are lifetime appointments, but may resign with possibility of reappointment. The Secretary General may be recalled from the post by a 2/3 majority vote of the entire Membership, consisting of both the Academy and International Seats. If recalled, the individual may be appointed to a vacant Seat, or later reappointed as Secretary General, or Academy Member.

So far so good. With this in mind, I came up the Seats, and suggested inaugural members:

Inaugural 2016 Academy Membership:

Seat 1, Health: Louis Wade Sullivan, 82

Seat 2, Physics: Steven Weinberg, 83

Seat 3, Prose: Toni Morrison, 85

Seat 4, Mathematics: Persi Diaconis, 71

Seat 5, Poetry: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 97

Seat 6, Chemistry: EJ Corey, 88

Seat 7, Law: Sandra Day O’Connor, 86

Seat 8, Education: Sal Khan, 39

Seat 9, Technology: Elon Musk, 45

Seat 10, Music: Wayne Shorter, 82

Seat 11, History: David McCullough, 83

Seat 12, Architecture: I.M Pei, 99

Seat 13, Journalism: Gloria Steinem, 82

Seat 14, Human Rights: Dolores Huerta, 86

Seat 15, Economics: Amory Lovins, 68

Seat 16, Anthropology and Sociology: Jared Diamond, 78

Seat 17, Astronomy and Cosmology: Neil deGrasse Tyson, 57

Seat 18, Biology: E.O. Wilson, 87

Seat 19, Design: Paula Scher, 67

Seat 20: Philosophy: Saul Kripke, 75

Seat 21, Two-Dimensional Art: Kara Walker, 46

Seat 22, Three-Dimensional Art: Maya Lin, 56

Seat 23, Psychology: Philip Zimbardo, 83

Seat 24, Theater Art: Lin-Manuel Miranda, 36

Seat 25, Film and Television: Spike Lee, 59

Secretary General (Activism): Angela Davis, 72

Inaugural 2016 International Members:

Art: Ai Weiwei, 58, China

Science: Jane Goodall, 82, United Kingdom

Social Science: Muhammad Yunus, 76, Bangladesh

Politics: Kofi Annan, 78, Ghana

Law and Journalism: Tawakkol Karman, 37, Yemen


Given the ages of the membership above I'm pretty sure Seats would open very soon. Any suggestions on who should be elected to the Seats next in the various categories? Or were any of the Inaugural Seats poorly filled? I'd be interested on folks opinions.

I called up everyone I thought of, and they very graciously flew out to Berkeley for a photo op. Terribly nice of them.

Friday, July 1, 2016

New Definition of 'Middle Class' in U.S. to Apply in 2017

STEVEN LISBERGER - JUNE 30, 2016
Over five days experts gathered at the historic Mount Washington Hotel, located in Bretton Woods, NH, where in 1944 modern economics was born. Their task was to determine - once and for all - a definition of ‘middle class’. “There’s surprisingly little agreement, not just among academics, but also policymakers, which is a problem,” said Mani Ratnam, a research fellow of the Lawrence J. Breckenridge Institute, a long-time socioeconomic bellwether.  “For example, the poverty line provides a pretty clear lower-threshold, but we found in a study of 218 government-issued publications that the discrepancy for upper threshold could be as much as fifty thousand dollars a year.”  Or twice the income of a family of four living at the poverty line.
Convening last Sunday, June 26, the national leaders on the issue fell into a routine of breakout meetings in the morning, followed by full-assembly lunch meetings in the Rosebrook section of the Hotel, looking out onto the mountains. “It was some of the best food I’ve ever had,” said Chen Kaige, Nobel-laureate and Economics Professor Emeritus at Duke. “After the spectacular meals, instead of afternoon sessions, we usually didn’t have any energy, and just went back to our rooms.”
It was the second-to-last day when the breakthrough came, fittingly while in the Rosebrook. “I was sitting next to Elsa Morante,” an independent researcher who published The Middle (Class) Way in 2009, “and noticed she was taking a picture of her lobster baked with gruyere and new potato shavings. That’s when I hit upon the definition we’d all been looking for in charts and statistics for four days.” 
With great excitement, according to the fellow members, the idea was shouted across the room to the conference head by Alex Mackendrick, the man sitting next to Morante’s lobster-doting photography: “Food porn!” “And with those two words, the room erupted,” he recalls. 
About half an hour was spent wrangling over the new official definition, to be implemented in all U.S. publications starting in January of 2017. The main contention was whether you qualified as ‘middle class’ by being able to afford taking food porn pictures at restaurants or if you had to produce the salivating-worthy dishes - and pics - at home. “There was definitely a pro-restaurant faction,” Kaige disclosed. “I was one of them!” But in the end, the at-home delegation won out. To be properly middle class in America means you must have the means, know-how, and camera filters to pull off food porn in your own kitchen. The conference attendees upheld the motion almost unanimously, 136-14.
With the decision made, and rather hastily written up, the panel dispersed, to enjoy the “food comas” brought on by “a truly marvelous spread”. The final day of the conference was mainly spent in the Rosebrook. The White House, whose top representative at the “New Bretton Woods” was Deputy Treasury Secretary Al Jolson, issued a statement this afternoon. In it the President lauded a new definition which he said “will replace a confusing, and sometimes contradictory set of numbers” with “a common-sense understanding all Americans can get behind.”
Additional reporting provided by Reuters

Monday, June 27, 2016

Liberals Are More Patriotic Than Conservatives

"Nationalism does nothing but teach you how to hate people that you've never met and all of a sudden you take pride in accomplishments you had no part in whatsoever...

