They alive, dammit!

Netflix can be a fickle mistress. So often, the things it wants me to watch are awful, even if logically I can see how they might be up my alley. But man, Netflix nailed it when Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt popped up in my “you might like” menu. It probably noticed that I just finished watching 30 Rock for the third time. My algorithm loves me.

This show can be summed up really quickly: a woman got kidnapped and locked in a doomsday cult bunker for fifteen years. Upon her rescue, she moves to New York City for the sake of anonymity. She’s unabashedly and unapologetically optimistic, because the worst thing that could happen to someone has already happened to her, by non-Criminal Minds standards. Did you ever see that movie Blast From the Past? It’s awful. This is like that, only smart and actually funny and blessedly lacking Brendan Frasier making an ass of himself.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a Tina Fey show. She’s an executive producer and one of the writers, and you can feel the Fey all over this whole situation. It resembles 30 Rock quite a bit. It has a handful of actors in common, the music is familiar, the cadence of the dialogue is similar, and there are even a number of jokes that are callbacks. I’m fine with that, but some reviewers insistent on sucking all the joy out of the world have used it as a criticism, saying that Fey’s comedy has become one-note. I say to those folks: give it a damn minute. Kimmy Schmidt’s only had thirteen sitcom-length episodes. That’s less than five hours we’ve spent with these characters. Just cool your agro for a second.

Furthermore, almost every review I could find had some nugget about the show being racist. Now, I will concede that there are racist jokes. However, what all those reviews fail to mention is that they always point out that the joke is racist and then make fun of the joke and/or the person telling it. The same thing happened in almost every episode of 30 Rock, and nobody lost their shit then, did they? No. (My working theory? Network money preventing bad press. But I have no way to prove that.) But again, I’m white and my sense of humor is somewhat questionable. I’d rather make fun of racist jokes because they’re fucking stupid, and use racists as comedic fodder so as to take the teeth out of any of the ignorant shit they say, than create a fake world where they don’t exist at all because that’s completely unrealistic. Honestly, I’m more concerned that neither of Fey’s shows have a single normal gay person. They’re always overblown and cartoonish and might as well have a caption every time they’re onscreen saying “Hey, look! It’s a gay!” Get on that, Tina Fey. It’s kind of fucked up.

There’s a weird time-machine feel to this show. Kimmy was locked in the bunker for fifteen years, having been put in there at age fourteen in 2000. And behold! All her jokes and references are 90s-era vintage. It’s a thing of beauty. Although, it must be said that the writers were clearly not fourteen in 2000. I was seventeen for most of that year and I don’t get a lot of those jokes. I’m thinking they were probably fourteen closer to 1990. But whatever, the ones that work work well. And I don’t understand most of what the teenage girl character says, either, so let’s just assume that I’m trapped in a bubble somewhere around 1998 forever. Comedy brings out our generation gaps.

The doomsday cult itself is pretty interesting. I’ve often wondered how cult survivors and their families react to America’s attitudes toward these groups. We’re pretty fucking flip about things that have ruined a shocking number of lives. How often do I say “drink the Kool-aid,” for example? Over nine hundred people who were simply looking for a better life (while, yes, totally brainwashed) got murder/suicided at Jonestown. It’s horrifying and now they’re just a figure of speech. I think there’s a tendency to assume that cult members are dumb or lonely or so lacking in something that they’re desperate to fill a void in their lives and that’s why they’re easily swayed by these charismatic whackadoos. I’m sure that’s untrue to some degree, but the fact remains that when I hear “cult” I think of Charles Manson or David Koresh or Marshall Applewhite, all of whom are so insane that one would almost have to be an idiot to believe their bullshit. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt does a pretty good job of addressing this by making the cult leader a raving moron who is so charming that people just smile and nod and agree with whatever nonsense comes out of his mouth. One point that stuck in my craw, though, is that Kimmy says “Yes, weird sex stuff happened in the bunker,” as an answer to someone asking an unrelated question. First, that’s not funny. And second, if Reverend Crazypants was keeping a stable of fertile women captive for fifteen years and having sex with them, they would have come out of there with a gaggle of bunker babies. Obviously that would step on our single-woman-set-loose-in-New-York story, though, so I’m just going to skip on past it. Like the writers did.

I will say that it’s refreshing to see a lead character in a sitcom who is upbeat and optimistic while not being stupid. She may be a little dingy because she’s sort of lost in what is, to her, a weird future and she’s mentally still a teenager. But she’s not dumb. I don’t know if it was intentional, but I think that’s some sly social commentary. We’ve turned into some cynical assholes since the 90s, haven’t we? While Kimmy was stuck in the bunker trying to maintain the brightness and bounciness that she brought in with her, the rest of the world pretty much said, “Fuck it, this shit is bleak.” And then we invented social media so we could infect others with our bad attitudes. How exciting, this future we’ve built.

Anyway, if your relationship with Netflix isn’t such that you’ve been lured into Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s timesuck trap already, you should really go do that. You can binge watch all of it in an afternoon, and there’s a second season in the works, but no word yet on when it will be released. So once you’re hooked we can all wait together. It’ll be great. It’ll be the best torture ever.

Grief is highly illogical.

Alright, I’m going to level with you guys. I did not want to write this post. I wasn’t sure how to get everything I have to say in any kind of sensible order. I even used the entire front of my fridge as a whiteboard and made a multicolored flowchart. It did not help, so I scrapped all those ideas. I’ve written about five pages worth of false starts. But, as with most things I’m loathe to do, I will take a breath and jump in with both feet and try not to make too big a mess of things. I’ll do my best and keep it simple.

By now you’ve all heard that Leonard Nimoy died. I feel obligated to write something about that. There’s no disrespect intended in my using the word “obligated.” It feels like I need to find a way to pay my respects or say goodbye. Because he wasn’t just a man, he was an icon, an institution. I doubt my little screaming-into-the-void blog can do him justice, but I think I should say something.

The obvious starting point here is Spock. That might be why this is so hard for me. I’m honestly not that big a fan of Original Series Trek. I do enjoy it, but I love it only in the vague way one loves Shakespeare or Greek democracy or concrete: it is the foundation on which everything I love firmly stands, yet I haven’t dedicated nearly enough time to studying its mechanics. That’s my personal shortcoming. But I will say that there would be no modern scifi fandom as we know it without that show. There was scifi for a century before it and I may live to see the state of it a century after. Nothing, and I say this without hyperbole, nothing has made more ripples through pop culture since pop culture was separated from culture culture by the people who decide what’s high art and what’s not (we could spend a lifetime parsing that last sentence, but you know what I mean – let’s just skip it).

