Archive for ‘critischism’

June 19th, 2016

Alcachofa 7515

The house was an eyesore even among the set of crumbling pueblos and thoroughly de-modernized apartment blocks that lined the quiet street. None of the white pickets in its fence were straight, as though each piece of whitewashed wood had an argument of its own, with no point clearly winning. Long ago someone had started painting the exposed brick of its facade in flat black, but it seemed the painter had given up a third of the way in, leaving a tentative malignancy inching towards the entrance. Flanked by unruly rectangles of dirt in which not even the weeds had cared to venture, the door did in fact close but otherwise showed little resemblance to the item that was ostensibly intended.

And it was from this door that Senor Flocop emerged one autumn’s dusk, his arms swathed in an old dander-smothered sweater, his torso still testing the air in a stained franchise uniform polo. Flocop scuffed down the dusty, broken concrete of the pathway, past a worktable covered loosely in a tarp –a decaying monument to some project long since forgotten, but never thrown out. He paused at the threshold of the sidewalk on Calle Alcachofa and peered into the semi-darkness of the intersection at the corner. A few old women walked their yipping cotton-coated mutts; a pair of ancient mopeds droned out what must’ve been, what had to be, but what Flocop knew really weren’t their last drawls down the asphalt, the noise clearing, or rather, eradicating, his thoughts.

A gust of wind sent a cloud of yellowed leaves tumbling from the old oak outside the fence. Flocop started as a few brushed his head, and he shot a hurt look at the tree as he pulled the rest of his sweater over his temples and obfuscated his protruding belly in the indistinct sack of fuzz and warmth. He was nearing his fiftieth year, though he told anyone who inquired (which was, so far as he could recall, only the one, the doctor he’d seen a few months prior) he was approaching forty. His mother had taught him from a young age to subtract always a decade, a lesson that worked better now that he’d grown beyond twenty, even if it didn’t work very well at all.

Flocop slowly came to terms with the increasingly undeniable fact that he couldn’t remember why he’d left the house. The cold was beginning to bite, but then, he reasoned inwardly, he’d gone ahead and fully put on the sweater. After a minute’s worth of resting his eyes on the contemptibly familiar features of the street in front of him, he conceeded the fight and marked putting on the sweater as the height of his conceivable accomplishment. As he turned to walk back inside, he noted that he hadn’t closed the front door behind him when he’d left, and in the modest crack of light the meagre sillhouette of Bombonella, his own vague Bichon-frisee of markedly impure breeding, quivered and shook with excitement. Flocop walked briskly back towards the door, sending the dog skittering noisily inside, where it sought out some other, lesser, vantage point from which to watch the street. The moment before Flocop’s meaty hand reached the peeling plate of the door handle, an unfamiliar voice just behind him growled “Stop!”.

Flocop wanted to freeze where he stood, but his customary reaction of surprised victimhood overrode what his bowels told him was right. So he turned around, and looked mournfully at the young man in the greasy, tilted mini-mohawk, and opened his mouth to ask why he’d said it so unkindly. Then he saw the newspaper folded over the young man’s forearm, which was pointed at the apex of Flocop’s belly.

“You’re coming with me,” said the mini-mohawk, unconvincing to anyone but those he chose to say it to –which, in these parts, constituted just about the whole.

“Please don’t hurt me.” Flocop managed to mumble, feeling his skin shrink somewhere beneath the worn old sweater.

“Yeah, yeah. Come on.”

The young man motioned back down the pathway, towards the intersection, and started walking. Flocop followed him, scrambling to keep up with the young man’s gait. “I’m only forty, well actually thirty-nine, you wouldn’t hurt me, I’m young like you, we can get along, I have many projects–”

“Shut up. Jesus christ.”

At this invocation Flocop pictured El Senor and attendant saints in miniature, their idols swirling around in his fantasy field of vision, offering their protection if only he could sort them all out and put them in the correct order. He began muttering their names in sequence, stopping every few seconds to re-arrange the lineup.

“Jesucristo, Santa Eva, San Francisco de Asís–”

“Jesucristo, San Adria, Santa Eva, San Cornelio Papa, Santo Tomás de Villanueva, San Fructuoso de Tarragona–”

The young man stopped and turned around, looking at Flocop quizically. When the latter saw that folded newspaper again, he quickly spat out a new list:

“Jesucristo! Jesucristo, San Ateo! San Clemente Ignacio Delgado Cebrián! San Serafín de Monte Granario de Nicola! Santa María Josefa del Corazón de Jesús Sancho de Guerra! Santa Potenciana! San Severino recluso!”

“Don’t you ever shut the fuck up?” the young man managed in between saintly outbursts.

“San Telmo Confesor!”

“I said can it already!” The newspaper-covered hand rose from hip to heart. “The fuck you think you’re going, church? Save it, shut up, gaiete, keep quiet. You’ll have the rest of your natural life to disappoint the big man upstairs if you keep me from gettin’ disappointed first.”

Flocop gathered after a few slack-jawed moments that he oughtn’t name any more saints, though he wasn’t sure why and in truth he felt far more wronged by the injunction than the threat of what was under the newspaper. Flocop nodded, and started following the young man again down the sidewalk. He saw Senora Almendrada coming down the street on the opposite side, peering at the pair while her old hound shuffled mournfully a few steps ahead. Flocop felt certain she’d help him escape.

“Hola Senora!”

The young man stopped cold and crossed his arms, tucking the newspaper into his elbow.

“Hola Senor Flocop.” The woman shouted back.

“Como estas? Todo bien? Como esta su familia?” Flocop could feel a mystical wave of help and safety honing in on him from somewhere distant off the coast of his predicament. The dog straddled his owner’s boot and commenced extruding the day’s malnourishment.

“Bien, bien, pero, entonces, sabes que mi primo fue en la hospital para su una encarnada, si? Y esta ahora de vuelta a casa, pero la clima es tan fria y el necesito medias mas gruesas. Es la verdad que la clima actualmente es mas fria de lo que era la semana pasada, no? Ah, si, tenes un sueter! Yo tengo un sueter tambien pero yo no lo puse a cambiar con mi pe–”

“Wrap it up, we’re leaving.” The young man whispered at Flocop’s side.

“Ah! Mil disculpes Senora, necesito ir con mi amigo aqui, perdon, perdon, buenas noches!”

“Buenas noches Senor Flocop, suerte!”

The woman and her dog and its shit walked away, leaving Flocop devastated at the receeding hope of her assistance, and moreover deeply embarrassed at having had to cut her off so very quickly.

Flocop plopped himself into the passenger’s side seat of the car at the young man’s prompting. It was a nicer vehicle than he’d ever been in, one of those European makes, but which actually looked and felt as good inside as its outward appearance suggested. He imagined it must’ve cost the young man a great deal of money, which is what he asked him about the second he got in and closed the driver’s side door.

“Your mother bought it for me.”

The answer was too unexpected and confusing for Flocop to digest, so he just pretended to understand and nodded his head as if considering some sage bit of wisdom.

The young man drove quickly, and Flocop spent more time watching the spedometer and admiring the burled wood finish of the interior than contemplating where they were going; after all, he’d seen the streets around his house thousands of times, but he’d only been in such a car this once. He watched the minutes go by on the softly glowing digits of the clock, appreciating each new number as it appeared. It was nine thirty when the young man stopped the car and turned it off. Flocop had seen the clock at seven forty-five when they’d left, but he couldn’t figure how long they’d been driving. It felt like thirty minutes or so, which must’ve meant they were still somewhere in the city proper.