"'Fuck the French! If we hadn't saved their ass in two World Wars they'd be speaking German right now!'

"Oh, was that us? That was us? That was me and you, Tommy? We saved the French? Jesus - I know I blacked out a little bit after that fourth shot of jagermeister last night, but I don't remember - I remember we went through the Wendy's drive-through... But I don't remember saving the French!

"I don't remember that at all. I went through the last ten calls on my cellphone and there's nothing incoming or outgoing to the French looking for muscle on a project. I checked my pants - it has no mud-stains on the knees from where we're garroting krauts in the trenches at Verdun.

"I think we didn't do anything but watch sports bloopers while we got hammered. I think we should shut the fuck up."

This, from Doug Stanhope back in 2007, is a rather good send-up of the American conservative nationalist. It's the same fraud that angers us, instinctively, when politicians say 'thoughts and prayers' and do nothing. Actions are important - and words without action is, rightfully, seen as worthless, hypocritical, or out-of-touch. Nationalistic statements like Tommy's above are of this worthless stripe.

No, Tommy, you don't get to take credit for the Wars, because you weren't there.

What has happened in America is that we've conflated 'nationalism' with 'tribalism'. It's the same irrationality as sports teams. Unless my blog has an unexpected fan-base you, gentle reader, have never won the World Series or the Stanley Cup or the Superbowl or any of that. You did nothing to make that victory happen. You did not train for years and make the game-winning play. Instead you just so happen to have a certain area code, and therefore identify, wrongfully, with a team that happens to play there.

Sports fans who like teams they have nothing to do with are more pure, to me. If a kid in Austin has a fondness for the Seattle Seahawks, just because she thinks they're a good sports franchise - I can get behind that. But decking yourself in the faux accomplishments of paid professionals, most of whom don't come from your town or are willing to abandon it for money, is not something to be proud of, in any rational sense. By all means do go - enjoy a baseball game, or a basketball game, or a rugby game, any game you like - that's great. But don't say "My team won!" Really? I was unaware of your managerial side-line as head coach for the Lakers. That must be exhausting on top of your commitments as a Guest Supervisor at Wal*Mart.

This sort of stuff is irrational. But it makes perfect tribal sense.  And we get this inculcated since childhood, for example with school sports. We train our kids to feel like the Hawks from area code 924 are so superior to the Crusaders from area code 922 - because in this area code a handful of preteens played basketball better this one time.

Which is crazy.

Tribalism is weird, and I sort of think as a nation we need to get past it. It's one of those deep-seated illogicalities which go typically unquestioned. If it remained sequestered to the multi-billion dollar world of sport I would be annoyed, but I wouldn't mind too much. Unfortunately, it has infected, and overwhelmed, our definition of 'nationalism' - and that I have a problem with.

Now, to be fair, nationalism is almost always geographically-bound. At its roots it is inherently arbitrary in that way. The exceptions to geographic sentiment are equally arbitrary based on things such as race or religion. This is the other edge of the sword we use to strike down racism. If the argument runs, contra racists, that you generalize negative stereotypes about a whole group of people, then you can't generalize positive stereotypes about them either, for the same reason. To do so would be equally ill-thought-out.

We are all individuals, and the fact that we are white, or Jewish, or what have you, cannot be accepted as a defining characteristic for our behaviors. Klansmen aren't racists because they're white - they're racists because they are assholes. We choose our actions, and, yes, for some people the constraints of society are significant based on these stereotypes. A 20-year old American white male has, because of racism, a very different life than a 20-year old American black male.

So this, racial, religious, or ethnic intolerance, is an example of how tribalism is insidious. Tribes once made sense, in the Olduvai gorge of Tanzania. But nowadays they are constructs - grounded on stereotypes that are irrational and harmful. And we need to apply this to geographic stereotypes as well. Just because I live in a certain place gives me no claims to it - positively or negatively.

I live, and grew up in, the Bay Area. I was born in San Francisco. But it's not my city. As Doug Stanhope might point out:

"Really? You built that bridge? I'm amazed. You see, I thought it was some guy back in the 1930s. Clearly either you've aged very well or my memory is rather foggy. And when were you going to tell me you had an engineering degree?"

San Francisco is not my city. I didn't lay the cable car tracks, or rebuild after the fire of 1906. I don't own the Giants or the Warriors franchises. No one elected me Mayor. On a whim my parents decided to live in the Bay Area when I was born. And if they'd chosen to live in say, Westport, CT instead that wouldn't be my city either.

