Archive for ‘i spy dystopia’

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. []
September 26th, 2013

Your Feelings are Out to Get You

I couldn’t tell you when it happened, exactly, and in truth there’s no reason to suspect that its growth was unlike the spread of a fungal colony; deep underground somewhere, the notion that what people “feel” could possibly bear as much as or more importance than what they think (assuming they actually possess the ability) acquired more and more mass, sending poisonous mushrooms above ground here and there until at some point those enjoying the forest found themselves knee-deep in rot.

“I feel that you are wrong.” “I feel that the company owes us retribution.” “I feel” this, “I feel” that, and it’s almost never about anything to do with that amorphous realm of emotion in which expressing a feeling could be at all relevant. It’d seem that people are being taught that their feelings matter so generally and in such an unexplained and imprecise manner as to lend credence to this idea –or moreover, this feeling– that there’s no real need to consider facts, to understand context, or to otherwise engage in thought. An alternative or even cooperative explanation could of course be that this broken feeling is simply never checked, or at least, not enough, by others (such as, for instance, parents, teachers, and others tasked with responsibility for the education of children).

An early lesson I struggled with was the notion that my feelings do not matter. On the first pass, it was knee-jerking. It sounded felt like a personal insult. Surely how I felt was important, not only to me but to those around me. I was a person, my feelings shouldn’t be hurt or denigrated! But these very feelings were a kind of blanket spread over the truth: a feeling doesn’t matter within the context of thought, and has no impact whatsoever on anything at all unless I choose to act upon it (which in turn is no guarantee that an impact will be made, and it’s even more unlikely said impact will affect anything other than my –you guessed it– further feelings). This isn’t because I am more or less x than anyone else. It’s just what it is.

Now, I could certainly construct a false sense of reality for myself in which my feelings mattered very much, dictating what was correct and what was not, along with a laundry list of shoulds and becauses and on and on. And while I’m certain that a growing number of people (and especially those who have excessive time for musing over such things because they’ve been born into situations that do not require them to focus instead on how to get what to eat) are constructing these false realities for themselves out of a desire for emotional comfort and a sense of control, this construction in fact produces the exact opposite.

For even if one endeavors to surround oneself with like-minded feelers who “support” each others’ “rights” to these feelings in an attempt to reduce the checks that reality itself will impose, there’s no absolute escape from reality, leaving aside the gray areas of actual brain damage and the like. In fact, the more ardently someone works to weave this blanket, the more disruptive such inevitable checks will be, and the more those feelings will be hurt.

This problem constitutes reason enough to acknowledge that while feelings may be felt, they have no bearing on the truth. But it is far from being the only, or even the largest, problem. Relying on feelings to perform as one’s compass has the nasty, ultimately life-destroying effect of keeping people from learning. After all, you cannot very well understand something new if the fact that it’s new and so disrupts your feelings results in your rejecting it outright. Moreover, there’s little if any learning to be done in life without the involvement of some agent; a teacher, a writer, a drill sargeant, someone has disseminated information that’s graciously been made available to you. There’s no guarantee you’ll “feel” that this agent is kind or considerate or understanding or whatever it is you liked about your kindergarten nanny. And again: that doesn’t matter. If you go through life selectively reading, selectively hearing, and selectively thinking you’ll end up living a far weaker, blander, emptier, and hurt-filled life than you reasonably could have, no matter where you started, no matter what other circumstances were present for you.

Your feelings, should you attempt to position them as anything more than that, should you attempt to impose them over the truth, should you abuse them as shelter, will necessarily hurt you. The next time you find yourself beginning an argument with “I feel…”, literal or not, consider whether this shroud of yours is worth sacrificing the bliss of learning, knowing, and of being real.

November 26th, 2012

Shall be Delivered

*Edit 12/16/12: Competition may not have been steep, but nevertheless, the story won one of three 5 BTC prizes. Ladeeda.

Following is an entry for Trilema’s short-story contest concerning the future of society given the adoption of GPG contracts. A useful primer on the subject can be found here.