Trek doesn’t work without Spock. If that character weren’t there it would just be Kirk having cowboy adventures in space with a shockingly coed and multiracial cast. No offense to Kirk, his frontier spirit, or, for that matter, William Shatner or any of the other great actors on that show. But think about it. Spock was coldly logical, yet empathetic and loyal. He brings Kirk back to reality and keeps his hot temper in check. More to my current point, he’s also the reason that show is so beloved by the scientists and artists and other weirdos who have changed the world. He was an alien in a human crew and, for lack of a better term, biracial. He was funny-looking on purpose, with those ears that made him immediately identifiable as non-human. He stood, sometimes too firmly, on principle (making his relationship with Kirk reciprocal, as Kirk talked him into doing things he would normally deem impulsive or rash). He was delightfully dumbfounded by human behavior a lot of the time, but always questioning, curious, open to new ideas. These are the qualities that have struck a chord with fans for almost fifty years. He made it okay to be strange, to be “other.” He gave three generations of nerds the go-ahead to be forward thinking and innovative and to go against mob mentality. Many of us would do better to be more like him, and to always remember that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.”

But that’s all Spock (and the writers, obviously). His work will live on. Nimoy himself is who we’re mourning here, as difficult as it may be to separate them in our minds. He seemed like a genuinely upstanding gentleman. Quietly devout, a good father and grandfather, a good friend, patient and loving with even the most rabid of his fans, a musician, an artist. He fought with Roddenberry to get Nichelle Nichols equal pay on the show, an important statement in 1966. When he was diagnosed with COPD, he asked his Twitter followers to please stop smoking. He seemed to genuinely give a shit about us, about our well-being. A while back, he volunteered to be an honorary grandpa for anybody who needed one. I never had a grandfather. I don’t know what that’s like. I gather that it’s a very special relationship when done properly. How sweet of him, to offer that to us, even if in a limited 140-character capacity. Especially for the folks who never had it, or, maybe more importantly, for those who had lost it.

Here’s the thing: I cried when Nimoy died, but I couldn’t tell you why. I cried when Hunter Thompson died. I cried when I thought Stephen King had died. I cried when Robin Williams died. Those all make sense to me. But when Nimoy died it was different. William Shatner couldn’t make it to Los Angeles for the funeral and a lot of assholes were mean to him on Twitter about it (completely disregarding the fact that Jews sit shiva for a week and he had plenty of time to make it back for that, those ignorant jerks). In response to these heartless assholes, Wil Wheaton said that he could mourn any way he wanted, it was none of their business, and that “we had a death in the family.” I think that really summed up best how I was feeling. Obviously, I didn’t know the man, but his mythos runs deep through my community, and I was sad that my brethren were sad. I imagine this is a small percentage of what it felt like when the nation wept together over the loss of JFK. They didn’t have a personal relationship with him, but he was important to them, to their way of life, he was their leader and their example of greatness.

I had a list of my favorite Spock quotes that I was going to sum up with but, again, those credits should go to the writers. So, I’ll leave off with his last tweet instead. It’s more relevant anyway: “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP.”

The imps of Satan are off their game.

We won, you guys! This morning the FCC voted to categorize the internet as a public utility and maintain net neutrality. It’s a major victory against corporate fuckery and a landmark moment in technological history. I want to thank the FCC for doing the right thing. I also want to thank John Oliver for rallying the trolls and getting them to use their powers for good instead of for evil. You remember. I wrote a whole blog about it.

John Oliver and his research team are a bunch of badasses. If you haven’t watched anything from Last Week Tonight, get thee to a YouTube immediately. Oliver is able to go on at great length about things that aren’t being discussed for more than a couple of minutes on the news. I figure that’s because it’s a weekly show and they’re not bound by the constraints of the twenty-four-hour infotainment cycle. This FCC thing is just one example of the rabble-rousing his rants have caused. Time magazine calls it “The John Oliver Effect” (and you should really click on that link and watch all the videos from the article, they’re three of my favorites). One thing I’ve noticed he tends to take on in particular is marketing and advertising (is there really a difference between those two things? I use them synonymously, but I might be wrong). Maybe it’s because he’s a comedian. A comedian’s job is to be precise with language, and those advertising fucks are expertly sneaky with their language, not only in actual ads but also in statements on behalf of the corporations for which they create public images. The episodes about marketing for sugar, herbal supplements, and prescription drugs are all keen dissections of the differences between what they say and what we hear. Probably the best example, though, is the recent episode about tobacco. Oliver tears the tobacco industry to shreds, calling them “open sores on Satan’s dick,” and walking the viewer through a litany of sketchy lawsuits in which tobacco companies have bullied and intimidated governments trying to implement stricter public health policies. What a fucking bunch of demons they are. And yes, I understand that this country was largely built on the funds generated by tobacco. And yes, I am painfully aware of the slow demise of the American family farm. I am from Virginia. I get it. But I’m not talking about farmers here. I’m talking about the lawyers and white collar executives who push death for a living.

Let’s think back, shall we? We don’t even have to think back that far. Just one or two generations ago there were doctors telling people which cigarettes to smoke. What the actual fuck? Were people dumber back then? Did they not feel their cancer or their emphysema? Did they somehow make stairs and hills more smoker-friendly until the 1980s? How have we so changed as a culture that we recognize false advertising as a problem, but we completely accepted it fifty years ago? Why did they buy those lies? I honestly don’t understand how tobacco advertisements ever worked. I am a smoker (yes, still, shut up). But with all the self-examination I can muster without professional help, I don’t think I’ve ever been swayed by cigarette advertising. My generation was the first to have never been inundated with that sort of marketing, coming of smoking age after those ads were banned from television and most magazines. We barely even saw smokers in tv or movies who weren’t cowboys in a period piece, thoroughly despicable villains, or regular people being yelled at for smoking by their friends. I do remember people being able to smoke freely in airports and shopping malls, though, and my dad bitching when he couldn’t anymore. When I was little there were cigarette butts all over the floor of our local grocery store every time we went in there. Fucking gross, right? I’m glad that’s over. On the other hand, I think I should still be able to smoke in a bar. It’s a bar. There is nothing healthy going on there. Let me smoke and I’ll drink more and you’ll make more money off of me. Truth. I have done the research. And really, my cigarette is the least of your concerns if you’re hanging out in a bar, drinking, and probably eating some kind of deep-fried cheese. Booze and fast food are two of the other most evil things in the world, and their ads are all still legal and ubiquitous.

So why does that work? We know alcohol is really, really bad for us. But it’s socially acceptable, and there are beer and liquor ads everywhere. They don’t feel icky the way those old cigarette ads do. They don’t feel likes lies. We’re satisfied with some whispery voice speed-reading “Please drink responsibly” at the end of a beer commercial full of hot girls and buff bros having fun and watching football. ‘Mericuh! Who wants to hear a bunch of shit like “car crash” or “liver failure” or “brain damage” or “life completely destroyed” when you’re trying to make an informed decision as a consumer? And let’s be real. Nothing rhymes with “homeless alcoholic whose family hates him.” It’s bad for jingles. I’m dumbfounded that we’re so staunch about truth in advertising for tobacco but not for alcohol. It is the weirdest blind spot in our outrage. Don’t even get me started on ads for fast food and chemical-laden snacks. Basically, they’re allowed to make us feel happy about any sort of product we can use to kill ourselves as long as we don’t smoke it.