*

Unlike most countries, America actually is fairly unique, in how we got here. We have three basic stories in the United States - the Native American, the slave, and the immigrant. Those are your only options. Other countries have these options, as well - Brazil, for example. But when you consider the demographics of Brazil, most of the immigrants, of Portuguese extraction, did their colonizing around five hundred years ago. In the US our immigrant story is very long and complicated, and is seen as an essential characteristic of our nation. Once we'd slaughtered and stole the swath of continent from the English colonies to Spanish New Spain, we kept letting people in. We kept encouraging immigrants to arrive and populate this new empire. We borrowed and embraced a whole mishmash of cultural ephemera, ideas, language, and bric-a-brac.

From the Germans we got delis, and "American" style beer. From the Italians, famously, we developed pizza, listed by many Americans as their favorite food, and got a taste for pasta. Even the word 'cookie' comes from the Dutch, who weren't exactly a big part of the story, yet historians also believe it was a Dutch immigrant, Louis Lassen, who invented the hamburger. Nowadays in any supermarket you would expect to find "fresh" sushi and no town is complete without Chinese take-out. And what late-night craving can't be satisfied with a tasty burrito (a dish developed by Mexican immigrants not in Mexico, but in California's Central Valley)?

We tell our college students to get by on ramen, watch classic American films about the mafia, and, once again from the Dutch, lift a groundhog out of a hole to determine the weather. (Apparently, in Europe they used a badger, which seems far riskier. Badgers do not like to be poked, I am told.) Christmas wreaths come to us from the Irish, as do jack-o'-lanterns for Halloween. MadTV does sketches about a student who is just an "Average Asian" and commercials advertise southern, black, soul food to predominately white audiences.

Immigration is who we are. But with this new tribalist approach to nationalism there's need of a reckoning.

Nationalism's definition, pretty universally, includes a shared, semi-mythic, historical past. And we've got this down pat, from Disney's "Pocahontas" to Broadway's "Hamilton" we are really good mythologizing and celebrating our shared cultural past. No American is alive today who fought in the Civil War, but standing in the presence of the Lincoln Memorial has become cinematic shorthand for weighing heavy decisions. Cultural inheritance, and a mythic past, we can check off the list.

...Until you hit the 1950s. That's when the shared cultural past splits, and it has never really come together since. I began to notice this as an American History teacher. Consider the difference between how we portray the 1930s to the 1950s: When talking about the 30s the tone is compassionate and respectful of the sub-groups of Americans. Textbooks take a plaintive tone regarding tenements in New York, as well as an approving commentary on the Harlem Renaissance. The plight of the Okies fleeing the dustbowl is rendered empathetically. Textbooks and curricula render a respectful tribute to minority cultures and movements up through the War.

But the 1950s are different. Instead of multiple stories of how Americans lived during this period there is, instead, a debate on what is "real" America - a debate that continues to this day. Is it the suburban, " Mad Men", white, view complete with atomic family? That certainly wasn't the America Martin Luther King lived in. Or Allen Ginsburg.

The problem with the 1950s was that the atomic family was the culmination of an ideal - an ideal that had been inherited from hundreds of years of European-American culture, norms, and traditions. The goal had been, at least since the Enlightenment, to have enough money for a nice house, not too much work, a family, and good food on the table. The 1950s was the middle class ambition: satisfied. Except, of course, for African Americans. Hispanic Americans. Asian Americans. Native Americans, Gay Americans...

Demographically, when Truman was President for the 1950 census, there were 151 million Americans. 134 million of those were white. Only 10% of America was categorized (by the census takers as opposed to the self-identification of those being counted) as black. (Still, in America today, as of the 2010 census only 12% of Americans are black.)

We've not yet decided the victors of the culture wars that began with the end of segregation. I mean, after all, some states are still debating what to do about Confederate flags, and whether the Black Lives Matter movement is "too radical". Lats time I checked, Huey P. Newton hasn't appeared on a postage stamp.

Do we celebrate the George Wallaces or the Jack Kerouacs? The Joe McCarthys or the Grateful Dead? These are not hyperbolic - twenty percent of Donald Trump primary voters in South Carolina think slavery shouldn't have been abolished, and Trump himself took lessons from the noxious Roy Cohn, who served as McCarthy's main legal mind. Meanwhile President Obama grew up in Hawaii and did inhale. The contrast is pretty stark, and in some sense is the inheritance of the Supreme Court.

From 1953-1969 Earl Warren was Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. His court determined the unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision helping end segregation, established 'one man one vote' during the early 60s, got rid of mandatory school prayer, determined that there is a right to privacy in Griswold v. Connecticut, and saw the appointment of Thurgood Marshall.

Then, from 1969 to 1986, we hard Warren Burger, who, despite certain conservative strains, decided that the New York Times could publish the Pentagon Papers, favored abortion rights 7-2 in Roe .v Wade, said that Nixon's executive privilege does not extend to felonies, upheld affirmative action practices, and saw the appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor.

I could have chosen other examples - economic, military, social - from which to draw out the distinctions. But the court cases are so often cited in our social debates it seemed apropos. From 1953 until 1986 we had liberal justices making huge gains for social and civil rights. From 1986 to the present, under the Rehnquist and Roberts courts, we've had the reversal of that trend.

The culture wars playing out since the 1950s are our inheritance. So, by definition, it is harder to make a nationalist semi-mythical past if the recent past is a story of cultural divide int he wake of racial integration.