Maureen Plank filled her tumbler with ice and sent it down the automated bar’s treadmill, loathing and relishing in equal parts the necessary reading and grading of sophomore papers that’d take up the evening. She watched the drink change color with each precisely calculated addition of rum, pineapple juice, and distilled tamarind. She remembered, briefly, the early days of her teaching career, when the mixture of her emotions had seen far more generous amounts of anticipation and genuine belief in the power of the public education system. Back in those days, she had graded papers with a glass of water –or sometimes without anything at all, just a woman and her red pencil stenciling finely-trained minds for tomorrow’s inevitably improved world. That was all before it had become fashionable to renege.

She still didn’t really understand it, she reflected as she took her first sweet and biting sips of the cocktail, this trend towards dishonor and dishonesty. Maureen supposed that it was, in a way, only natural that people unable or unwilling to accept authority and incapable of challenging it successfully should protest by adopting what they thought were the opposites of that authority’s values. But to hand one’s word over carelessly, to eschew the very systems that allowed the modern world to carry on with dignity and to get things done –was there anything more distasteful, more detestably unbearable? Maureen took another sip. No, it was really the worst.

The divide had become noticeable to Maureen a handful of years ago, when children young enough to have been raised without any exposure to the so-called Platinum Age of Maureen’s youth began to enter the higher grades and find means to express themselves beyond tending to algae pets and making minor explosions within the safe, goggled confines of their personal virtual chemistry labs. In fact, she thought bitterly, those gleeful and instructive pillars of her childhood were probably forgotten now; today’s children were more likely spending their time using templates for shoe-tying and practicing EID trigger digit gymnastics as preparation for school.

Shortly before they were born, the first demonstration against the ruling Integrity Party had shocked the nation and much of the world, and while many refused to believe that people would ever abandon the contract systems that had elevated society from the plagues of centuries past, nevertheless a slowly multiplying contingent ceased to uphold its word. Would agree to nearly anything at whim, would make impossible promises without the slightest consideration of how they’d be fulfilled. They didn’t even seem to care when the time to deliver arrived and they were recognized as the unconscionable liars they truly were. And now, Maureen thought, her tumbler clear and colorless again in her hand, now the children of those original dissenters were coming of age. And they didn’t know the value of integrity at all. What was she supposed to say about their papers, which so clearly misunderstood the basic principles of responsibility, papers which revealed children more concerned with their meaningless appearance than their functional self-representation? If only they’d just stop coming to class, just stay away from what good kids were left…but she couldn’t kick them out. It’d break her heart….

The automatic bar whirred sympathetically as it prepared another stormy auburn glass.

* * *

“You can’t just stand around like a limp pickle and expect us to entertain you,” said Sandy Barncroft, wrinkling her freckled –or maybe just slightly dirty– nose at Tilde. “We let you come ’cause we thought you’d be cool.”

“But I could get in a lot of trouble with my parents if they found out I was here and played truth or dare.” Tilde Plank knew they’d peg it as a lame excuse, just as she knew she really would be grounded and lectured and maybe even starved of her favorite lavender pudding if the family knew she was doing this. Actually, she realized, all that would happen if they even found out she wasn’t at this moment in her room doing the week’s dissections. She shuddered, picturing the array of invertebrates scheduled for her scalpel. She was already here, she reasoned. And she couldn’t go home with Darren and his friends writing her off as a mousy Integrity girl. “Okay,” she relented, “but just a couple of rounds.”

Darren McAlister smiled an almost painfully dimpled smile at her. When he looked at her the world at large somehow ceased to exist except in a blur of irrelevance.

“It’s about fucking time,” someone murmured. Sandy announced she was going first, since she was thirteen and the oldest by two months. No one argued. Tilde willed her to pick Darren and dare him to kiss her. She could feel it coming. This was the moment. Her palms began to clam up as she tried to watch him from the corner of her eye.

“Tilde,” Sandy said triumphantly. Shit. “Truth. Do your parents make you recite the Articles of Integrity before they tuck you in?”

“They don’t tuck me in!” Tilde blurted, a little too fast, she thought. Her palms were getting worse, her thumbs fidgeting wildly at the seams of her pockets. The giggles erupted from the circle like popping corn. “Well?” Sandy insisted. “We only say them sometimes before dinner. And at brokenball games.” More laughter. “Yeah right. Well go on, it’s your turn now.”