Advertising is changing a bit, though, in other ways. Technology is pushing a lot of changes. DVR is killing tv ads, and pop-up blocking software is the first thing any smart person puts on their new computer. I think marketing people are just finding new ways to think around corners in order to oppress us with their psychological fuckery. For example, the “Skip Ad” button. It gives us a false sense that we’re only seeing the ads we want to see, and you know they’re keeping track of which ones we skip and which we don’t. Data mining bastards. But why give me the option to skip any ad in the first place? Why the hell would I watch an ad if I don’t have to? What’s the logic there? They spent millions of dollars to make a thirty or sixty second ad, but expect me to only watch the first five seconds. How better could that money have been spent? There are people starving to death somewhere who could probably answer that better than I could, but I’m busy being pissed that I have to wait five seconds to get to my YouTube video. It’s unnerving. And they’re getting smarter. I’ve seen several recently that have a five-second ad before the skip button pops up, and then a different ad for the remaining twenty-five seconds. I only know this because I couldn’t get to the button fast enough. So there’s more money wasted. Oh, and then there’s the one with two guys talking and one of them says “Make it quick, the skip button is coming up.” Clever, but really fucking annoying.

I don’t know why this bothers me so much. I’ll be the first to admit that it could be worse. I live in the forest. No tv or radio. No billboards. I don’t read magazines. I don’t get a lot of junk mail with ads or coupons. I’m only in anything resembling civilization one or two days a month. My agro is very internet-centric. Take the freemium business model, for example. There are very few places outside the internet where freemium works. So few that I can’t think of any off the top of my head. But online, you can have something for free very easily. It’s no problem to deliver audio or video directly to your eye and ear holes for the low, low price of having to sit through an advertisement first. But if you want to get rid of the ads, you can pay a small fee. Simple! Unobtrusive! Diabolical! On services like Pandora, the longer you listen, the more ads you have to hear until eventually you want to throttle that breathy bitch that says “Hey, Pandora listener!” and proceeds to ask you how annoying you think the ads are. It’s like that frog who gets slowly boiled to death because he doesn’t notice you gradually raising the temperature. Or, there’s the other kind of freemium, where you can receive service X for free, and services X,Y, and bonus, Z, if you pay. The only problem I have with that is that those companies usually give exactly zero shits about the people who don’t (or can’t) pay. “Have a customer service issue? Too bad. What do you want from us? We’re giving you this for free out of the goodness of our little black hearts. Should have coughed up the money, this is really your own fault. Just don’t be poor, it’s easy.”

I don’t have a solution. I’m not sure that there’s a way around advertising at this point. It pays for the things we like. The whole system just makes me feel like a stupid monkey, though, and for that I am cranky. Capitalist assholes, using my brain against me. I think Bill Hicks summed it up best. I can’t do righteous indignation the way he did, so I’ll just leave this here. Enjoy.

“A thinking animal”

Oliver Sacks is dying. I know, I know, we’re all dying. But Dr. Sacks just announced that he has terminal cancer and only months to live, if that. This makes me sad. Inexplicably sad, really. I’m sure I would have been sad if I had heard instead that he had passed away already, but somehow the news that it’s coming soon makes me even sadder.

Dr. Sacks is an interesting gentleman. You’ve probably heard of his work even if you’re not one to follow sciencey things. Robin Williams played a version of him in Awakenings, and apparently did a pretty spot-on job except for the accent. He was also one of the first neurologists to study autism as a medical disorder rather than a behavioral one, and brought the achievements of Dr. Temple Grandin to the public eye in his book An Anthropologist on Mars. It’s a fascinating read. I recommend you read as much of his stuff as you can get your hands on. Also, the episodes of Radiolab that he’s been on are some of my favorites. Just a phenomenal mind. I could listen to him talk about brains for hours.

He put a piece about his prognosis in the New York Times today, and I must say that it’s a little tough to read. A beautiful goodbye letter, basically. There were tears. I like to think that I’m sanguine about the inevitability of death, but I doubt I could write about it like that if it were staring me in the face. A snippet:

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

And isn’t that the point? The point I think a lot of us miss in our time here? To adventure with gratitude. It sounds a bit reductionist, but I feel that my pessimism has morphed into pragmatism as I age, and I’ve begun to see even the most difficult struggles as opportunities to learn something new. Now it’s just a short hop from “opportunity” to “adventure.” I’ll work on it. What fun it could be.

That’s one of the things I so enjoy about Dr. Sacks. When you read his books or listen to him speak, you really get the sense that he approaches every problem or mystery with a genuinely childlike enthusiasm. He giggles a lot. He seems delighted that he can put his efforts toward the question at hand, even knowing that he may not get a satisfactory answer. Because that’s how science works. To dedicate one’s self wholeheartedly to uncertainty is a beautiful way to spend a life.

When I read Dr. Sacks’ books, I’m always impressed at how he doesn’t separate the person from their brain or from their disorder. I like brains, and have read many, many books on their myriad dysfunctions (admittedly, all of the “approachable for laymen” variety). So many of these writers get tunnel vision about their specialty, they don’t seem to consider the human factors in the stories they’re telling. Or if they do, that consideration doesn’t make it onto the page. Often they sound like robots discussing computer parts, rather than people discussing people. Which is unfortunate in any science, but I think is particularly dangerous when talking about brains. Obviously.

Dr. Sacks’ time is limited now in a tangible, quantifiable way that most of us will be lucky to never experience. On the other hand, perhaps that’s a benefit. At 81, maybe it’s better to know than to just wait around, watching your peers drop one by one. I imagine that waiting brings with it a degree of fear. But I’m relatively young and in passable health, so what the hell do I know? I will say this: I’ve been bored a lot lately. Several times just in recent days I’ve caught myself wandering around aimlessly or staring into space. Almost immediately, I have a moment of panic about my mental health, then proceed directly to beating myself up about wasting time. Hours fly by, tick tock tick tock, and I go to bed at night thinking about how I can’t get that day back. Every life is short, every death assured. And yet I sit on my porch and chain smoke and brood like it’s ever going to change anything. What an asshole. We could all be gone at any moment. And while I don’t want to be one of those “be here now” hippies with no long-term goals who just tra-la-las their way through life doing whatever makes their little hedonistic hearts happy, I do think it would be in my best interest to stop assuming that I’ll make it to “someday.” It’s a hubristic assumption, one easily proven wrong. What’s that James Dean quote? “Dream as if you’ll live forever; live as if you’ll die tomorrow.” I’ll shoot for somewhere in the middle.

Meanwhile, go read Dr. Sacks’ books or check out some of his lectures. He really is an amazing guy. I truly hope that these last months of his life are wonderful, and I will be sad when he goes. May you walk out with your head up and your heart full, sir. You will be missed.