*

"Make America Great Again" is a tribalist-nationalist approach to our problems. It is ignorant, and exclusive - obviously coded language. But for some time now conservatives, selling the middle-class achievements of white Americans from the segregated 50s, have laid claim to nationalism, and by extension patriotism, as theirs.

We disagree on nationalism and patriotism in the United States, and there are two flavors to choose:

1) Tribal-conservative. Everything Stanhope was making fun of. We're great because we're mainly white and Christian. We're great because of what our ancestors did. It's a backwards system - literally looking over your shoulder to that semi-mythic past - when white middle class dreams were realized - and taking credit for it. It is irrational and divisive.

2) Liberal nationalism. But what is liberal nationalism?

Liberals are the true nationalists, and it goes back to our unique immigrant histories. More so - because liberals also embrace our other two stories, those of the Native Americans and the narratives of a population enslaved. Liberals are the big-tent people, a coalition of people working together to make America great tomorrow. And that tomorrow won't look like yesterday. Most isn't good enough - we need to look forward to a time when all Americans have equal opportunities, not glory in the past when, numerically, most did - based on race, sex, and other arbitrary factors.

Liberals want equal opportunities so that your patriotic pride can be from your own accomplishments, not those of your great-grandfather. Everyone needs to have a say in our country, because every voice matters, and we all have certain rights, like voting, that cannot be denied. Liberals are more nationalist than conservatives, because liberals value the stories and worth of all Americans - not just whites, or Christians, or certain geographic groups. Southern African Americans and Western Asian Americans and Southwestern Hispanics and New England Whites - we can all come together under the very basic adoption of human dignity as a guiding principle.

Isn't it sort of self-evident that the group who acknowledges the potential worth of the largest group of Americans is, in the true sense, the most nationalist?

The conservatives say that liberals are hypocrites because they don't respect the opinions and statements made by conservatives, so where's the inclusiveness? But this is a false paradox - liberals are united by a pledge to human dignity and the worth of all American narratives. By rejecting those who reject this premise there is no hypocrisy, it is merely a double negative: we don't accept intolerance, but that does not make us intolerant.

It is one of the great failings of the Democratic Party, supposedly representing the liberals, not to play offense on this. It is insufficient to say we are the Americans who accept the broadest, and therefore most representative, views of this nation. They need to start pointing out that tribalism and nationalism are not the same - and the conflation of the two is particularly dangerous in an egalitarian and complex rights-based country like the Unite States. They need to say that making America great again is to return to a time when sodomy was outlawed, Jews couldn't buy houses in certain neighborhoods, women didn't have have many reproductive rights, and blacks couldn't drink at the same water fountains.

Patriotism - the emotions aroused from one's national homeland - needs to be inclusive, rather than exclusive. Exclusive emotions are dangerous, as history has shown - and fundamentally irrational. Liberals, instead, need to be recognized the real nationalistic patriots - with inclusive sentiment prevailing over the tribalists like Trump.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Guns

Prologue: Inspiration

Somewhere, along the way, I forgot why I started this.

It was feeling like a diary, and a not particularly good one, instead of what I'd originally intended, reflected in the name of the blog, a "column". The early archives are a journey of whetting my style against the columns of Jon Carroll, San Francisco editorial writer who retired in December of 2015, after 8,700 articles.

He'd write about television ads. He'd write about the magnolia tree in his yard. His cat, Bucket. Going to a sports game. The homeless.

The point of his articles was that you were interested in his particular take - no matter the content. An excerpt of his prose, from an article in 1996, entitled "The Old Guy at the Wedding":

"NICE WEDDING last weekend. Very fine pizza; always a plus at a wedding. Lovely couple. Sweet music. Chocolate wedding cake -- why doesn't everyone think of that? Fans.
"I don't mean to be immodest, but try and stop me. I am standing there in my extremely lovely Italian suit (the kind that causes people to involuntarily finger the sleeve and say, 'I had no idea that you owned a suit like that, or at all'), eating a nectarine and gazing benignly into the mystic, and people are coming up and saying:
"'I know you hate this, but I really want to say how much I enjoy your column.'
"Why do they think I hate it? Have I ever given the slightest indication that the admiration of strangers would be anathema to me? I suppose it's flattering, this assumption about my innate modesty, but it flies in the face of almost everything we know about human nature.
"People like to hear good things about themselves. You want to make a friend? Say something nice. This is not exactly a state secret.
"So this happens a few times and I'm maybe just a little full of myself. Maybe I'm going, 'These are my people and I shall protect them from need and want.' Maybe it's a movie called 'Mr. Hotshot Goes to a Wedding.'"
It's not amazing social commentary - but you could read it for hours. In 2007 I started archiving his articles, and stopped, after sporadic intervals, in 2010. My initial "columns" that became the kernel of this site were called "Jonish" and numbered. Jonish 50 - Reflections on September 11th. Jonish 07 - On the Purchasing of Pornography. Jonish 69 - Confronting Global Hunger

The first part of this post, then, is a belated au revoir to a writer who got me into all of this in the first place. He taught me something very valuable - it doesn't matter what you're writing so long as the voice is yours, and the voice contributes something.

Part One - Purpose

The other night I bought myself a copy of Watchmen, which I read a long time ago and somehow never ended up owning. So now I own it. And that same night I reread it. And, a day later, I started re-reading Transmetropolitan.