Tilde was mortified. Among her family and her friends that family had approved, the Articles were treated as perfectly benign, a kind of blessing that was pulled out now and then, and she knew it was important to remember the three warriors who had died shortly after writing them on the eve of Integrity’s victory all those years ago. But to these kids, it was a mark of snobbery. Maybe even to Darren…but no, she wouldn’t believe that. She was certain he’d understand if he only knew her a little better, if she could bring him home. After all, he said he’d bring her here tonight, and he had.

“Okay, um. I pick, um.” Her palms were manufacturing some kind of paste. “I pick. Larinda.” The girl across the circle emitted a little grunt. “Um. Truth.” Tilde’s thoughts raced. What was she supposed to ask? She didn’t want to embarrass her, even if it was apparently the point. Tilde eyed the girl’s flashy pink herringbone coat. “Where did you get your coat?” The popcorn laughter returned. “That’s a stupid question,” Larinda said. “Enough of this bullshit, I’m getting the party started. Tilde. Dare. Take out your postpad and write down your precious private key.”

“What?!” Tilde exclaimed, no longer aware of her sodden palms in the full-bodied flood of panic washing over her. “I can’t do that.” “You have to, she dared you,” came the replies, more or less echoed around the circle. She looked at Darren, searching for reprieve. “If you’re gonna play the game, you’ve got to play it, right? You said you would and all, doesn’t that mean you have to?” He grinned at her again. How could she get out of this? She’d been told over and over again she could never tell anyone her key. Her dad had told her he didn’t even want to think about it when she had asked him what would happen if she lost it. She had spent months memorizing it, reciting it in her head, preparing it, as her parents said, for the time when she’d be a woman and she’d need to use it out in the world. But if she left and Darren thought she was a snob….

“What’s the big deal, mine’s fa269p411tee,” said Sandy. That’s it, Tilde thought. She’d just write down the wrong key. She took the postpad out of her pocket, tore off a sheet, and clicked the ballpoint end installed in her index finger. Twelve characters later, it was done. Darren took the sheet from her hand and passed it around the circle. Tilde watched Larinda slip the paper into the pocket of her coat of still unknown origins. It worked. But she still felt a little sick, somewhere in her gut. If her parents knew!

“Pick someone already,” Sandy commanded. “God, we have to tell you to do everything.” “Oh! Right, okay. Um, Darren. Truth?” he arched his brow at her, still grinning. “Have you…have you ever kissed a girl?” The popcorn resumed.

* * *

It had been a rough workday, Ronald Plank reflected as he locked up the Reptiles Wing of the Lesser Los Angeles Natural History Museum. Which wasn’t to say, of course, that he disliked his job or that he was ready for retirement. Not at all. It was rewarding work, supervising the staff’s taxidermy and curating the visiting collections of extinct creatures. The Mojave Gila Monster, the Slippery-Toed Terrapin. It was rewarding, and perfectly honorable, even if these days he seemed to be cleaning the graffiti off of exhibit glass more often than supervising or curating. People always got a little crazy around election time, went a little out of their way to try and get their confused ideas across, even if it was entirely illogical to smear the good names of candidates and proclaim their love of various bodily fluids on expensive educational materials at the Museum. Why someone would ever imagine that defiling his exhibits was going to have any impact whatsoever on the public vote or on anything other than his time, Ronald really had no idea. Why wouldn’t the administration simply reinstate the security protocols for keeping these people out? Surely they didn’t stand much of a chance of actually learning anything.

Really though, he thought, really it was rewarding work, and certainly there were many years of distinguished curation ahead. He walked down the checkerboard linoleum of the hall. Nodded to the blonde receptonist projection –who seemed to have been upgraded with an especially tight sweater wardrobe, he couldn’t help but notice. He wondered if the administration wouldn’t have better spent its funds upgrading her personality so she’d say something other than “Thank you for visiting. Good-bye,” to him every day as he left the building.