But Flocop recognized nothing about the street they were on as he got out with the driver.

“I don’t know this neighborhood,” Flocop said.

“I know.”

“So where are we?”

The young man didn’t answer, but walked on towards a wrought-iron gate topped with polished copper finials.

“Come on, I’ll show you the guest house.”

Flocop liked the sound of “guest house”, especially from someone with such a nice car. But he wondered why the young man had been so rude when picking him up if all he wanted was to show him his place. There was no newspaper over the arm anymore, and the enormous, souped-up gun Flocop envisioned beneath it didn’t seem to exist. He felt at ease as he followed along, through the gate, down a cobblestone path to a small, warmly-lit house sitting in an immense garden. The young man unlocked the door and let him inside, coming in after him and locking the door again.

The television was the first thing to draw Flocop’s attention. It was huge –the largest he’d ever seen, and with a soccer match already playing. He eagerly walked towards it until he was only a foot or two away, barely able to take in the whole picture.

The young man poured himself a vermouth at the minibar and put the soccer match on mute, which sent Flocop spinning around.

“Why don’t you come have a seat over here.” The young man motioned next to him on the plush leather couch. Flocop wasn’t particularly interested in anything but the game now, but he wanted to make a good impression on the young man. He sat.

Flocop divided himself between the silent match and the immaculate cleanliness of the room as the young man talked. Everything looked new and expensive; the furniture bore no cigarette burns, he saw no matted pills of dog fur, and all the lamps not only had working, burning bulbs, but were even covered in shades. He wondered if he could get a few pictures on his cellphone without the young man noticing, so he could show his friends. He gazed at the ruddy vermouth in the young man’s highball and wondered if there was any beer. The cameras at the soccer match panned over the stadium’s crowd on screen, and Flocop watched them jumping up and down with mouths wide open, the action suddenly centered on the field again, but he couldn’t tell what was really happening without the sound on.

“…will tell them the meeting is tommorow evening at eight. Hey!”

Startled, Flocop looked over at the young man, without the faintest idea of what he’d been saying.

“Pay attention, I’m trying to work with you here.”

Flocop apologized and moved closer to signify his dedication to his host’s trabajo.

“I was saying: in twenty minutes, you’re going to call your family and tell them you’ve been kidnapped–”

“Kidnapped?!”

“Kidnapped. You will tell them your price is thirty thousand pesos, to be delivered in cash at the Burger King by the Obelisk, tomorrow at 8pm. That means eight, not eight-thirty, not nine, you will tell them the meeting is tomorrow evening at eight.”

Flocop’s world seemed to abandon him as the urgency of numbers beat upon his brow for the first time. Thirty thousand, eight o’clock, it was all too much, too precise, too lacking in jerseys and Quilmes wrappers and that heretofore unassailable guarantee, as if from Heaven itself, that tomorrow would merely be a permutation of today, gloriously indistinguishable and void of change.

“My…we don’t have thirty thousand pesos!”

“Sure you do.”

“But we don’t! We don’t have a thousand to give you once, but thirty times? I’ve never…the most I’ve ever had was five thousand, Senor, please.”

The young man frowned into his glass for a moment. Then he closed his eyes and said, “Five thousand.”

“No, oh, I mean, I had, but that was years ago.” Flocop’s rate of speech was several times faster than that of his thought, a feat he’d never before achieved without the aid of alcohol.

“And?”

“And I bought a LG 552CC-X.” He knew the name as though it were his own, with the exception that he’d never misspelled the phone’s moniker.

“What the fuck is that?”

“Oh, it was a very very good smartphone, all-new, better than ayphone–”

“Was?”

“Yes, it was.” Flocop looked at the young man blankly.

“So where is it?”

Flocop wrung his hands in his lap. “I…dropped it in the toilet.”

The young man tapped his fingers against his glass.

“And it broke.” The tears began to well up in Flocop’s eyes.

“Listen, I want you to think about what your family could sell tomorrow to get some money together.”

Flocop sniffled. “There’s nothing! Ask anyone, we are hit very hard by los buitres, there is not enough even to pay the rent many months.”

The young man sighed. “You rent that piece of shit on Alcachofa?”

“Our house! Yes! But always the rent goes up fifteen percent, always, each three months. It is hard in Argentina.”

“For fuck’s sake.” The young man stood up and grabbed something off a desk behind the couch.

“I want you to write down everything you’ve spent money on in the past month,” the young man said, tossing a small pad of paper and a pen at Flocop’s lap and turning off the television. “Think carefully, make sure you get everything on there. And by you I mean you and your family.”

“My whole family?” Flocop’s eyes widened.

“The ones you live with.”

“Yes, but I live with my mother.”

“I’m sure.”

“And my father.”

“Uh-huh, fine.”

“And my tia, and her five children, and her ex-husband, his two sisters, my brother and his girlfriend, and there are her two children and her brother in law, and–”

“I get it, I get it. Look, write down everything you know about that money was spent on. Okay?”

Flocop hoped he hadn’t offended the young man, who, by the looks of things, was bereft of the particular joys of living with one’s entire extended family and assorted hangers-on. He promised himself to be nicer, and made the sign of the cross to seal it.

“Hey. You understand me?”

“Yes, sir. I’ll do it very well, good and fast.” Flocop wriggled in his seat, paper and pen in hand.

“Alright. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes. Don’t let me down.”

“Yes sir, no sir, todo bien, just like you want.”

The young man walked out, and Flocop heard the door locking behind him. He immediately went to work, scribbling down everything he could remember their money being spent on lately. A few items in, he realized his handwriting was a little sloppy, and tore off the page, crumpling it into a ball and throwing it on the carpet in front of him. Suddenly full of horror at this messing of an otherwise well-kept room, he jumped up and retrieved the ball of paper, stuffing it clumsily into his pocket. He started a new list, carefully printing each entry, but trying not to take too long.

He had run out of ideas five minutes before the young man returned, but he spent the rest of the time wracking his brain, making sure he hadn’t forgotten anything. He perked up when he heard the door opening, and sat up straight as the young man entered the room again.

“Are you finished?”

“Yes sir, everything is there.”

The young man took the list from Flocop’s outstretched hand and looked it over.

“You sure this is everything?”

“Nothing missing.” Flocop beamed.

He watched his host as he paced the room and pored over the list. La casa, of course. Los gastos, almacenes, celular

“What’s this celular? I thought you broke your phone in the pisser.”

“That is for my other phone.” Flocop said, retrieving the battered old Nokia out of his pocket. “The first smartphone I ever have, but we say it’s so-so-phone, not so smart anymore.” He laughed heartily, slapping his knee, waiting for agreement. The young man didn’t laugh.

“This says 1200 pesos. Why’s your shit phone so expensive?”

“Well, it is not my phone, it is my plan, yes? And the plan for my mother. And my father. And my tia, and her oldest–”

“Okay, okay, fuck. Listen to me, you all spend way too much on your celulares, eh? You can’t figure out how to get five thousand pesos, you shouldn’t be spending twelve hundred every month, no way everyone in that goddamned clown car house needs a fuckin’ phone.”