If I have any long-time readers, which is doubtful, they may or may not remember my initial post on the subject back in 2012. For the uninitiated: Transmetropolitan is a comic that tells the story of Spider Jerusalem, the mid-future analogy of Hunter S. Thompson, wreaking journalistic havoc on a City that is the wet-dream of Koch brothers' free-market anarchism. And, analogous to Doc Thompson, Jerusalem cares deeply about politics.

Since I was a kid I wanted to be a politician. I always ran for office. I always wanted to fix things. I figured my contribution - my voice - was worth adding. Eventually I even got elected to student council - my senior year.

It was not until I had some time on my hands, though, wandering around the country, reading the next issue of Transmetropolitan in every library I came across, that I became interested in politics. I'd always wanted the position of politician, and figured whatever the problems of the day were I'd take a principled, moral, stance. But actually engaging politics had hither-to-fore not really crossed my mind.

No coincidence, then, that my initial forays into the serious issues of our generation and our problems were written once I'd just finished Transmet and had also just finished my travels across the country - sleeping on couches from Los Angeles to Brooklyn, Cleveland to Worcester, Portland, OR to Portland, ME. From that time on I've been a political junkie - increasing my understanding, following primary races, studying gerrymandered maps, doing research on super PACs at the Berkeley Law Library, I watched The West Wing and The Newsroom, and on, and on.

My project of a book on campaign finance reform started in 2012. That October I wrote that I admired Jerusalem, but didn't quite want to be him:

"I don’t want to be a hero – yet. I don’t want to change the world just now. Someone else can take it up and deal. Right now I’m busy, though, on the more than off-chance no one will step up to the plate."

And that, gentle readers, is why this blog lost its way. Because for the first time since I became a junkie, I found a hero. And instead of my doing all the talking, someone else could take the mic for a while.

Part Two - Reform

Fourteen months and two weeks ago, to the day, Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, announced his Presidential campaign. Now, for all but the delusional, it is over.

A year and more has gone by where I didn't have to be a hero. And that goes a long way in explaining why I've written little of substance.

Six months ago, though, I reminded people why campaign finance was important, and why I supported Sanders. Sanders was going to do my job for me. I wouldn't need to fix the world - he would. He was going to fix the broken political system. He was going to deal with income inequality. He was going to manage an out of control Congress. It was under control.

Last Tuesday he lost. I voted for him, and the final results were 43 - 55, against. I saw him deliver a speech. It said all the things I agree with.

*

Two months and two days after Sanders announced I posted that my first draft of the book on campaign finance reform was:

"DONE. Clocking in at a slight, but still respectable, 104 pages, with over 30 cited books and scholarly sources, taking three years to write first as blogs, then as a draft of something more, unknown hours and days in libraries tracking stuff down and reading articles, books, and pouring over data, edited three times (undoubtedly still full of mistakes and badly in need of alpha readers) and formatted the way I like it - the manuscript is fucking DONE. Now I need to have other eyes look it over and work with me for the next few months to get it ready for submitting.

soreallyitsabitprematurebutstill... DONE!"


This was when Sanders was a total joke. No hope of winning. Last Tuesday that didn't seem so funny. The year in between had turned him into a serious candidate, and last Fall I began to help his campaign with contributions and phone banking.

...Anyway. He lost.

While I agree with Clinton on quite a lot, I doubt sincerely that we'll have serious campaign finance reform during her term. I know we won't have any if the living troll Trump gets into office.

The book will need to be taken up again. Rewritten, heavily, after this campaign. There's work to do.

Once again, then, I feel the need to act. I've been passive, pleased to be a follower, part of a movement, letting someone else hold the mic. But the ride has returned to the greasy kid with the lever, and it's time to get off. Fun while it lasted - stepping onto the platform you remember the reality of the world around you, the obligations as the sensation returns of ground beneath your feet.

Part Three - Guns

It may be rereading Transmetropolitan.

It may be that I've eaten six pieces of pie for breakfast. (Unlike Spider Jerusalem, I don't need drugs beyond refined sugar.)

It may be Sanders' loss.

But here I am, blasting my 'Pumped Up' mix, and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels were just usurped by the Isley Brothers:

"You know you make me want to shout!"

That's how I feel. It's how all of America should feel.

Fifty people slayed in a nightclub in Florida. Fourteen in San Bernadino last December. Twenty-seven in Newtown, in 2012. Twelve more that same year in Aurora, Colorado. Thirteen in New York in 2009, thirty-two at Virginia Tech in 2007, nine in Minnesota on a reservation in 2005, thirteen - Columbine - 1999, twenty-two - Texas - 1991, twenty-one - California - 1984.

...The fact of the matter is that we cannot continue to have gun ownership in America. And the term "responsible gun owner" is the biggest lie since "clean coal" or "intelligent design".

*

In 2012 I wrote about guns, but never shared it on here. After this slaughter in Orlando, I decided to revisit the piece, but it's unusable now. So here's my new take.

"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

Fine. I'll even go a step further and add that some states have a serious hunting culture, and that's something we don't want to infringe upon either.

Nor should we forget the sport. Shooting for fun, gun ranges, all that.