Ronald walked the six blocks home without looking at much else besides the tops of his shoes as they padded over grass, asphalt, and the glistening black surface of the occasional step energy generator. What was going to happen if Integrity lost this time around? No, no, they couldn’t lose, it wasn’t even worth thinking about. Like retirement. Ronald immediately formulated a plan to revise the taxidermy approval schedule and recite the Articles in the study after dinner.

* * *

Dinner that night consisted of half a roast pheasant on protein pancakes with currant jam. Tilde picked at a wing, occasionally finding bits of currant, which she ate. Maureen explained that she was on a diet again, prescribed by the family image technician earlier that day. She had arranged a glass each of vodka and tomato juice, and took small sips of either punctuated with languid bites from a celery stick. Ronald, for his part, ate voraciously, his mouthfuls contributing most of the content of his recounting of the day’s scientifically important events to his wife and daughter. Unable to silently sit through more than ten minutes of this, and nearly faint with hunger after being unable to eat more than the currants for those past few days that had followed the game out of worry and guilt, Tilde dropped her fork and looked up at her parents. “I–” she interrupted her father, “I think I did something bad.”

As Tilde began to unravel the story, Maureen and Ronald Plank stopped their drinking and eating, stood up, sat back down, got up again, paced around the room, leaned over their daughter, went to the window, and finally found themselves back at their seats. “…But I changed it,” Tilde said, “so they can’t do anything with it, right?” Maureen began to sob. Ronald looked into the wide eyes of his daughter, walked to her chair, and picked her up. Wordlessly, he carried her to her bedroom. Wordlessly, he closed the door and its outside latch. He walked out of the house and moved to the room’s window, intending to lock it as well, but found it open, and Tilde gone, by the time he arrived.

* * *

He’d never reacted to anything like that before, Tilde thought, racing along the streets towards a destination unknown. This must be really bad. Worse than she had thought. What relief she had felt in confessing was obliterated by the panic that had taken over. No words! Her dad always had at least a few handfuls of them, even when he was eating. He talked in his sleep! Breaking through her mental flurry, Tilde recognized the familiar lights and signs of El Cajon Boulevard, the bright blue holograms that danced in front of the convenience store where she bought, among other things, her supplies of postpads and carbonated milk. That’d settle her stomach, she thought, a nice milk fizz and then she’d sit somewhere and think.

The man bumped into her violently, sending her backwards onto the pavement, where her ass landed hard against a step energy generator. It gave off its usual faint pulse of light on contact. Turning her head, she spotted Alton James, a man she’d seen a couple of times with her grandfather, when the old man had been alive. More recently, his face had graced Integrity campaign posters. He was chasing another figure, apparently unaware or unconcerned that she had fallen. As Tilde moved to get up, she saw an older woman in front of her on the asphalt, the skirt of her sequined dress flayed in strips like a dazzling octopus skin. People began to crowd around her, obstructing Tilde’s vision. The regenerative promises of milk fizz seemed stronger than ever. She slinked into the convenience store, limping slightly.

After three bottles of the bubbly white stuff and several streets put between her and the by now ambulance- and cruiser-strewn boulevard, Tilde was no closer to having thought her way through her predicament. Part of her desperately wished to run away, to never have to face that unbearable eerie silence from her father again, or her mother’s awful sobs. But she didn’t know where to go. And she had spent most of her money on the milk. Knowing for the last hour of her walk that she’d end up there, she finally arrived back home. Tilde found her father standing in the kitchen, arguing loudly with someone on his headset. Her mother was nowhere to be seen.

* * *

Ronald rested his balding head against the thick oak of the study desk, his hands laced over his nape. “I told you already, it was only a few kids she was with. Yeah. No. Not from our neighborhood. I don’t know. Probably. Yeah.” Thin and tinny emissions of sound escaped Ronald’s earpiece. They continued for some time. “I know it’s not permissible!” he said once the sounds had stopped. “Believe me, her entire education will be retrofitted, she’s not even leaving the house again until I’m sure. There has to be something you can–” the sounds resumed. “Well it’s because you knew him that I’m asking you to do it! Can you just look into it? Please.” Ronald’s fingers squeezed tighter against the back of his neck. “Please.”