Flocop was stunned. He hoped the young man wasn’t going to take his cell phone away –how else would he call into the sports radio show each day to play their trivia game? It was less expensive to play with his subscription than by using the house phone. But before he could make this very important point, the young man continued reading out the items on the list.

Subte, collectivos, cines, restaurantes –wait, you’re going to dinner an’ a fuckin’ movie here? Six thousand pesos? How many times last month?”

Flocop stared at the carpet, horrified at the idea of having to remember the number of times. The number of times that anything.

“How many times?!”

The answer came after a full two minutes of what looked like profound meditation: “Twelve.”

“Twelve?! In a month?”

Flocop felt a flash of anger at his mother and sister for having pressed him to go out to dinner so often in the past couple of weeks. If only they hadn’t burned the meat and let the vegetables spoil, maybe the young man would like him better, wouldn’t be looking at him as he was.

“It was only three times to the cines, but yes sir, twelve restaurants.”

“I don’t even eat out that often, you know? You ever heard of disposable income?! It’s what you don’t have, and you’re spending it. How the fuck are you even spending it, there’s what, twenty thousand pesos on this list. How much you all bringing in?”

Overjoyed at finally having a ready answer to a question, Flocop immediately belted out “nine thousand pesos, sir!”. His smile was immense.

“So?”

Flocop continued to smile. When the young man didn’t reply, he thought it best to stand up, salute him with hand to forehead, and sit down again.

“You don’t see the problem here?”

“What problem. I don’t want to make any problems!”

“You’re short eleven thousand pesos. Where’s it coming from?”

“But not everything we pay is from what we make! How could that be?”

“So where’s it from, you telling me you’re getting eleven thousand pesos a month in aid?”

Las ganancias, si, claro!

“You said the vultures hit you bad, and you’re getting more than half your monthly expenses paid for?”

Los buitres are no good, sir, no good at all. They come in, they destroy the community, they ruin the businesses, we cannot live in progress.”

“Eh why the fuck am I trying, you don’t have the first clue what you’re talking about.” The young man muttered, rubbing his hand over an aching forehead. He looked at the list again disinterestedly, and noticed an item towards the end he’d skipped over on the first pass. Blanqueador.

“Hey, what’s 200 pesos worth of bleach doing on here, you get yourself into some sort of mess?”

“Ah, si, the bleach, for Bombonella.”

“Your maid moonlight as a stripper or something? What kind of name is that?”

“No sir, Bombonella is my dog!”

“…why’d you spend two hundred pesos on bleach for a dog?”

“Well it is in the first place my sister’s dog, and since it is always walking around the house and picking up dust on its fur, which gets dirty and brown, she has decided she will dunk Bombonella in the bleach once a week to keep her pretty.”

The young man squeezed his eyes shut and exhaled.

“Listen. New plan. You call your folks, your tia, whatever, you tell them to get all the money they have right now, and the dog, bring it to the fucking Burger King at 8pm tomorrow, and they can have you back.”

“You want me to go?” Flocop was genuinely hurt.

“Yes I want you to go, and I don’t want you getting another dog, either. Or any other pet. Got that?”

Flocop thought it was an odd demand. But he was sure some answer or other he’d given had been very wrong, because apparently the young man didn’t want to stay friends.

But there was no more soccer, no hope for the beer he’d been thinking might come at the end of his diligent listmaking, the hardest he’d worked since junior high. There was only the telephone, the old, corded kind, handed to him by the young man. So Flocop dialed.

“Yeah.”

“Listen, Silvia, I have to talk to you–”

“You son of a bitch!” His aunt screamed at him through the heavy apparatus. Flocop held the receiver a few inches further from his ear and wished he hadn’t fucked up his good phone, so he could ignore her and look at the girls from Page 6 instead as she barked.

“Going out for parilla by yourself, you leave the whole house without any dinner, and I suppose also you’re drunk? Where are you?! At the corner? We are coming, you’d better be ready to pay for all of us!”

“Silvia, hold on a moment, listen–”

“Carmilla wants papas con cheddar, and Antonio will have choripan, and–”

“Silvia! I must talk to you about a serious situation, please listen to m–”

“Oh! And you left the door open when you went, and nobody can find Bombonella!”

Flocop felt a new sensation somewhere in his midsection, innovatively uncoddled as it was by the very empanadas and fists of meat his aunt suspected him of gorging upon, as per his usual habit. It was hollow, unsafe, capable somehow of understanding dread more readily than the rest of him.

***
Epilogue

Bombonella padded tentatively past the few blocks native to her nightly piss-and-shit routine, eager for new trees and breaks in the concrete where old rats’ tales might whisper, though she was somewhat unnerved by the lack of monosyllabic imperatives, shouted over her head. But the weather was pleasant, and her grid of interest promised to stretch on beyond the few steps she’d known, and so she went, sniffing, searching, for something better, which in this land was anything and nothing at all.

April 15th, 2016

In which a city that never sleeps burns out.

It’d seem a simple force of nature if not for the presence of so much un-naturally stamped in blue-gray columns and rows ’round the rotting monuments of this mass they’ve had the gall to call metropolis. The life, at night, is not a wave, not a pulse, there’s nothing resembling life amidst the artifice of fun strung out of tiny concrete blocks and confused bands offering grotesquely butchered tributes to the lovely people who live somewhere else. “Let’s Dance” has a bad trip on a fucking bongo drum while half its words are lost in mumbling over the emitter’s disinterest, enthusiasm miraculously rediscovered once the murder’s over and he can insist everyone clap because, please keep in mind, he’s working. We leave them a love note on a napkin and pour ourselves back into the swamp, knowing full well that’s the best show on tap that night.

Downtown beautiful buildings sit plumply in their pastry case and cast their glitter on the water; still, it’s silent except for the garbage trucks and folks who follow them, groupies of the grunts and squeaks and smells of twelve million people’s worth of junk. Their parties do not don the contemptible pretense of not starting ’til the day’s clock has run itself out, and I suspect whatever they’re drinking is superior to the club sludge. I suspect their conversation, for being mostly absent, outshines the paying sort too. There’s no circus here to run to, but pools and pools of “fuck it” with open invitations to join in. Just a toe.

The barrios they say are full of things to see. And it’s true for a week, for a glorious week in which you’d think what you’re seeing is a grand edifice that must house even greater things. And on the eighth day, you will see the light, and it will not be good. For there’s nothing inside aside from endless “todo bien?”s and incomprehensible failures, people with no idea what they’re doing or why but they’ll demand your respect (in words alone of course). Wouldn’t you like to support them? Wouldn’t you like to sit there, in the windowed cell they’ve got, and pretend with them that jack shit is just sublime?

There are no horses at the hippodrome, all they’ve got are slot machines. “The Palace” here is a beautiful old building full of tents that sell knockoffs of boring brandname clothing, littered with disused racecars and plastic booths where no one waits to “service VIP clients”. Shops along the main avenues keep their doors permalocked and post-it note plastered, please press the buzzer and wait five minutes for entry, for the sake of “seguridad”. I used to ask the keepers what they were securing themselves from. The answer invariably was that nothing really happened.