These are the three legitimate uses of guns. You can form a citizen's militia, you can hunt, you can shoot for sport. I mean, if it's an Olympic event, we don't want to stamp out our chance at the gold, right? We got three gold medals in shooting categories in 2012! U!S!A! U!S!A!

And we're even better at shooting ourselves!

Take a look at those numbers of mass shooting deaths up there - those are some of our stats. We are way ahead of any other country in this. 91 people die every day due to guns. But it's spread across thousands of cities, in fifty states, and not located in a single nightclub. So it's not on the news.

Here's how you fix it.

1) Hunting. With proof of a hunting license, obtained courtesy a background check, you get to rent a gun for the season. There is a certain allotment of rounds of ammo. Go kill all the deer you're allowed. Shoot ducks. Then give it back when the season is over. Close watch will be kept in a national registry. In small towns you could claim the same rifle year after year - there's a shelf with masking tape on the edge that says "Sam" with your favorite gun chained to it. This is not too difficult. Failure to return unused guns or ammunition will result in a prison sentence of no less than five years.

2) Heritage pieces. Keeping your great-great-grandaddy's musket from the Civil War? Fine. Keep it. I don't honestly think there's any harm in you holding on to that in your home. The likelihood of you killing anyone with it is practically zilch. Any non-automatic, non-military weapon manufactured prior to 1920 you may keep. Special permits can be allowed for military or automatic weapons owned from before that time - in case you want to keep your WWI Browning, for example. All of these will be registered, of course. And background checks.

3) Shooting for sport. You rent the gun of choice at the shooting range. Safety class mandatory. Failure to return the gun, or if you remove it from the premises - five year prison term. This, by the way, will help out a lot of the gun shops scared of going out of business - they turn themselves into ranges (where applicable) and they rent out weapons instead of selling them. If marksmanship is your deal, this plan has you covered. Just like the hunting, you could even rent a specific gun you liked - effectively yours whenever you wanted to use it.

4) The militia. Even if the Canadians did get uppity and try to cross the border again, I really don't think our civilian militia will be much match for them, compared to what our federal troops will do. But, of course, a number of Americans see the federal troops as the real enemy. For those who see the militia as a means of protecting yourself against the government? You're doomed. Your rifle isn't protection against drones. An automatic weapon is useless against military-grade hardware. If the big bad government actually wanted to impose a king-like tyranny your firearm ownership wouldn't do jack. Unless they legalize civilian drone ownership your argument bears no correlation to reality. Since 1951 the Supreme Court has rejected claims by "insurrection" militias, which cited a mandate to exist to preserve freedoms as a bulwark against the U.S. government - with the Court stating that by providing free elections and trials by jury their rights were sufficiently accounted for.

Still, the Second Amendment stands. So - if you pass the safety class, the background check, and are officially registered as a member of a militia you, too, can own a gun. Most militias require that you swear a military-style oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. In the future all registered militias would be required to do so. Failure to abide by the Constitution while a member of an active militia in possession of a firearm - fifteen years imprisonment. The usual laws about murder would apply - perhaps a little more harsh, due to the compounding of owning a firearm while a militia member.

Could militia members keep the guns in their homes? There are roughly 300 militias in America, and maybe 60,000 members - by comparison there are 1.3 million active military personnel. 120 million Americans are deemed "Fit for military service". Militias, really, wouldn't do much if Ottawa decided to rise again. As for keeping the guns in their home I'd say tentatively... no. In rural areas, perhaps, they could. In urban areas there could be militia-run (and state inspected) armories. You wouldn't need your gun unless involved in an uprising, right? So it would be there, under protected lock and key. You could visit it whenever you wanted. Oil it. Brush it. Stroke it. Suck...

*ahem*

5) Guns in the home. No.

We're done here. This has to end. There are no "responsible gun owners". Because humans aren't static, unchanging things. Let me repeat: HUMANS ARE NOT STATIC UNCHANGING THINGS. We are changing all the time. People get depressed. People get radicalized. People go "temporarily insane" and commit "crimes of passion". Just because you are a responsible gun owner today, and passed your background check, does not mean you will be in five years! Who knows what will happen? No one sets out on life's journey saying "In five years I see myself becoming suicidally depressed." Or, "In five years, after a bad breakup, the loss of my job, and an extended period of 'not acting like myself' I intend to kill a large number of people whom I wouldn't have dreamed of harming six months prior." 

No one plans for this. And, I'm sorry "responsible" gun owners - you can't either. They're like smokers - no one picks up a cigarette with the intent of becoming addicted. "Responsible" gun owners don't intend to have their weapons cause crimes. But, like the smokers, there's no way to tell which ones will end up being deadly

No more guns in homes.

What's the "safe" alternative? Monthly psychological background checks? Can you even imagine? I don't like going to the DMV - picture showing up to such a government bureaucracy monthly. The cost would be enormous. It would be far too impractical.

Here are the statistics, once again, for violence of guns in the home:

43 times more likely to kill a family member, friend, or acquaintance.
22 times more likely to kill yourself than an intruder.

Homicide, suicide, accident - all of these would drop by huge margins if we took guns out of the home. For every story of a home invasion stopped by a gun, there are 22 suicides by gun. For every criminal shot in self-defense, 43 unneeded homicides.