Tilde overheard many such one-sided conversations from her room over the next few days, simultaneously worrying about what they might mean and feeling comforted by the sound of someone talking. The periods of silence were the worst. Her father had taken her holotube and radiocaster, all three of her special edition headsets, even her antique piccolo. He’d also taken her data processing console along with its interchangeable reader. There wasn’t much left in her room at all, aside from her dissection tool set, her bed, a single lamp, and her box of jewelry and index pen attachments. She sat in a corner and hugged her knees to her chest, clicking her ballpoint end out and in. In and out. Why wasn’t her mother coming in to check on her every few hours like Father was? Maybe she was out somewhere, helping. They were going to fix it. She’d never see Darren and never be bad again.

* * *

On the sixth day of Tilde’s room arrest, Ronald burst in seized with rage –a state that was incredibly rare for him, and one which Tilde had never seen. “So not only are you incorrigibly stupid, you’re also a liar! Who taught you that lying is any sort of valid recourse when you’ve done something wrong? You will go through what happened again, item by item!” Tilde stared at him blankly, shocked at hearing the word liar directed at her, and from her own family. It was a word reserved for the very worst of society, a word no one had ever used to describe her. There was nothing lower. She knew she had screwed up, but she wasn’t a liar, she thought. What was he talking about?

“NOW!” The command shook her out of her injured reverie.
“I– I went to the Empire Marina, there were some kids from–”
“That is NOT how you state points of fact. Date!”
“16 Helidor. Empire Marina. I was with–”
“TIME!”
Tilde was beginning to shake. “I don’t know what you mean,” she began.
“16 Helidor, TIME!” Nothing. “At what time did this take place?” Ronald roared.
“I don’t know, I can’t think with you yelling at me!” And indeed Tilde couldn’t. Or rather, she couldn’t figure out how to stop herself from shaking, or her mind from screaming, in order to make room for the simple task of retrieving and reporting a banal memory.

“Let me make this very clear to you,” said Ronald, his voice still hard but quieter and lower than it had been. “You have been identified as a key witness for the People’s Party in the trial of Alton James. They have your signature on a contract stating you’ll testify. The entire country will be watching next week on the news as the statement that you saw Alton James murder a woman on the street and walk away is read. Now, either you’ve somehow witnessed a murder and signed that contract while being supposedly confined to this room, or else you gave away your secret key without altering anything. As if what you already told us wasn’t bad enough!”

“I saw Mister James a week ago, he was running after a man with something shiny in his hand. There was a woman too, on the sidewalk…I don’t think he hurt anybody. I didn’t tell anyone though!” she added.
“Then?”
“I was sure I changed the last character,” Tilde replied, earnestly perplexed.

“One, you changed ONE?” Ronald was stunned. Until this point he hadn’t imagined he could have possibly been any more stunned than he was, after his daughter’s confession last week and today’s news from his father’s old Integrity friend. He’d taught the girl to read, to appreciate reptiles, to use market arithmetic, to play the piccolo…she was his own, his very own, and she was apparently so hopelessly incompetent he could’ve mistaken her for a child reared by mindless adhesivists on the streets. So now, in addition to begging the Integrity official for a new key for his daughter and protection against the original ever coming back to her in the unlikely event it was deciphered from the one she’d said she augmented, now he was going to have to beg for…for what? What could they do now? Her name, her face, her very genetic material would be linked with the damned public key that was tied to the code she’d flitted away, linked with this scandal, with this family disgrace. Ronald laced his fingers behind his neck again, his head resting on his daughter’s knee. What could they do?

* * *

David Fine looked at his watch. Three past. He’d give the man one more minute, then he’d leave. He couldn’t stand the notion of other people forcing their approximations of time on him, with their slightly fast and slightly slow devices, all ticking away according to whatever idiosyncratic settings they’d been given, getting every second slightly wrong. And even if they kept their timepieces synched, you could expect that “five” meant “any time between four forty and five nineteen.” No one ever seemed to notice that Fine was always on time, to everything, precisely.