Nothing really happens here. I’ve never fallen out with a city so fast, a curious thing to me. Over the last year it’s become clearer the problem is all the pretending, which could’ve been fun in itself if it were about anything other than having fun. The only way to enjoy yourself here is to go out knowing you’re to entertain yourself, to reflect on nature, to push something until you’re completely exhausted. Nothing here will impress itself upon you, in other words. You must impress yourself upon it.

It’s hardly the worst problem to have, until you miss the old gods of your youth and can’t help yearning for someone talented –at anything that’s real– to take you somewhere routeless.

October 15th, 2015

What is a supermarket?

“Oh, their produce is sub par, and a lot of what they carry is probably gmo.”

“You shouldn’t shop there because it hurts local store owners’ business.”

“The only reason their prices are so low is that they exploit workers in poorfagistan.”

These all being legitimate arguments, I’ve recently discovered (through my own failure, that no-speed-limit highway to getting a sense of how much you don’t know, especially among the set of things you thought you did) that they don’t describe the fundamental problem of the supermarket, which is at best tenuously related to what it does. The problem of the supermarket is what it is. So what is it?

Go, enlist google, enlist “dictionaries”, which will happily dish out a buffet of useless synonyms and descriptions of how such a thing is internally organized, all beneath a billowing canopy of ads. Eat it and you’ll end up full of shit, the present state of the vast majority of people, who imagine they know what the words they use mean. Here’s some pepto-bismol, handed down to me from on high back when I decided I’d rather do just about anything than stay at that corprophagic party:

A definition consists of the proximate genus and its specific difference within the same.

Some fair proportion of my waking hours consists of guessing games; what things mean, as per the above conundrum, what the correct response to some hypothetical or other might be. I hate and love them just about equally, and the question “do you give up?” is always there, looming, like a sort of Everest with its face all curled, just waiting to call the climb I’m trying “cute”. Let me tell you, I walked with the question of what the fuck a supermarket is for at least five miles, traversed along streets studded with shops which might’ve qualified for the definition, but maybe not…what about them, I wondered, could make them a supermarket? Some of them even had the word “supermarket” in the names plastered on their fronts, and for fuck’s sake, they didn’t meet the criteria I was searching for. Maddening, it was. And if you live amongst the commercial detritus of the west, I gather you’d have a similar experience in the attempt of a definiton, unless of course you’ve had the wisdom and foresight to really think about your environs and the places you patronize. Who’m I to say, maybe I’m only representing the feeble, contorted Derpidity over here. Hats off to you if you’ve got it. But if you don’t:

A supermarket is that store which broke modern yet virgin ground solely for the purpose of creating the store.

This might seem insufficient at the outset, but think about it: that corner shop that calls itself “Corner Supermarket” might have it in its name, but the place already existed, as a warehouse or apartment construction, and was merely converted into a shop. A mega appliances outlet on Broadway might have all the fluourescent, bargain-screaming trappings of a supermarket as we’ve come to know it, but it’s a working part of a pre-existing commercial street, it has a history that consists of something beyond the first bulldozer and an adjacent meadow-turned-parking-lot.

The fact that its products might not be of a similar quality to those found at a shop trying its earnest to serve you with the genuine article is important, to be sure. But a more fundamental consideration here is that the supermarket, even outside of the question of its internal quality, creates an external hellhole around itself and all that it touches. The land on which it’s built and in a frightening circumference is outright vershtookt; atolls of asphalt, man-made hills, retaining walls, and of course, post-apocalyptic traffic with its attendant smog, frustration, and dis-ease.

In contrast, here’s a shot of the internals of a local coffee shop1, that being a place for buying coffee rather than a *$ shoved into your town’s newest stripmall (why’s it a “stipmall”? Hint: it’s not because it occupies a “strip”.):

Mmm

This place, discovered on the same five-mile walk described above, is an absolute wonder. This guy’s coffee is so good, last time I bought a half-kilo and walked out with it pedestrians on the road stopped me to inquire where I’d gotten coffee that smelled -that great-. And it wasn’t even brewed yet. Every time I have a pot of this going in my place, its aroma is the first thing out of the mouths of my guests, a la “Oh my god, that coffee smells wonderful!”.

So what’s the story of this place? It’s on an old corner of a very old street, probably in former years a butchery or clothing store, what’s it matter other than that some guy who wanted to make a living selling coffee bought or rented a place, rather than imagining he’s part of some new “shopping experience” that’s so full of crap it’s gotta quarantine itself in a kilometer of six meter high sodium lamps and utterly depressed saplings.

***

  1. For the interested locals, Cafezenda, Cabildo 199 []
June 10th, 2015

Browder the Bitcoinless

So Kalief Browder killed himself. If you hadn’t read about him months ago when he was released, this was a guy accused of stealing a backpack and sent to Riker’s at sixteen. He was kept there for three years awaiting trial, until the sole witness of his alleged theft couldn’t be bothered to keep in touch with prosecutors. People kill themselves all the time, sure, and plenty of kids get shuttled off to Riker’s for things they probably didn’t do, yeah. I don’t know how many are kept there for years without getting a trial, but I hope it’s not often enough to be piled into the common occurrences bin with the previous two. I’m probably wretchedly naive, in that. Browder was offered several plea bargains, none of which he would accept, and I’m sure that’s a rare thing indeed, much as it’d go in the common pile in any place run and populated by sane people. He didn’t sue the shit out of the city, either, which again, would be common pile worthy in sane lands.

The mother says he’d gotten paranoid. The NYT article covering Browder’s death points to prolonged solitary confinement and beatings he received from guards and other inmates. “He was very uncomfortable being around people, especially in large groups.” Of course, it’s also possible (if not probable considering which’d more likely take place in the mind of someone who wouldn’t bend to plea bargains) the kid simply couldn’t –or wouldn’t– reconcile his useless imprisonment with a world that claims to be concerned about justice. They put him on TV talk shows and gave him a MacBook Air when he was released. The Mayor said something mundane about what happened to him being “bad.” The New York Times recommends you read some story about a woman and her cats if you liked their coverage of his case. Nobody involved is going to do anything that’s about following through on their word, or changing their words to reflect their sole priority, which is taking the least expensive option.

And there’s nothing wrong with the least expensive option, in and of itself; energy is conserved over time, it’s the way the world is. People seem to have a hell of a time admitting this and interacting with the environment and one another accordingly, however. I don’t pretend that folks doing one thing and saying another will ever be completely obliterated, but where it’s gotten to the point that “manufacturers of goods” are mostly resellers of crap that doesn’t do or isn’t made out of what’s described, where “professionals” offering “services” are mostly unqualified, unknowledgeable borrowers attempting to “service” their “clients” into handling (in fact or merely in emotional succor) their debts, and where “justice” is a kid rotting away his youth in a cell so that people whose professed job it is to try him don’t have to do some paperwork, you can forget about anything resembling sanity, and the application of the word “people” to the inhabitants of such a place becomes mightily laughable. Is that “too harsh”? Go read about that woman and her cats, the discussion of interesting problems apparently isn’t for you.