How to implement this ban, then?

It would not be easy. You, the President of the United States, would make an address:

"Good evening. Last night we as a nation experienced a terrible tragedy in [place]. So far the death toll is at [number] - a number which we hope will not rise, but which we must be prepared for in case it does. For the victims our prayers are with your friends and families, and for the wounded, you are in our thoughts, as we collectively hope for a full, and speedy, recovery of everyone who has been touched by this terrible event.

"This shooting was different. While local police authorities are still attempting to determine the killer's motive we must ask ourselves if this is the sort of country we want to live in. Regardless of their motive, there should be no possible reason why we, as citizens, allow this sort of gun violence to continue, and to continue to escalate."

So far: boilerplate. Then:

"That is why I am enacting Executive Order 13,840 - That all guns owned in homes are to be turned over to the United States Government within a period of two weeks from this time. I have taken the liberty and, at 8:35 Eastern Time, federalized the National Guard in all fifty states and territories until this crisis is over. Local military and police units will be helping in these efforts to collect the remaining guns in American homes.

"Over the next two weeks American streets will not look the way we are used to. They will not look the way we want them to. Although we pray for it to be otherwise, there will likely be senseless violence, and good men and women, in the line of duty, may lose their lives in freeing us of this deadly scourge. This is the price we must pay for decades of inaction. By failing to get this crisis - the ongoing national tragedy of gun violence in America - under control, we have reached the brink of disaster. And I would be remiss in my duties as President, in my sworn protection of the people of these United States, if I did not respond, actively and forcefully, to the deadly drumroll of over ninety innocent Americans being shot every day. 

"You may turn your guns in to your local police station or military base if there's one nearby. Special collection points will be devised in urban areas, and mobile units in rural ones. At the end of two weeks, that is June 26, 2017, the possession of a firearm in the home will be illegal, and  you will be guilty of a Class C Felony, of no less than 10 years, and no more than 25 years imprisonment for illegal ownership of a deadly firearm."

At this point the issues of militias, hunting, sport, and heirlooms would be addressed. Gun and ammunition sellers would be categorized as Class B felons if they continue to sell during or after the two-week period. Criminals who possess a gun, even if not on them at the time while they committed a crime, would get an automatic five years added to their sentences. Finally, you close with this:

"Moving forward, America will see a dramatic decrease in violence. A decrease in homicides; suicides; and accidental deaths, like the one that took the life of [recent child victim's name] who was only [age] years old. We can't shrug our shoulders and say 'Oh, well, this is how it is in the United States.' We're better than that. We owe it to the families, not only the thousands who've had their loved ones torn away from them in these devastating mass shootings, but the families of every victim of gun violence, every day. We owe it to the survivors who have had to piece their lives together and make sense of living through one of these horrific tragedies. We owe it to ourselves: so that we never have to face the fear, the uncertainty, the shock sensation of a punch to the gut getting a phone call at three in the morning saying your daughter is in the hospital, she's been shot... This is when America says 'No more. I will not be a victim.' We are taking back our future from gun violence. We are protecting our homes from the madman's bullets. We are vowing that in these United States this will never, ever, happen again! 

"God bless you and God bless America!"

And then, for two weeks, it would be a carnival of horrors. But after a month, say... it would be over.

Humans are not static. There are no responsible gun owners; and so we cannot be permitted to own guns.

Epilogue: Writing

So there you have it. My Spider Jerusalem-esque take on guns in America. A rant into the wind. 

Unlike the fictional protagonist of the future, I do not have circulation. My words are seen by only a very few. More unfortunately, I don't think my little speech, above, will be given anytime so soon. 

Bernie Sanders and I disagreed on gun control. He was from Vermont - and there guns are a big deal. It was virtually the only thing we didn't have in common.

But that didn't matter to me. Because Sanders was fighting for campaign finance reform. 

Wouldn't it be nice if we could have a national discussion, or even better, national action, without the NRA butting in? But we can't because, as of 2014, they spent $974,000 in direct election donations, $3,300,000 in lobbying, and a disgusting $27,000,000 in super PACs, ranking 10th in the nation for contributions.

You want to fix gun violence? Fix campaign finance. It's true of virtually every other issue, as well.

For a year I've been watching and waiting, seeing if Sanders could pull off the nearly impossible and do the heavy lifting for me. But it hasn't happened. And I need to get back to work.

*

Thus this blog is going to wrap it up for today. Looking to the future: I will endeavor to post only things of value on this site. Instead of lists, commentary. Instead of drivel, editorials. 

Even when there is nothing much to say, though, I will try and post regularly. Even if the topic is only a tulip tree, or television ads, or being the old guy at a wedding. Writing keeps one sharp - and sometimes the walls aren't tumbling down. (Although, I suspect, if you think everything is fine it means you just aren't paying close enough attention.) Instead, sometimes, I may only be able to offer some insight on the homeless, or a cat named Bucket. So be it.

3,900 words. For the time being - I'm done. I will return with more to say.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Dating, Lists, and Updates

As the school year winds down, I've been busy, and so May has had only a single post. The past few months have been a bit taxing, though, for a couple of mundane-to-you / interesting-to-me reasons.