Better living through fried sandwiches

You know how sometimes you watch a movie and you just can’t stop thinking about it? Even if it’s not a particularly great movie? I watched Chef the other day and I’ve had it stuck in my head ever since. I heard about this project a while ago on a podcast and actually kind of wrinkled my nose at the premise, but it was written and directed by John Favreau and I applauded his efforts to do it all himself and get it released in just a few theaters nationwide. I’m a child of the 90s and hold indie movies in high regard, especially when a big-name director could easily get more funding but didn’t. Also, I loved Swingers. I was leery going in that Chef would be a lot of blah blah commentary on celebrity chefs and foodie culture. While there are a couple of subtle nods to the evils of reality tv chefs, Favreau made a gorgeously-shot film about struggling to do what you love.

Brief rundown: Favreau plays chef Carl Casper, who works at a fancypants restaurant in Los Angeles. Anticipating a visit from an important critic (played by Oliver Platt and hilariously named Ramsey), he works up a whole new menu which is immediately shot down by the owner. Obviously since the food is boring, the review is bad and Casper gets angry. He rage Tweets at the critic to give him another shot, causing a fight with the bumbling owner, which makes him walk out on his job. The critic doesn’t know that Casper’s not in the kitchen when he accepts the challenge and returns, only to be served the exact same meal. Following the progress of the critic’s evening on Twitter, Casper gets pissed, storms the restaurant, loses his shit, and gives the critic a very screamy lesson in how food works. Everyone in the place is filming it, of course, so Casper gets internet famous. Because he’s now unemployed and seemingly unemployable, he agrees to accompany his ex-wife and son on a trip to Miami, where he first started to make a name for himself as a chef. Feeling reckless and desperate, he buys a food truck and decides to drive it back to L.A. with his kid, all the way cooking the kind of food he really loves and teaching his son how a kitchen works. It’s like a food porn/road trip/buddy movie with bonus daddy issue feelings.

On its face, this doesn’t sound like all that interesting a movie. A review on the late Roger Ebert’s website even called it “comfort comedy.” But I’ve tried to figure out why I can’t stop thinking about it and I’ve narrowed it down to just a couple of things. First: food, music, and America are really important characters. Miami, New Orleans, and Austin feature prominently, and they all bring their own flavors of both food and music to the screen. As he’s teaching his son to cook, he’s also showing him that appreciating taste and local foods are an essential part of traveling. Teaching a kid to travel well is a vital life skill, probably more so for people who love and create food. The menu changes as they move through the South, making beignets and adding Texas barbeque to a Cuban sandwich, for example. Drool. So much drool. And the soundtrack is badass. I particularly liked the New Orleans-style brass band version of Sexual Healing, and I fucking hate that song.

Secondly, there’s the whole “finding a way to do what you love on your own terms” thing. Clearly this mirrors Favreau’s own career, his leaving the Marvel machine and going back to his indie roots. There’s a lot of freedom and joy to be had in that decision, and I think a road trip is the perfect way to couch that story. As a culture, we’re coming to accept the starving artist business model more and more. Kickstarter, Patreon, and even food trucks – all vehicles for folks to make a living exactly how they want and for consumers to support them directly. The machinery of business is changing, making room for passion and money to happily coexist. I love that. Which brings me neatly to the third thing.

This movie could not have existed without Twitter. Ten, maybe even five years ago, it would have been impossible. That bit when Casper gets the bad review? He only found out that lots of people had heard about it because his son saw it going viral on Twitter. He wasn’t on Twitter, so his kid signs him up and shows him how to use it. When he asks the critic back to the restaurant, he had no idea it was a public post, a thrown gauntlet that thousands of people saw. He also didn’t understand the gravity of a roomful of people filming and uploading his public freakout, later asking a publicist to “just take it off the internet.” Noob. After they acquire the food truck, the kid tweets their photos, menus, and upcoming locations and turns it from a dangerous career move into a thriving business. More to the point, as his kid is teaching him how to use technology to save his ass, he’s teaching the kid about working in a kitchen and loving food. They’re learning from each other and bonding. Also, this was a super low-budget movie. It couldn’t have been distributed without the word-of-mouth marketing that Twitter enables us to have so easily these days. Another mirror for Favreau’s career, although I wonder if this one was planned or not.

So, yeah. Go check out Chef. It’s on Netflix. Eat before you watch it. And here’s an idea, tell me what you think: booktruck? Instead of bookstore? Huh? Eh? It might work.

Some monsters are just dudes in cheap suits.

It’s been almost four years since I quit my job at the Giant Evil Bookstore. I have spent a great deal of time and space bitching about that job here on the blog. But it was never really the job itself I hated, it was the mindless bullshit that surrounded and permeated the ins-and-outs of my trying to get my daily tasks done. And of course the soul-sucking, spirit-crushing reality of working my balls off for forty or more hours a week and still being very, very broke in a city that simply doesn’t like that it has to tolerate broke people but still wants its goddamn free-range organic artisinal craft brew served to them by a lesser human. That may be a blog for another time.

Ahem. Sorry.

More to the point at hand, I absolutely adored most of the folks I worked with. They’re a smart, funny, hardworking, and deeply caring bunch and I miss them all the time. I bring this up because a couple of days ago my old boss got fired. I don’t have any details, except that he left in the middle of a shift and I can’t think of any good reason the guy I knew would bail like that. Maybe he didn’t get fired, maybe he got a big fat promotion and they told him he had to leave right then without telling his staff. I honestly don’t know. Being 3500 miles away, I am the last stop on the gossip train. There was a little bit of a happy dance celebration on Facebook when the news went around, all of us former minions basically singing “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead.”

Now I’m feeling sort of bad about that. In retrospect, it’s not really the dude himself I ever had a problem with. He’s actually a super nice guy. It’s just that his zealous adherence to corporate policy made him the worst manager in the history of management. Is that the fault of the man? Or of the corporation? Or some brainwashy combination of the two? Does one have to have a certain predisposition for fucking people over to do that job? I think so. Does that make the company all the more evil for nurturing that mindset and creating an environment where fuckery is the norm? I think so. Do these elements combine in such a way that the little people actually doing the heavy lifting constantly live in stress and fear? Absolutely. What bothers me about this situation is that while we wage slaves at the bottom of the totem pole know that we’re not thought of as real people, that we’re seen as just failed sales goals and benefit expenditure risks, I feel like we might also forget that the asshole boss and his asshole boss and her asshole boss? They’re all people, too. People who don’t have to sweat running out of money at the end of every week and don’t have to deal with five hundred bitchy customers every day and don’t blow their backs out moving giant, cumbersome displays with no help, sure, granted. But still, people.

Here, I’ll give you an example from either side of the scumfuckery coin.