Otherwise, the interesting problem here is making the least expensive option the best one, too. There’s no rule proclaiming that the right thing costs extra1. I’d like to live in a world where people are people, and things aren’t falsely represented for the sake of hiding their fears and desires. So far there’s an IRC channel, from which various other “where”s and “what”s sprout. I can’t help but wonder if Browder would’ve been able to get himself into the Web of Trust, or if he would’ve been able to contribute something useful. It doesn’t matter now, of course. But you could.
***

  1. Careful not to confuse cost with ease. That you perceive something as being the easy option is an artifact of what you understand, what you don’t, how willing you are to have the wool pulled over your eyes, etc. The consideration here is cost, and yes, there’s a presumption that you’ve got what to spend; if you don’t, you’ll have to fix that before you can reasonably consider costs, there’s no layaway here. []
November 11th, 2014

Thinking you can infer the meaning of new words: still eviling strong

There’s a certain amount of danger involved in living in a place while you’re a little short on the language’s vocabulary. And by danger, I mean hilarity, and an occasional healthy dose of humiliation. In my early days in Romania, this most famously manifested in my asking a fish vendor if he had any sidewalk for sale, as I wanted trout and figured that “trotuar” word I’d heard a couple of times and not picked up might’ve well been a cognate. I thought his dumbfounded look might’ve gone away if I pantomimed troutness and repeated the word emphatically, but alas, the eyebrows only inched higher.

Last week, and now en español, the dangerous word was “ciego,” which I hadn’t seen nor heard before reading it in the title of a local theatre. Some guy’s name, the unexamined idea went in my head. The description promised mystery theatre at midnight, with some sort of special effects. What could go wrong?

Finery was donned, tickets were bought, and it wasn’t until my companion and I were sitting in the theatre lobby waiting for the thing to get started in that inexplicably inescapable Argentine limbo of a quarter hour stuffed between the stated start and the actual start (I suspect it has something to do with consumption or manufacture of dulce de leche though, like everything else here) that the question was raised: did I know what “ciego” means?

Because it means blind. Blind theatre. I’d never heard of such a thing. “Who figures a theatre show’s going to be for blind people?! Do you know what the odds are on that?!,” I offered jokingly under the deadpan glare of companion, who had just translated a billplay schpiel about how the whole thing would be dark, with no visual component, and we would instead “smell” and “feel” the show. We would experience things long forgotten, it boasted warned.

I love theatre, but like loving anything, this doesn’t include necessarily enjoying every potential offering in the vein. Walking out is the proper response to a performance that isn’t up to scratch1. But what if you can’t walk out without actually stopping the show? That, much moreso than the thing dubbed “entertainment,” was the real experience on offer.

Entry to the theatre involved being lined up in brief, queued conga-lines that were led past heavy drapes into a pitch black room. Cannot-see-your-hand-an-inch-in-front-of-your-face, honest pitch black. My line progressed through the darkness what felt like fifty meters or so, stopped, and someone’s hands grasped my shoulders and pushed me down onto a chair. I heard a few other lines being brought to sit in a similar fashion while I screwed my head around in search of some sort of bearings (out of which I got nothing other than a sense that the ceiling was high), and then the show which did not show anything started.

The notion goes that they who lack a given sense are more perceptive with the faculties they do possess. This notion has not reached the Buenos Aires Theatre for the Blind. The first span (there were a total of five of these; I didn’t have much of a sense of time other than the whole thing seeming to take more than the half hour anticipated when going in –it turned out to be an hour and a half long) was composed principally of cacophany, brutal and jarring as fuck. Cessna engines grazed overhead with what sounded like a foot or so’s clearance. Marching bands entered from the right, proceeded in front of me, exeunt left.

Spans two through five included being surrounded by coffeehouse patrons excitedly spanking teacups with spoons while jets of steam tortured milk into foam and the room was painted with oil of cinnamon. Thrown in here and there: police sirens and someone by the sound of it recently impaled ass through mouth with a stake being dragged by my feet (grasping my shins desperately), a chinatown parade consisting of symbols and badly-cooked eggrolls, “rain” falling from plant misters to the face in a tumultuous storm of spray me with that shit again and I’ma show your crotch my six inch stilettos you motherfucker, and a stunted copulation between a woman who hadn’t been laid in decades and a man who interrogated mattress springs for a living, all punctuated with visits from the scalper-cessnas. There was a dialogue apparently fumbling at tying these together but the gulf between my Spanish and these folks’ sanity ne’er was cross’t.

A door was opened, light was thrown onto our unhappy little galley, the five-foot hole in the audience that’d served as a stage revealed. It was a blissful relief to see again, and to walk out of there, the warm conviction of needing to do better research washing over me. I’m fairly certain these people imagine what they offered was a night of entertainment2, but the real thing paid for here is persuasion: 1. it must suck being blind; 2. seriously, no really, look up those words you don’t know, smartass. Nature will find a way to piss on your face.
***

  1. Regardless of it supposedly being “impolite.” On the contrary, it’s beyond rude to suggest to the company that a stinkorama smells of roses by sitting through the whole thing and clapping on cue. You wanna perform? Get on stage. The audience ain’t the place. []
  2. Sure, some semblance of art could be pulled out of all this, the struggle to follow a story through unpolished means creating a change in the beholder etcetera, but I’d just as well argue the artistic merit of being hit with a bag of oranges. It could be done. This wasn’t it. []
May 17th, 2013

In Amsterdam there were Reports that Heretical.com was a Heinous PoS

This, like so many good things in life, begins with a snippet:

(me): so you ever read this bit on a random internet spot and think hey, that’s kinda interesting, i’ll go up one dir and see what this is
(me): and be blown away by how utterly antithetical, retarded, and unexpected it is?
(MP): nope

It isn’t every day that you ask MP if he’s experienced something and he says no. Actually, it isn’t any day. Something’s in order, and since I live gloriously free from the fetters of response determined by social consensus and public feeling, I’ve decided what’s in order are oatmeal cookies and a closer look at said utterly antithetical, retarded, and unexpected happenstance. Instead of whatever it is the masses do, which is, I guess, nothing.

So in the beginning, there was a random bit. It went like this:

“To say that a young woman has a vagina or that she has sexual intercourse is an affront to her modesty that is not tolerated. The correct and expected reference is to her cunt and to fucking.”

I could see this guy running sex ed courses. In the US I guess he’d have to duct tape the “adults” down first, but whatever.

Now this bit belongs to a slightly longer, still interesting, anecdote apparently domiciled on the server of heretical.com, which before this afternoon I’d never heard of, observing only that it housed said anecdote with a picture of a perfectly respectable pair of bazoongas:

“SEX AND DIRT. In the terminology of sex, there are clean words as well as dirty words. The clean ones are chiefly of Latin or Greek derivation and were originally of aristocratic usage, a heritage of the Norman Conquest. The dirty ones, many of them playful euphemisms, are chiefly of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse derivation and were originally plebian in origin.

The cultural relativism of dirty versus clean sexual terminology is well illustrated by the complete reversal of the categories in English usage in Nigeria. In the history of acculturation, the moral taboos of sex were taught by missionaries and administrators who used only clean words. These were the words that became taboo. The dirty words used as part of the vernacular of sailors, traders, and the like, became part of Nigerian vernacular English, with no taboo attached. In consequence, today it is as forbidden to say sexual intercourse, penis, and vagina on Nigerian television as it is to say fuck, cock, and cunt on the national networks in the United States. In Nigeria. the latter terms are considered normal and respectable. In individual conversation, the same holds true. To say that a young woman has a vagina or that she has sexual intercourse is an affront to her modesty that is not tolerated. The correct and expected reference is to her cunt and to fucking.