He heard the footsteps draw nearer and began to walk slowly along the tree-lined corridor of the park. It being dawn, the area was blessedly empty save for the odd morning jogger –and they were almost always tuned in to a ‘cast.

“When I was a boy,” Fine started, “my mother took me to a park not unlike this one. There was a large pond, with a grand pump-powered fountain at the center. I was watching a family of ducks, a mother and several ducklings, swimming in a line. The mother moved towards the fountain, and one of the ducklings broke the line and went straight towards it. By the time the mother noticed the duckling had gotten too close, and was taken under. She panicked. She swam the fountain’s circumference, and all the other ducklings followed. Eventually she dove. She didn’t come back up. Neither did the rest of them.”

“I never imagined that this would happen,” Ronald said, coming astride, “I wanted to prepare her, I thought she understood–”
“You thought she’d understand concepts she wasn’t ready for, and more dangerously, that she’d obey.”
“She’s never been any trouble before. Look, I know it’s bad.”
“Do you? Do you know that your father, before he died, believed that James was the right person to lead Integrity into the new decade? So did a lot of people. So did I. Your duckling has effectively ensured that will never happen.”
“So punish me. Put me in prison, send me to the Detroit Wastes, anything. But help me get her a new start. I’ve been thinking, if we could stage her death–”
“And what happens when her DNA is identified?”
“Yes but there are ways we can prevent that from happening, forged samples, something.”
Fine stopped. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple. Even if it could be managed –and I’m not suggesting that it reasonably could be–, there’s the question of whether something like this can actually be forgiven.”
“It was a mistake,” Ronald insisted, “she’s a child. Even adults make mistakes.”
“That it was a mistake is not the issue. That her word was abused, and with documentation on record, no less, and further that it was used for the purpose of burying our star candidate, is. We don’t pardon the millions of people who’ve used signed contracts unethically. They’re ruined. The difference is we’re not particularly concerned with them, because they haven’t managed to cause any meaningful damage. The People’s Party has been inching towards a takeover for years, they’re now on the very cusp of overturning everything Integrity has stood for. ” He paused, looking Ronald firmly in the eye.
“I suggest you make it easy for your family.”
“I can’t….” Ronald breathed more than spoke his reply.
“You will. The girl cannot be saved. I suppose we’ve been too unguarded, leaving key generation to the discretion of parents. If we come out of this election alive, you have my word we’ll look at this…problem, of youth.”
If Ronald heard the man it didn’t register.
“I’m sorry. Your father was a great man. I would have liked to help his kin.”
Fine continued walking along the corridor, alone.

* * *

Maureen wondered how her husband could bear to leave the house and come into contact with the world outside while their family was heaving with the weight of shame. She was a teacher, Maureen thought to herself, why didn’t she see that Tilde hadn’t been ready? Even if Ronald got this to go away, like he promised her he would before leaving the house early that morning, even then she’d still know that she had failed at being a good mother. Every day at work she felt scorn for the children of the People, wondering how they could be so reckless and uncautious with their word. But maybe it was the parents’ fault. The parents, and the teachers, who made children recite the Articles and learn the history, and the ones who taught that recitations and histories weren’t important. Maybe they were equally guilty, so long as they failed to pass down the understanding and maturity that a society held together by honor required.

She heard the front door open and shut. Heard a faint rustling as outer layers of clothes were removed and laid aside. Muted footsteps. A lengthy creak from an ill-oiled hinge being moved. Two faint series of clicks. More footsteps. She heard her husband open their daughter’s bedroom door.

Her husband’s voice.
“…It is through free will that I enter a contract, and through the same free will that I make good upon it. My word is my shepherd as it is my sheep, it shall guide me to greatness fed upon the nourishment of my reverence and respect. With my key my word shall be delivered…”

She heard the first shot. Maureen Plank dove out of bed and nearly threw herself down the stairs, racing towards Tilde’s room, her fingernails carving thin lines in the wood of the railing all the way down. She reached the landing. And heard the second.

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.

May 26th, 2011

Charity

Back behind the cupboards were the cobwebs and the sediments that straddled fluid and gritty matter, where things untouched and left to the whim of the darkness accumulated, grew, stretched out in miniature tides over the powerless surfaces, spilling only the slightest hints of horror into the realm of the visible.