Story the first: our store moved locations a couple of years before I left. The new store was the biggest in the state at the time and the opening was a huge fucking deal. We had one lady who was a sort of community liaison, organizing special events and working with local teachers, that kind of thing. She’s a great lady and a good friend. A few days before the store opened we were having a staff meeting and our boss’s boss was there. Given that our group was a mixture of veteran booksellers and temporary hires who had never worked in a running store, he was pop quizzing everyone on some basic operational stuff to make sure we were all on the same page. One of these dumbshit questions was to list all of the benefits of the store’s reward card (which, by the way, is one of the worst trends in retail – can we stop with the bandwagon marketing already?). After all the correct answers had been given, my buddy joked that, bonus, one could also use the card to scrape ice off of a windshield. It was funny. Not terribly funny, but funny. We all laughed, including my boss. However, minutes later, she was escorted from the building, having been fired on the spot. “But Vanessa, that wasn’t your boss, that was his boss.” Yes, that’s true. And obviously I wasn’t in the room to see how hard he tried to keep her on staff, if at all. The point is that someone was fired for making a joke. Show me where it says in the company handbook that inappropriate humor is grounds for dismissal. You can’t. I looked. Our boss agreed to that fuckery. He signed the paperwork. And, interesting sidenote: the Christmas before this incident, the Best Buy next door sold holiday gift cards that were actually working ice scrapers! I’m not even kidding.

Story the second, the flip side: I was working a middle shift one Black Friday, the worst of retail nightmares. I got off work at seven in the evening, right as a coworker was about to take her lunch break, so I stuck around to hang out with her for a bit. I was sitting at an outside table smoking a cigarette, when some human piece of garbage ran by and snatched my purse. Wallet, phone, keys – everything gone. Since I had to cancel all my cards and change my bank account numbers and wait for all the credit fraud people to get their ducks in a row, I didn’t have access to any of my money for about a week. My boss made sure that my car wouldn’t get towed until I could have it re-keyed, and he also got me a gift card for a hundred bucks so I could buy groceries and dog food. It was a really nice thing to do, and he didn’t have to do it. I honestly wouldn’t have made it through those next couple of weeks without that gesture. Especially since my grandmother died that weekend and I had to take a few days off to go home, so my next paycheck was almost nothing. He absolutely saved my ass.

So here’s the thing: I never said he wasn’t a nice guy. We could hang out and talk about fantasy novels and punk music and have plenty of perfectly pleasant interactions when we were just being people. But as far as managers go, he was a monster, and that colors my perception of him as a person. It’s unfortunate but there’s no other way for me to see him. He was the face of all the bullshit that got brought down on us, even if he was only following orders. He was the one keeping people at thirty-eight or thirty-nine hours a week so they couldn’t get benefits. He was the one cutting us to a skeleton crew then writing people up for going overtime, because five people cannot do fifteen people’s worth of work in the same number of minutes, no matter how much we want to. He was the one hiring outsiders for management positions rather than promoting any of us, because we all knew what the starting salary should be and they didn’t. He was the one who put a convicted sex offender in charge of a crew that included several teenage girls. He was the one pushing sales contests where he got the prizes, not the salespeople. And yes, a lot of that is corporate policy stuff, but it should say something that he carried it all out unabashedly, unapologetically, and with a vigor bordering on gleefulness. Whenever he got to say something like “Well that’s the way it is, if you don’t like it you can always go find work somewhere else,” he did so with a grin on his face. He loved that job.

I suppose some of this agro could be coming from my comparing him to his predecessor, who I really liked. A lot of my cohorts had real issues with her, too, but I personally never had any problems when she was there. She got removed from our store for going over payroll because she routinely gave everyone the hours that they had been guaranteed. Imagine! The gall! To have integrity like that. How dare she? When the bonuses of a bunch of white-collar pencil pushers are on the line? Furthermore, she knew how to do every job in the store. She would jump behind a cash register when we were busy (instead of sitting in the office watching the security monitors and paging someone else over the intercom to drop whatever they were doing and go up there). She would come do dishes or help take orders when the cafe was slammed (rather than just coming over and telling us that the line was too long and that one of us needed to bus the tables). She would personally incentivize individual employees with small rewards like an extra break or a cup of coffee (a silly thing, and completely against the rules, but great for morale). When she left, it really felt like a hammer coming down. The new guy made us all miserable and edgy. Maybe things would have changed soon enough anyway and he just had bad timing. This is right around the advent of the non-Kindle e-reader, so the shit may have been on the verge of hitting the fan regardless of who was in charge. Either way, it was no longer fun to go to work. Instead of saying “How was your day off?” or whatever happy thing we used to say at the beginning of every shift, we started to commiserate and trade horror stories about the newest round of bullshit. It was stressful and toxic. I started having panic attacks and drinking a lot and my doctor was doing a lot of tests on my heart. At that point, isn’t it kind of irrelevant whether it’s the company’s fault or the manager’s?

I was bitter and angry for a long time about that job. I still can’t stomach going into most stores around Christmas, but other than that I’m mostly over it. That feeling of having traded a good chunk of my life for very little money and a few ulcers has largely abated. And I have to say I learned a lot in my time there. I learned to never underestimate the depth and breadth of the stupid questions the shopping public will ask, and how to navigate those questions in a professional manner. I learned how to stifle laughter for at least as long as it takes to walk from the cash register to the loading dock. I learned that milk boils at 180 degrees, and that if you’re mean to a barista they will give you decaf. I learned how to efficiently wrangle groups of people with very different skill sets so they can work together. I learned that I don’t ever want to work for a large corporate entity again, or even for someone who doesn’t know how to do the job they’re asking me to do. I learned that positive reinforcement always works better than negative, and that simply acknowledging someone’s hard work goes a long damn way. That job taught me that I want to start my own business. That bad manager taught me how not to run a store, and that I will always treat my employees like real people who matter. I think I might have fucked that up without his fine example. So I say thanks. And I sincerely wish him well.

Shaken, not stirred.

Our power went out the other day. I used the unexpected day off to read a book. A whole book! Love it when that happens. I haven’t been reading as much as I’d like lately. It was Tibetan Peach Pie, Tom Robbins’ autobiography that was published last year. Interesting that such a reclusive guy would even write an autobiography. It’s a great book, as quirk-riddled and funny as his fiction, though arguably without the dark counterpoints that make his voice so distinctive. You can’t have light without darkness, but apparently you don’t have to air out all your darkness in a public forum. It’s fine, it worked out. The book is awesome.

I started reading Robbins in college, beginning with Jitterbug Perfume. Between it and Another Roadside Attraction and the obligatory eighteen-year-old-liberal-arts-student impulse to take a whackton of religion classes, I spent about a year and a half having insufferable stoned spiritual conversations with everyone who would sit still for five minutes. I’ve found that he’s one of those few fiction writers who provokes in-depth contemplation. Which turns into a vortex of quacking and comparing mysticisms when more than one of his fans are in a room together. Oddly, there aren’t that many of us. I’ve only ever run into a handful of folks who have read his stuff and even fewer who have read all of it. He’s only written nine books, not counting this newest one, and his certainly isn’t a household name. Maybe that close examination of the icky but necessary parts of life makes him an acquired taste. (Also, there’s lots of sexy time in his work. Lots. In sweaty, squishy detail. You’ve been warned.)