The taboo on the word, fuck, has left generations of people whose native language is English without a publicly usable verb or noun that fits in everyday usage as colloquially as does eat, sleep, think, talk, and dream. That is not fortuitous, for it is in the very nature of a taboo to proscribe an activity in which human beings otherwise might ordinarily engage.”

Reminded somewhat of rotten.com’s collection of entertaining and occasionally informative articles (there, not at Playboy, is where I can believe people actually check stuff out for the text and not the pictures), I went to the main index to see what I could see.

I actually didn’t notice the swastika favicon for a few minutes. The unexplained peppering of the text with “jew” and creativisms therein didn’t bode well. But then, they’re just words and scribbles after all, and one can’t reasonably go through life ignoring things that might be interesting or informative based on knee-jerk reactions. Unless one is cultivating that ever-popular and particular breed of wilfull stupidity rampant in just about every corner of the world where people have given up on thinking for themselves because they have too much environment to “save” and even more television to watch.

So I picked a link. The Tyranny of Ambiguity, it read.

“SEXUAL DEFINITION CYCLE. Sexual conditioning takes two forms, inherent and adaptive. Inherent male sexuality is fixed by a sequence of hormonal changes which are thought to take place in the foetal male brain around six weeks after conception. In mammals the default state is to be female. (In birds it is the other way round, that is, the default state is to be male and if a modification process takes place then a female ensues.) The Y chromosome generates a pair of testes, which then produce testosterone to masculinize the brain.”

Alright, not the worst premise to begin a thing [though I'm not sure what that parenthetical assertion is on about; apparently it's not at all clear how avian sexual differentiation functions, nor whether it actually works the same way in all species. That the author didn't cite anything here (which I suppose would have either been some wikipedia argument or else Gramma Mimaw, whereas the uncertainty is well-documented by people actually performing research) is strike one I guess].

A few similarly innocuous but ill-supported assertions follow. And then we’re brought to what The Ambiguity of Tyranny seems to actually be focused upon, which is, of course (?!), gay people.

“HOMOSEXUALITY. According to evolution theory, homosexuality is not a stable strategy and is therefore highly unlikely to have a genetic origin. A homosexual individual is less likely to produce children and this, reinforced over thousands or millions of generations, clearly implies that conditioning for homosexuality must be something which takes place during the lifetime of the individual (including gestation). This is as certain as there is no such thing as hereditary infertility; one cannot have a eunuch for a father. In Amsterdam there were reports of high levels of promiscuity in both male and female homosexual circles.”

Seriously, a gay person is less likely to produce children? You read it here first. Or wait, I guess you could’ve read it at heretical.com first. Seeing as it’s the foremost bastion of what, going back to that peppery index, is evidently piles enough of assbrained attempts to sound scientific about both the incredibly banal and the weirdly homophobic to keep those without a paddle gurgling in muck for life.

I stopped at the Amsterdam Proof, lovingly named for its excellent illustration of how to stick a baseless accusation into an otherwise rational argument. And by rational I mean bizarrely emphasized and occasionally flat-out wrong, but hey.

Heretical.com, the word “truth” belongs nowhere on your site, and your irretrievably broken definition of the same belongs, with the rest of you, in a ditch somewhere. And no, the dandelions won’t be buying your mod-podged fallacy crafts, either.

So how did it happen that an interesting, seemingly researched bit such as the account of flipped slang taboo above was nestled among such exemplary failure? I have no idea, but if we trust in higher powers, as the site instructs us to in its compendium of footnoted religious creepisms, perhaps it was all a divine plot to give me cookies. They’re pretty good.

October 25th, 2012

The Pedagogy of the Oppressed

The title is shared with a book I picked up on my last visit to Northern California; my Dad had reserved a shelf of his bookcase to volumes that had been owned (and predictably underlined, highlighted, and margin-noted) by my late Grandfather, who was a school principal and a professor of education. In fact, I picked it up pretty much for the sake of the title, perhaps a flippant or indulgent act; it seemed exotic, something to flip through now and then. Since I’ve had it I haven’t done much of any flipping, but the title has worked its effect on others, recently calling attention to itself when used as a hard surface on which a business acquaintance signed some papers. After the book’s political slant (if such a slant is to be found –the book remains unread) was jokingly called into question, and in the course of my recent return to the study of basic chemistry, the words “pedagogy” and “oppressed” have begun to take on increasingly relevant meaning for me.

Why? Because pedagogy, at least in my experience –which is limited to three albeit second and third-tier universities, and a great deal more independent study–, is suffering an intolerable and frankly disgusting state. Because the oppressed aren’t limited to what we in the first-world countries imagine is the third-world, but in fact is making quite a meal of the world at large, at least in terms of education. The proof, if you want it, is anywhere you’d care to look; it’s in the general public having little to no clue about such basic things as the order of the planets in our solar system or how to make change without a calculator, it’s in the recurring dramas of altered standardized test scores and the failure of entire swaths of adolescents to pass exams. More importantly, it’s in the fact that apologies are made in lieu of actual teaching.

Apologies to the emotions, apologies to catalogued and medicated “conditions” based on those emotions or even the lack thereof, apologies to the attention span and to the desire for speed and ease. Much of modern education seems to lean towards this culture of apologetics, from the book I remember my Dad picking up in his post-graduate days many years ago (Statistics for the Terrified) right on down to the infuriating line I came across an hour ago after trusting a chemistry resource for a few chapters and finally discovering it was uselessly apologetic: “Why does this matter? What significance do electron shells have on the fact that “you’d rather be fishing”?

Maybe it’s supposed to be funny. I’m not fucking laughing. The idea that those who have tasked themselves with teaching should take into account, and should actually cater to this modern state of affairs in which students can’t be assed to actually learn something entirely undermines, at least from my point of view, the task of teaching in the first place. I understand that educators are more often than not held accountable for the performance of their students, and that the path of least resistance may well be the path that leads to a decent living, some comfortable shroud of prestige, and the ability to move upward into some ivy-covered leather-loungered candyland of “the real thing,” where you can have a lab or a grad student and maybe find someone who shares your ultra-specialized interests. But as with pretty much any other widespread issue in which standard practice has gone to shit, those who are practicing thusly, for any reason whatsoever, are a large part of the problem.

Which isn’t to say that the onus is completely on the educators. It’s on everyone engaged in the act of learning, no matter their position or angle. As a reformed undergraduate earning straight As after a slew of failures, I quickly picked up on the fact that gorging on properly formatted bites of information and storing them for a few days was perfectly adequate for getting the grades and the certificates and the praise. Years later, I realize that I didn’t learn anything at all, really, other than the system itself. And I’m far from being alone; following the system is an educational problem old and widespread enough to be a major topic in this pedagogy I’m describing. And if I reference Chomsky here and his discussion of the problem of obedience to the system outperforming meaningful learning, would I actually help anybody learn anything, or would I just be sending the right signal of systemhood to obedient compatriots?