Jackie felt the expansion of these tiny networks of disgust reach into her, penetrating three dollars’ worth of chocolate and neroli body balm, seeping through a spray-on tan now two days past its promised lifespan, beyond the pampered strata of her skin, making a beeline towards her throat, where it installed silent mantras of self-doubt and guilt. A factory at the base of her throat fleshed out as she sat crouching on the cold kitchen tiles, the exhaust of sudden feelings fumbling forward from her mouth in patternless and quaking intervals.

Luxury’s clinging veils, stacked and undulating, beat against her in a thousand butterfly kisses, carrying a world of cares away on fleets of tiny gilded wings. But some things, being empty, could not be carried away. Holes hid deep inside her chest, unfilled by champagne or wit, cradling unknown ecstasies, the unsettling nothingness calling out to people and to places Jackie didn’t understand.

She hadn’t understood the man who walked the town’s main square day in, day out, with bare but trimmed and oft-washed feet, his hands clasped like old friends behind his back. The man’s basal and distant stare, the work of thoughts that lay beyond the confines of the square and its well-populated host, was punctuated with sporadic scenes of acute awareness in which the man’s face seemed to saturate with color and excitement, his eyes imbued with dew and light to linger on a flower or the uneven footsteps of a child chasing after overfed and lazily dispersing pigeons.

He didn’t seem so much like one of the poor, but more like a town monument, to Jackie, who watched him from the safety of sidewalk cafes, strolling past the foreground of crustless watercress sandwiches and fork-speared spirals of shrimp.

She’d never seen anybody talk to the man, or share anything more than a point or a laugh. A perambulatory statue giving substance to the square he walked, wildly streaked hair gathered in an obedient braid that swished like a horse’s tail behind his head.

Jackie wanted to give the man some thing, some token of nourishment, an artifact of the life she wrapped around the holes inside her chest like a silk pashmina. To see his eyes light up, the breath of recognition clarify the air, the smile of genuine appreciation, warm, infectious, cloying, eternal.

She had arranged three shrimp on a napkin, overlaid with one long strand of chive, the presentation so precise and rich in counterpoint it might have been a perfect logo, if logos were made of seafood or could be rolled up in napkins and generously donated to eccentric men of unspecified psychoses. This thought nervously skittered its way around a particular emptiness somewhere in Jackie’s viscera as she left the shaded cafe terrace and walked towards the north end of the square.

Her fingers tapped out minute tremors against the air and the prized morsels in her hand loosened in their wrapping, the parcel losing sudden weight as one shrimp fell out. Jackie turned, a reflex pouring fast into her joints to retrieve the shrimp, but she recoiled when a pigeon’s head flashed forth and darted at the pink and orange flesh, the pointed beak tossing the shrimp obscenely into the air and attracting the attention of every other pigeon in the square.

A young boy’s steady stream of bubbling laughter rushed over the crowding pigeons like a sudden waterfall and turned, as if by some invisible and joyous inertia, the head of the walking man. He didn’t look at Jackie. Coming closer to take in the free-for-all, the man moved slowly past Jackie and her barely-outstretched hand as she fruitlessly fought to find a phrase of offering that wouldn’t be offensive, that wouldn’t be too personal, that would somehow convey her longing to stop up the vacancies inside her with the kind of calmness, the unfettered, naked movement he so obviously possessed.

A fat, uneven-feathered pigeon late to the buffet walked drunkenly past Jackie’s feet and shat unceremoniously on her beloved taupe suede pumps, the wetness trickling down between her exposed toes.

“Oh, fuck, shit!” the words poured out of her in sympathetic excrement. The man turned and looked at Jackie, his face devoid of the amber glow of new discovery, devoid of the serene lines of total acceptance.

His face, ugly for the first time, frowned at Jackie and her helpless isolation from a moment shared between a real person and the real world. And so she left the square, two shrimp still in hand, and sank inside the leather silence of a taxi, taken home to tuck the holes to bed on the superficial face of cleanliness and sanity on the kitchen floor.

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.