In my head I associate Robbins’ books with that weird college time, and maybe that contributes to some kind of bias when I go on and on about how amazing they are. Greatness by proximity. The fuzzy warmth of nostalgia (and a bad memory, and a lot of hangovers). Remember when your mind used to get blown all the time? Seems like there’s a certain age (which is probably slightly different for everyone) when there’s a rapid expansion of both interest and intellect, somewhere between your attention beginning to focus outward and your personality beginning to calcify. I’m sure there’s something to that effect in the technical psychobabble definition of adolescence. But my question is, do you remember what that felt like? Can you point to facts or experiences as clear demarcations in your timeline – before thing X vs after thing X – and describe exactly how those thing X’s changed you?

I’m not necessarily talking about huge events or universal rites of passage here. Obviously our lives are different after trauma or upheaval. No one is the same following the birth of a child or the death of a loved one or even one of those “where were you when…?” moments of social or political turmoil. What I’m talking about are those personal enlightenments which are often small or cumulative. Something you learned that altered your worldview just enough to change your mind about something important (your parents are just people). Something you did that made you confident or brave enough to do everything bold that came after (hitchhiking across the country). Or something you experienced that made you see every little thing in a new way (LSD, LSD, and then some more LSD). For me, and probably for many of you, a lot of these moments were directly connected to art. That first album that you played and repeat and identified with every word, no matter how absurd. Or that first poet who opened up the world for you, made you see how to turn image into word and back into image again. That first book or painting or movie that made you think “Holy shit! You can do that?” More importantly, the one that made you say “That can be done. I can do that. I’m going to do that. My way.”

Which is not to say that Tom Robbins alone changed my life, obviously, he was part of the soup, the perception gumbo. But he absolutely shook some shit loose. Without question. Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas is written in the second person, for fuck’s sake. (“You can do that?” “No, I can’t. But it can be done. What else can be done?”) This new book gives some great insight into all the old ones. It’s always interesting to see what shook loose the minds of those we admire, and that all admirable minds require having been shaken. I will admit to missing that constant mind blowing a little bit. It’s tempting to say that it’s because the ratio of things you know to things you don’t know changes as you age, but personally I’m humbled and thrilled at the vasty depths of things I have left to learn. Then, I suppose the next thing on the list would be the sandpaper of adult routine grinding off the edges of our experience, dulling our senses and preventing mind blowage via numbing tedium, if I may mix my metaphors. And that certainly plays a part, but I don’t think I can count grownupedness or a boring job as excuses in my own day-to-day. I don’t go to a 9-to-5 anymore and my childishness is both one of my worst and one of my best qualities. Next, I would perhaps contend that this is a numbers game. Maybe I’ve just absorbed so many books/movies/etc that it takes something truly outstanding to blow my mind. I’ve actually said that before about fiction, blaming the sheer volume of mediocre books that all sort of run together in my memory. In retrospect, that argument seems like a cop-out. I think I’ve lost something. Some connection between brain and feelings. The mind blowy gene seems to have shut down. I have cancer of the perception. My third eye is painted over.

How do I fix that?

A whole bucket.

*Trigger warning: gnarly bad news shit ahead. Death and destruction, etc, etc.*

The technical term for these past couple of weeks is “a bucket of suck.” It’s frustrating because I know I’ve been something of a downer lately. I want to write about awesome things or things I’m excited about, but all I can think about are these terrible events. I’m preoccupied, distracted. So I figured I’d just write it all down and purge the system. Maybe then I can focus on writing about more happy slappy stuff. Pardon me if this seems like I’m writing lists again. Just humor me. Deep breath. Ready?

Thing the first: Leelah Alcorn

Alcorn was a transgender girl from Ohio who killed herself by walking in front of a truck. In her suicide note she said that she felt like she had no support. Her parents had sent her to one of those conversion therapy places and cut off all her ties to friends and social media. Now, I don’t believe in spiritual stuff, but I do believe in evil. Evil comes from people. This shit? This shit is evil. Bigotry is evil. Conversion therapy is evil. It’s particularly fucked up that they combined that practice with complete social isolation. That’s tantamount to sticking your child in a box and waiting for Stockholm Syndrome to fix the problem. A person being trans is not a problem. While I’m sure they thought they were doing something to help her, their idea of what help she needed was the actual problem. It makes me sick to think about. I’m sorry for their loss and their grief, obviously, but I sincerely hope they know this is their fault.

How do we still think like this about LGBT people? How are these conversion therapy idiots not laughed out of business by now? What fucking year is this? I just got an email this morning about legislation in Virginia, my home state, that proposes to allow doctors, lawyers, and government employees to openly discriminate against LGBT folks based on personal religious views. Can you imagine the damage this could do? We’re supposed to be moving away from this kind of backwards mindset. How many more children have to die? When can we all just be people? We don’t have to agree. We don’t have to condone or promote behavior we don’t approve of. But we have to stop actively trying to hurt each other. No good can come of us all being exactly the same.

Thing the second: Charlie Hebdo

Twelve innocent people dead over cartoons. Seriously? Fucking seriously? I think Jon Stewart had the best thing to say that I’ve heard so far: “Very few people go into comedy as an act of courage, mainly because it shouldn’t be that. It shouldn’t be an act of courage.” Comedy can be offensive. Lenny Bruce got arrested for saying the n-word in a roomful of white people, for fuck’s sake. Satire can bite, because its job is to point at the truth and laugh. To show the ridiculousness of a situation in an effort to bring about change is both noble and difficult. Which is not to say that it can’t be hurtful, but sometimes culture needs some growing pains.

Gunning people down over art is never the answer. Making people afraid to be artists is never the answer. Curtailing free speech, via either law or terrorism, is never the answer. If we don’t talk about things, they don’t change. Or, they change by violent revolution rather than informed discourse. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, even if it’s as they’re lining me up against the wall: I might hate the things you say but I will defend your right to say them. I will fight tooth and nail, no matter how much I disrespect you or disagree with your opinion. None of us should have to live with that kind of fear.

Thing the third: #FamilyDontEndWithBlood

On December 27th, a coordinated campaign of hate messages were sent by anonymous users to certain folks on a couple of tumblr fan sites for the show Supernatural. These fans had spoken up online about their various struggles with depression and mental illness and reached out to the fan community for support. Many of the messages were aimed at getting these people to kill themselves. Three of them did. Five more attempted it. Others were reported missing, and I don’t know how many of them were found unharmed. Later that evening, one of the people who had reportedly committed suicide turned back up perfectly fine. All of her social media and email accounts had been hacked. The hackers had posted a suicide note, a message claiming to be the friend who found her and called an ambulance, and another message claiming to be a different friend who was at the hospital with the girl’s mother when the doctor brought the news about her death. That still leaves two people dead.

I had been following the events on Twitter and tumblr all day, and as soon as she showed up saying that she’d been hacked, posts started streaming in saying that she and the others were just losers looking for attention, that it was sad that their only friends were online, that killing themselves was still an option and would have been better. The outpouring of love and support from other fans continued, but was soon peppered with vitriol. Now, think this through. Someone had to pick this person out, hack all of her accounts, fake three separate personalities, then just sit back and watch the fallout. That’s sick. What kind of mind does it take to do that? I really think that’s some serial killer behavior. And that’s just this one case. The anonymous messages that started all of this numbered in the thousands and all began at the same time. This was a planned barrage, not a slow accumulation. There were several tumblr pages dedicated to talking shit about Supernatural and its fans. They were full of celebratory posts about these deaths before they were shut down. I haven’t checked to see if they’re back up, nor will I.