As far as I can see, there are two equally important, and importantly interdependent, beasts to approach if we’re interested in liberating ourselves from the oppression of modern pedagogy. The first is arriving at the purpose of learning. Of all the many things in this life that are subjected to our “shoulding” indoctrination, learning takes a backseat perhaps only to religion. Some of us are told that we should learn because it’s what everyone else does, or because if we do it, we’ll get a reward such as more money or the approval of other people. Some of us are told that we should learn or else we’ll get into trouble. Few of us are told that if we learn, we’ll actually become functional human beings. The purpose of learning isn’t to pass someone else’s test, or to become certified. It isn’t to get more money (and in fact, as countless people have discovered, the route of learning to get more money is frequently derailed by the costs of that route). The purpose of learning isn’t to impress your friends or to “become an expert” or any other trashy carrot on a stick so often dangled in front of us as children (or adult children). The purpose of learning is to fucking learn. It’s not glamorous, it’s not material, and for both of those reasons it has nothing at all to do with a cap, a gown, a piece of paper on your wall, or a piece of paper in your wallet. And the conclusion isn’t that it won’t actually win you anything. It will. It will win you the most important thing of all: your self, your personhood, your ability. I suppose you don’t have to want that. But if you don’t, by no means should you go through the motions of learning as though you’re doing anything other than contributing to the stupidification of the entire human race.

The second beast is understanding what learning is, and how to do it. This is what you’re supposedly being taught as a child. Supposedly, it’s the foundation you’re given before you breach into specific subjects. Unless you’re one of the modern elite, though, and I do mean elite, as in the ability to master any subject you’d like and disseminate it correctly and meaningfully for any given audience*, you haven’t actually gotten it. Alternatively, through some unfortunate miracle you could arguably have gotten it but are so lazy or apathetic you haven’t put it to any use. Learning is a process, obviously, and requires the location and verification of reliable sources, which is a far more difficult task than it would seem. Wikipedia is not a source. Encyclopedia Britanica is not a source. The vast majority of university courses are not sources nor do they actually provide you with them. This isn’t easy to accept in a world where we’ve been taught that you can Google something and “learn” it. Nevertheless, if you wish to learn you must identify the actual learning of actually learned people. As a consequence of our modern problem, this usually means that you’ll have to look back several decades if not centuries, if not millenia. You want seminal pieces. You want thoroughly unbiased peer review. And you need to be able to cross-check, and to test. When you find truth, then, you must toil to understand it, until you can fit it into your own tree of knowledge, so that it can rationally interact with everything else you’ve learned in this manner. It’s a bitch. It’s also the only way. No, you won’t ever “finish,” but if you’re particularly lucky you might stand a chance at discovering something, at contributing to our knowledge.

Certainly, and most importantly, you will without a doubt lead a more fulfilled, more capable, and more meaningful existence, whether you’re rich or poor, whether you’re fat or thin, whether you’ve suffered a little damage from today’s bullshit or you’ve been digging through it for years. Confronting both beasts requires a great deal of honesty and discipline on your part, and you’ll also need plenty of patience. There’s no fast-track, no accelerated option. It is what it is, and at times, like me, you’ll realize three chapters into what you thought was an already-verified source that you’ve been fleeced yet again and you’ve got to go back to the drawing board because the world is so freaking full of this apologetic half-assed approach to learning, and jesus h. christ enough already! Stand your ground, this is what we are fighting for. There are those who believe, either in a nod to the ancient ideas on pedagogy or because of their own idiosyncrasies, or both, that you will have to be physically beaten, starved, and put through the ringer in order to do this. It is my deep and earnest hope that this isn’t actually true. It’s also my deep and earnest hope that in my lifetime learning will be accomplished not with whips and chains, nor advertised with cars and houses and social labels, but will become again the natural and meaningful pursuit of people.

When my Grandfather was still alive, I was sadly still meandering through today’s broken system, and I never really made the effort to get to know his perspective on learning or to talk to him about his experience. This article is dedicated to him; a reminder to myself of the time I’ve wasted, and of how many great unknowns still and will ever lie ahead.

*Yes, this exists, though I’ve only met one such elite and have sacrificed much to even gain access, and I’m not at this point convinced that there is more than one such person on this earth, though I have my hopes and suspicions.

October 11th, 2012

I’m Sorry, America

I recently got into an argument with a friend who declared that he wouldn’t visit the United States under any circumstances so long as the TSA existed. How preposterous, I thought, in part because he’d visited the US in the early naughts, and certainly the agency had existed then, and moreover, sure the whole pat down thing is stupid, but really it’s not so bad that it should prevent people from visiting an entire country, especially if they have otherwise compelling reasons to go. My friend and I went around in a few circles as I tried to pinpoint what I imagined was some other issue of anti-US sentiment or belief in exaggerated claims about the TSA’s operation. As happens often enough, though, what I ended up discovering was that it was I who didn’t quite have a reasonable argument, because I didn’t have a properly strong basis of fact to use. Sure, my convictions were strong enough, but it hardly makes sense to pitch one’s own convictions against someone with an argument built on data…unless you’re into religious fanaticism or whatever.

So I pledged that I’d inform myself. It sounded like something of a boring task, which I guess is why, in the six or so years I’ve been away from my home country, I haven’t really bothered to make any meaningful investigation of what the TSA and traveling in the US has become. Sure, I read the occasional news reports on the implementation of this or that, or the growing concerns over such and such “threat,” but I tucked them comfortably away in the “eh, no government agency is perfect” file, certain that while there’s plenty I don’t like about the US, it’s still the country I know, and still among the “good” ones.

After a mere hour of looking at the TSA’s history, its operation and plans, however, I’ve blown that file to pieces. It’s not any one thing in particular, though the things themselves, such as the implementation of giving airline passengers the “choice” of either being touched in the specific areas our indoctrination as children has taught us shouldn’t ever be touched by strangers or else viewed through a scanner that shows (and perhaps records) every bit of our naked bodies, and a Homeland Security official’s interest in tazer-bracelets capable of painfully immobilizing the wearer at the will of whoever has the right title, to be worn by all passengers, certainly have their own disgusting shock value. What really concerns me is the apparently deep-rooted belief that by handing over privacy, we’ll keep all the bad things away. The idea is of course prevalent in other areas, and has been around for a while, but I honestly didn’t realize it had become so strong.

A recent piece in the NY Times outlined an important point: to date, the policies of the TSA have basically been crafted in reactionary bids to prevent travel terrorism after the fact. Once someone tries to sneak explosives in their shoes, shoes must be removed by everyone. After some gasoline makes it through in soda cans, we’re unable to carry liquids of a certain size. Completely ignoring the fact that actual terrorist attacks can and are likely to evolve and diversify, by their own momentum and by the simple conclusion that perpetrators are privy to what we scan and will deliberately change tactics to avoid discovery, these policies are nothing better than palliatives. Not only are they ineffective in glaringly important ways, they’ve apparently successfully carried out the task of making the American people feel safe about flying. I suppose the reactionary operation of the TSA follows logically from the fact that the administration itself was created in response to the September 11th, 2001 attacks. But to imagine that this administration and its policies are actually carrying out the –duty– of “making sure nothing like that ever happens again” is beyond preposterous. Are we really that fucking stupid?