Between February and April I had to spend a lot of money on my car. This is a car from 2011, not some ancient hunk of junk. And so because my disposable income (and then some) was eradicated by these repairs, all of a sudden I had a lot of free time and no money: I couldn't make plans and do things, ('cause I had no money). My weekends were oddly long, sans plans.

One thing I did to pass these long spells of timefulness was not update my list of favorite movies and television shows, as I've done every two years, since March of 2010. A big part of the reason why is because I started seeking out movies on my list I'd only seen once before, of which there were a good many. And, on second viewing, some of these uncritically adopted favorites broke down. 'Notorious', by Hitchcock, didn't impress as it had the first time. Bresson's 'Mouchette' I found to be downright embarrassing. And could I really keep justifying the inclusion of the lumage animation 'Twice Upon a Time' alongside the likes of Kurosawa, Fellini, and Scorsese?

The same went for television. 'The Singing Detective' had wowed me at Bennington. Would it still now, almost a decade after first viewing? (As it happens, it did.) Or 'Brideshead Revisited' - I'd not seen that since I was a child. 'Pushing Daisies' was included after a single viewing as well.

So while I continue to track down television to review, such as 'Dekalog', along with hard to find movies, for example 'Ulysses' Gaze', the updates will have to wait. The benefit, of course, is that they will be far more accurate and discerning.

Without money these past months, spending more time in libraries was not the only adaptation. I also had to essentially stop dating. If I had $75 to cover a week's worth of food (typical for me, in a given week, with Bay Area grocery prices), then I can't easily justify spending $40 of it on a single dinner with someone. Single since the Ides of February I've had two dates, both ranking among my two most disastrous, ever.

It would seem the reason for these utter failures is that sitting around by yourself not doing anything except watching obscures movies and miniseries, and, although not previously mentioned, scouring up obscure vinyl and CDs, makes one a bad conversationalist.

Part of me is reverting to an earlier manifestation. I never used to be a story-teller, for I was more interested int he stories of others. Then, for popularity, flirting, and prestige, I honed the craft. But disuse has mean that I'm not very good at it, and more to the point, disinterested. On the more recent of the two terrible dates, I was given the following opening:

"You've taught all over. You must have some interesting stories."

My response teetered between the phlegmatic and outright biliousness: "Well that depends. What sort of stories do you want to hear? Funny stories? Quirky stories? What sort?" Note - this was not sarcastically intended. It was the response of one who'd lost interest, a sort of storied-out ennui. It was genuine inquiry: if I'm going to have to do this, tell me what you want, at least. Would I had approached the line conventionally I could have easily trotted out an anecdote to show off my amusing side - but these stories are ashes in my mouth, now. They don't interest me much at all, and enough life experience has passed under the bridge to mean most people have a similar set of stock tales to regale company with, not requiring me to add facilely to it.

At school I talk to no one. I have no prep period, and thereby have no encounters with the other faculty. I show up, go in to my room, teach, rest and work during lunch while remaining in my room, teach the afternoon session, and leave. In the typical Monday-Sunday, not including phone calls, my most sociable time, weekly, was about an hour and a half for a weekly meeting with my department on Wednesdays. The number of social visits I had outside of school during the three months of car-maintenance is fewer than ten.

Such lack of social conduct has not always been the case, as alluded to before. The issue, again, is money. April ended with a disgraceful $30 in my account. With one day left in May you may wonder what has become of all this? Have my routines changed? Have I been having such a lot of fun during this madcap month that I've no time to post updates on this sweet, forgotten blog?

Not quite. May, being absent of money woes, meant I had to save like nobody's business. So the same pattern of life was embraced as the months prior. By not doing anything, I was able to put two months' worth of savings aside, making up at least for the loss of March and April's ability to do so. This still meant I'd no money for dating. It still meant I was continuing to work on these old lists, in lieu of utter and total boredom.

June, then, is looking up, slightly. But it is offset by July. During that month I am paid almost nothing, since I am not teaching. This is problematic, obviously, because it demands frugality or savings. I have a big trip planned, and so the money I was supposed to have for the Big Trip went instead to the Car, and that means money wasn't saved for July. It's something of a juggle - but I should come out alright.

On a side note, can you think of a better example of the lack of middle class in America? The amount of money that went into the car was around $1,000. That quantity is going to throw off, in the end, six months of my life. Since I've returned to the Bay Area I've done nothing but wipe my savings again and again. As soon as I have a couple thousand saved up, it disappears on me. The car, health costs, moving costs, rent increases - it's always something. I'm fairly well off, all things considered, and that's worrisome - because at 30 you shouldn't be in a position where $1,000 wonks up half a years' finances. Compared to many of my Millennial compatriots, though, at least I can handle this stuff without going into debt. Or do so while not having to live under my parent's roof. Or do so and manage to make on-time, reliable student loan payments.

For the past few months, then, that's all its been - obscure art and Bernie Sanders-style socio-economic concerns. And, as my dating life has now proven, I can't make conversation when my only topics are unknown art house and political data.

Cyclically I spend my idle time on lists, and working on things I can control, all the while waiting: to get some money, to balance my social life, to update this blog.