I know I said I believe unconditionally in free speech. That’s not quite accurate. There’s a difference between “I think you’re dumb” or “I don’t like a thing you like” and “You should kill yourself.” Those are worlds apart. Just like there’s a difference between “I hate group X” and “We should kill anyone who belongs to group X.” I support free speech, not coordinated violence. And while no one actually touched anyone else in this situation, I do believe it to be a violent act. And over what? A television show, and a silly one at that. This is not Michael Moore getting a bomb threat at a movie premiere that we’re talking about here. These are regular people who used a fandom as common ground to make deeper connections with a community. You know, like human people do. I believe it’s referred to as “making friends.” What motives these assholes could possibly have in wanting to take that away from strangers is completely beyond me. I don’t care if one group of fans thinks their show is better than another show. These victims were delicate to begin with and I have zero sympathy for those who prey on the weak. Fuck those people. Tumblr turned their IP addresses over to the cops and I hope they all go in a deep, dark hole for a very long time.

So. Anyway. What else is new? How are you guys?

Yeah, there’s no way to segue out of this post. Sorry.

But, like I said, hopefully my brain can see this as a sort of reset button and get on with thinking about other things now. Nice things. Happy things. Fluffy bunnies and shit. Let’s all cross our fingers. And, you know, maybe try to make the world a better place. Just a little. For fuck’s sake, please, just a little.

Round and round and round we go…

Happy New Year, kids! I hope everyone’s festivities were sufficiently festive. And the holidays before that. Sorry I didn’t post anything last week. It was Christmas and I was busy making a few hundred cookies. I don’t know why I decided that would be my project for this year’s celebration, but it’s been a week and I’m beginning to regret it. When I was finally finished bringing the Cookiepocalypse upon mankind, I posted this photo on Facebook:

cookiepocalypse

The picture got a perfectly reasonable number of obligatory likes and a couple of comments. Nothing I wasn’t expecting. Except for one. It’s been rattling around in my head ever since. The back and forth between myself and my buddy Jess:

Jess: Pure, unadulterated awesomeness.

Me: I cookie like I have children, man.

Jess: It’s a good way to cookie. A good way.

Jess (one minute later): Wait and p.s. Cookieing like you have children would mean 2 batches of shitty shortbread/gingerbread with terrifying decorations and a hangover from how much you had to drink to get through it.

Me: A fair point.

First, I don’t know what cookieing like I have children even means. Like, make more? Because spawn have to eat? I don’t know. Secondly, let me be clear. Jess has two kids. They’re beautiful and smart and well-mannered little nibbles of awesome. Should either or both of them turn out to be the President or the King of Mars or that rock star who eliminates world hunger, I would not be shocked. I’m only issuing this disclaimer because that comment could be read as an outsider’s perspective on what it must be like to be burdened with kids while trying to make tasty holiday treats.

It sounds, basically, like something I would say.

And here’s the thing: Jess is amazing. She’s one of those people who makes it all look so easy. She’s an attorney who specializes in environmental law, saving the world by shutting down one gross factory farm at a time. She’s got great kids, her husband is a dedicated minister and a freaking adorable gentleman (full disclosure: also my best friend from high school). She’s hilarious and gets all my geeky jokes. Remember my post a while ago about being intimidated by badass women? I was thinking a lot of my mom and Jess while I was writing that. So when she said that about the cookieing and the kids, it rocked me a little. I never in a million years would have expected that comment from this particular woman. I’ve always had this Norman Rockwell-ish (Rockwellian?) version in my head of her doing Christmasy things. Everything turning out beautifully, with ease, and if it doesn’t everyone has a good laugh and a beer over it, no face covered in flour and butter and sweat, great house flawlessly decorated, except for the adorably lopsided knick-knacks made by the awesome fruit of her attractive loins.

Now, we can all agree that this is an unrealistic depiction of anyone’s life in the long term, superhero or no. Anyone can manage it for a day, that perfection, but it’s impossible to do it all the time. Unless you’re Martha Stewart, and I feel like she may snap one day and blow up a bunch of craft stores or something. We never see the icky bits of other people’s day, do we? The spats with the partner, the piles of dirty laundry, the monumental effort it takes not to scream at the kids, the headaches, the dog shitting on the rug, the leak in the basement. Social media has made these blind spots bigger. Because we don’t have to post anything but the best pictures and the cutest stories. I read an article last summer sometime, I think, about psychologists identifying a new type of depression that’s specifically tied to envying other people’s lives on social media and, conversely, trying to depict one’s own life in a certain way on social media and not feeling that it’s good enough. Oh, how far we’ve come.

Thinking about Jess’s cookie comment for the last few days has made me feel like a pretty tremendous asshole. Not because of what she said, but because of my own assumptions about what her life must be like. Wonderful, sure, but in my head I edited out all the realism, cleaned it up, took out the hard parts and the tears. This could be dangerous. What if she, or any other friend, came to me because they were having a hard time or a going through a rough situation? Just hypothetically? Because I’ve got this idealistic nonsense bumping around masquerading as reality, I might proceed as though whatever problem is less than it actually is because either A) all the other awesome in her life will balance it out or B) she’s awesome enough to handle it well and doesn’t really need my help because I am, provably, a loser. Both of these are unfounded, dismissive, asshole maneuvers. Am I less likely to think those things because I’ve gone through all of this in my head already? Sure, but it scares me that it’s something I may do without thinking, or that I could have ever done it in the first place. And these are people I’ve known for years and love dearly. I fucking know better. What assumptions and preconceived notions do I have about other people? Groups of people? Anonymous or faceless or voiceless people?

I bring all this up for a reason. I’m not just kissing my friend’s ass or airing my latent jealousy. As you know, I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. I do not need yet another vector for failure. But this week is my three-year Blogiversary so I figure it’s as good an excuse as any to set myself a new writing goal. If it carries over into my real life, all the better, we all win.

I’d like to rely less on assumptions. I’d like to learn how and when to ask the right questions, rather than jumping ahead based on what I think the answer is. I’d like to get better at recognizing when my arguments are fallacious or unfounded or circular. I’d like to make fewer overgeneralizations. I’d like to stop lumping things together and pigeonholing without evidence. I’d like to be more careful when I’m being critical, more considerate when being analytical.

I’ve been writing these posts for three years. Sometimes I feel like I’ve done excellent work and sometimes I feel like the hackiest hack to ever hack. I think both are true, but I think I can do better. We can always do better. I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to figure people out because I genuinely do not understand their behavior. I can’t grok quite a bit of what is considered “normal.” I have these questions that seem unanswerable because I don’t get the basic mechanics of how a lot of people think. Sometimes I feel like I’m stumbling along with bad directions, a colorblind kid trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube.