Unfortunately, it’d seem we are. Not because everybody blindly accepts what’s become of the TSA. Clearly, it’s an issue, and there are several people speaking out against the nightmare of personal invasion and incompetence the administration has become. But several really isn’t enough. I know that it cannot be expected that every American citizen will be particularly smart, or will particularly care about things that affect them, but the simple idea here is: if you are indeed concerned about what “bad things” other people can do to you, you should not be in any way supporting the TSA. You should be part of the effort to get this clearly abortive morass of insanity out of your country, out of your bra and underwear, out of your luggage, and out of positions of power. Did you know that the ~400 TSA workers actually caught and fired because of stealing passengers’ items have freely described a culture of “convenient” and “commonplace” theft at airports? That one such man alone was able to steal $800,000 worth of passengers’ goods before he was caught? Of course he was able, walking into the terminal of a US airport has essentially come down to handing over your possessions and access to any and all parts of your body by distant representatives of Uncle Sam. It’s reprehensible, but it’s still not quite as bad as a public that has allowed this sort of behavior from a government agency to continue for over a decade.

The current effort to change TSA policies isn’t fast enough, and isn’t strong enough. If the US is really a country able to boast of its strength and its defense of freedom, it has no business whatsoever putting its citizens –and any visiting travelers– through the prison-like motions of ensuring that nobody gets away with doing that small percentage of bad things we’ve all seen before. I don’t care if there isn’t anything better to put in its place right now. I don’t care if it’s impractical to rally against the TSA or to stop flying within the country while it continues to operate. This kind of dominion of the government over the people will rot the country as a whole a hell of a lot faster than anything anyone from any other place could possibly bring from outside.

So, there you have it: I was wrong. And I’m sorry. I had no idea how bad this had become. It’s no longer just about the annoyance of putting your bags on a conveyor belt, or slipping off your shoes. It’s about what kind of people we are.

April 17th, 2011

It’s Just What’s Done

Outside of most apartment buildings in Romania, somewhere by a little garden fenced in by bits of scrap metal and sticks that might one day know the glory of being bushes if only the tenders would stop paring them down to the last branch, exists a metal frame. Three lines, like a giant staple coming out of the ground, crude and unadorned save for the occasional peeling strips of paint. For a while, I wasn’t sure what these frames were for; maybe it was a bring-your-own-swing facility or a slightly confused reincarnation of monkey bars. I eventually saw one of these objects in use as a woman beat a rhythmic din into a rug thrown over the top.

An odd amenity, but an understandable one for a country so obsessed with the spirit of household chores it advertises pastel-colored irons for Easter in its newspapers. Aside from feeling somehow transported to a 1950′s style domestic wholesomeness, I’ve come to recognize that like the proper level of over-zealous cleaning, there are many local practices that seem to be carried out not because anybody particularly enjoys it, or because there’s some rational argument to be had, but because that’s just what’s done.

Being barefoot, to be sure, is not what’s done in Romania. I’ve seen multiple charity sites and philanthropic calls to action insisting that the people of Romania need shoes, but I haven’t yet seen a barefoot person, nor any city street that isn’t littered with shoe stores. Being barefoot inside, no matter the environs, is also not what’s done. People have slippers set aside in their houses for visitors. Doctors direct you to a shoe selection should you need to undress. A visitor to my own home, horrified upon seeing me barefoot, inquired as to whether the floor was heated. It doesn’t matter if you’re taking a stroll around the living room or moving five feet from the bath to the towel rack. I’ve heard the general idea is that if you expose your precious footsies to the ground, the ability to bear children is somehow snatched away, but seeing as this same rule is apparently applied to sitting on the floor or exposing one’s back to the air, I’m satisfied that it’s more of a superstition than a genuine belief.

I recently had a one inch nickel pipe clamp installed around my neck as a collar. Heading out to shop one spring afternoon, I wore a tank top and knee-length skirt and made my first stop at a pharmacy. The clerk looked at me in shock, but not because of the clamp. “Is it really,” she wanted to know, “so warm outside you can wear that?!” Thankfully I’d had the heart to blow-dry my hair that morning, otherwise I suspect the woman would have fainted over her concern for my lack of concern about the Romanian concern over allowing one’s body temperature to fall below a moderate fever. Wandering around the town, I’ve been asked on a few occasions by perfect strangers, mid-step, whether I’m not too cold.

Granted, some Romanian habits are rather nice and actually sensible, such as the inclination to begin meals with soup. Granted also that in the US, habits performed simply because they’re what’s done are by now less easily generalized and largely confined to the more abstract worlds of thought and language. Still, when I see the metal staple-frames standing proudly by their buildings as if to proclaim the decency and correctness of the dwellings they so inadequately decorate, I frown a little at the power that “it’s just what’s done” can exert on a landscape, beating it rhythmically into a familiar, but not especially functional, shape.

March 19th, 2011

Offsetting Hypocrisy

Scenario 1: You own a small courier service. You feel compelled to keep your business socially conscientious, and you hear about the ill effects that various company operations may have on the environment. There’s the modest fleet of vans and the gas with which they’re powered, the headquarter office where lights, computers, fax machines, and other power-hungry possessions demand a steady stream of electricity from the local coal plant, and there’s plenty of waste, not all of which fits neatly into the color-coded recycling bins out back.

So you decide you’re going to take the initiative and do something. Except, you don’t actually know what to do –a courier needs its fleet, after all. Then you remember hearing about some big company –or was it an actual country?– that used offsetting to “nullify” the ill effects of its inefficiency and waste. A swift bank transaction and a cute marketing campaign later, you’re satisfied with your trendsetting responsibility and the positive new image you’ve instilled in your customers’ minds.

Scenario 2: Let’s face it, Ted’s an asshole. You’ve known him since grade school, back when he wouldn’t let you play with his toys and got better breakfast cereal than you did, and he hasn’t changed much. Blunt, loud, selfish, and somehow always just sort of “around,” Ted makes your life more or less miserable. Unfortunately, this isn’t the experience of your boss at the insurance firm, who has recently hired Ted and is hinting that he’s on the fast track to usurping your coveted corner office.

The time has come to take action. You’ve entertained the fantasy of hacking Ted to bits with some kind of fancy martial arts weapon, which he would look at with crushing envy before his drawn out made for TV movie death, but surely you couldn’t really do that. Then you remember that time your parents made you go to the dentist for a painful procedure that, as far as you were concerned, had no real purpose other than to make you feel bad. When it was over, your parents took you out for ice cream, patted your head, and talked about how brave you were. Everyone seemed to feel that in the end, it was okay.

You don’t really know what to do with a katana or nunchucks though, so one day you simply poison Ted’s afternoon coffee, and serve it to him personally under the guise of clearing the air and making a new start. After Ted’s death, you start showering your friend John with as much kindness as you can manage. You take him to dinner and go to his house unannounced to deliver presents or help with household chores. John gets creeped out and tells you not to call him anymore. So you have a baby –hey, creating a new life oughta offset ending an old one–, and direct your affections to it, satisfied with your Ted-free existence.

***

There are some laws that govern potential environmental damage and related activities, just as there are laws that relate to killing people. Certain things, we’ve decided, are wrong, and how reprehensible or threatening they may be is a matter typically dealt with in terms of sentences. Somehow, though, we’ve recently talked ourselves into believing that some bad things are okay if we “offset” them by doing good things in the meantime, mostly because we just don’t know how to stop doing the bad stuff.

The offsetting hypocrisy sets a fairly dangerous precedent for moral action, and for interaction with the law. And while I don’t know what to do about -that-, I’m going to publish this instead of not writing anything today and then playing with magnetic poetry on the fridge later to make up for it.