A while ago, my mother-in-law told The Husband that she thought she made a mistake in not teaching him to want stuff enough. That it made it hard for him to relate to people. I disagree that it was a mistake, but agree that he has a hard time understanding other humans. But I feel like that’s an advantage in a lot of ways. Similarly, I was never really taught how to fit in with people, how to adapt or camouflage myself. And while I try to be a strict follower of Wheaton’s Law and strive to solve every problem first with kindness, I tend to ignore things I don’t understand which has made me dismissive at times. I have a history of running roughshod over people’s feelings and not realizing until it’s too late. I can be harsh, inconsiderate, selfish.

Some of you are going to read this and tell me not to be so tough on myself. I will take that under advisement. Meanwhile, I hope that I can improve both my writing and my brain function, and possibly my limited interpersonal skills, by making these small changes in how I approach the world. I predict that I will often come across as befuddled, if I don’t already. I don’t really know.

Anyway. Happy New Year. Happy Blogiversary. Happy Everything, to all of you. Now someone come help me eat the rest of these goddamn cookies.

Schadenfreude is bad for your health.

*WARNING: I was wearing my rantypants when I wrote this. Many, many gross overgeneralizations contained herein. Proceed with caution.*

It’s been a rough few weeks to be a person who gives a shit about the world. Every news story seems to be about something horrible, and half the uplifting things I see are, upon further inspection, false. I wonder if we spread the happy stories because we’re too dumb to fact check or because we’re too desperate for positivity to care that we’re believing bullshit. Here at the end of a year of constant turmoil and upheaval, it’s hard to rally anything other than anger towards my fellow man. It all kind of makes me want to bury my head in the sand and ignore the news forever.

But I shan’t. That would be…what? Pitiful? Irresponsible? Certainly despicable. While I’m not as up on my current events as I could be or would like to be, I can’t bring myself to just stop caring altogether. Try as I might. Even if caring, on its own, doesn’t change anything. I’d hate to think I have it in me to become one of those willfully ignorant fucks who can’t be bothered to pick up a newspaper but finds the time and energy to get worked up over American Idol or whatever dumb shit that stupid people waste brain cells and precious hours of their short lives on.

Do I sound angry? I’m feeling a little bit angry.

Thing is, I’m not sure that anger is the appropriate response. I’m a little long in the tooth for idealistic indignation, and I know that being one of those stick-a-flower-in-the-soldier’s-gun type of hippies is often ineffective, anyway. On the other hand, blind rage doesn’t help, after the initial emotional release of smashing things wears off. I do like to smash things on occasion, and agree that it’s therapeutic. Well, if I’m being perfectly honest, I’m more likely to set things on fire. I’m a Leo.

I see all these stories about things that seem catastrophic – Ferguson, ISIS, the Eric Garner case, this asshole, Ebola, government corruption, wage slavery, and this one that just breaks my fucking heart all to tiny pieces. They’re all catastrophes to someone, but I’m not directly affected by any of them. There is wiggle room where I could worm my way into not caring. But I’m outraged at how people are treating other human people. I’m outraged that we’ve come so far as an allegedly advanced culture, and these things still happen because we are fundamentally scared shitless of each other. And scared of change. It seems like the world is falling apart.

I have to keep reminding myself that revolution and evolution look a lot like entropy.

We are not falling apart. We are hurtling forward. And we are desperately unprepared.

The real, rock bottom, central problem with us right now? The absolute end of the line reason that I think we fight and hate and war so hard? People are living longer than they ever have before. These old fuckers with their old school worldviews are cranky and confused and want things to just keep going on like they always have. They won’t die and get out of our way like they would have by now, if this were fifty or a hundred years ago. I’m not wishing anyone’s grandpa dead here, guys, don’t send me an email. But grandpa grew up in an era when it was perfectly fine to be a racist homophobe and now that it’s not, he’s mad and he yells a lot. This is not a problem unless you have to, you know, talk to him ever. Or let him teach your children anything about the world. Or if he happens to hold public office.

Change come in waves. This one has a distinctly tsunami-ish feel to it. Maybe it’s the proliferation of technology since our last big cultural growth spurt. In the 1960s and 70s, no one knew about anything until it was over. There were only four channels on tv and if you were in a smaller town the newspaper coverage of big issues was unreliable and probably biased. Can you imagine what the world would be like right now if Dr. King had had Twitter and Instagram? Neither can I.

Also, I feel like there’s too much blah blah going on right now. Too much punditry. Too much getting agro at each other and at heads in boxes on the news. We could be out changing shit, making things better. Frankly, if I’m going to watch people fight, there will be punching and a referee and at the end one guy will get rich. All this infotainment. It’s boring. It lacks class. It’s made us lose our patience with real debate. And it’s dangerous. Because folks would rather stay at home and watch the guy in the red box yell at the guy in the blue box than go out and vote or volunteer. We’re turning into a nation of fat, dumb, angry people. No wonder the rate of heart attacks is going up.

This obsession with the yelling really bothers me. I think it speaks to our general willingness, eagerness even, to watch people be mean to each other. It’s a small scale version of something. Political theater, hate crimes, war. Something. I don’t know. But it makes me feel icky. It makes me feel like people assume that screaming is all you have to do to make a point, that action is unnecessary. That buzzwords are the only vocabulary we need. That you can spout bullshit and unsupported opinion and if you’re red in the face enough some producer will call it “news.” It’s pathetic. Makes me feel like I’m in an abusive relationship with my government.

Which, I suppose, is not that far from the truth. I think we’re getting to the “putting ground glass in his dinner” point in the relationship, though. This wave won’t last forever. This friction has to give. We’re never going to all agree on the big issues. Nor should we. That’s not a culture, it’s a cult. But I think in ten years we’ll be through the worst of it, hopefully with some progress under our belts, some helpful, constructive change. We all just need to mellow out. Not distract ourselves with shallow, mindless bullshit. Not ignore the problems. But take a collective breath, close our eyes and count to five, then start again. Learn how to properly and dispassionately debate. Learn argumentation. Read Aristotle. Fact check. Do not spread buzzword memes on social media. Especially if you’re only doing it to get a rise out of someone (that’s called being a troll, and it’s a whole other category of dickery). Learn how the political system actually functions. Follow your local government as closely as you follow national or global politics. Those folks are getting a lot more done and it could affect your life more immediately. More to the point: stop yelling.

My father rarely yelled at me. Maybe two or three times ever. When he was angry, he got quieter and quieter. I don’t actually know if he planned it or if it just happened that way. But when you have to come close and lean in to hear someone speak, you forget that you’re voluntarily putting yourself within arm’s reach. I learned that lesson very quickly, that when you scream, people back away. They stop listening. I think about that a lot when I talk about the sorts of things that make people want to yell. I keep my voice low and calm. I try to maintain my face and my snarky tone (that’s the really hard bit). I keep them close to me, so as to hang on to both my options: slapping or hugging. Let’s all try to do less screaming. Less backing away from each other. The world is round. You can’t back away forever. Something worse might sneak up from behind and bite you in the ass.