A Monday Kind of Love

The girl walked down St. Mark’s Place, yoga mat under her arm, sweating from the summer heat. She shouldered her way through crowds and darted across the street, dodging taxis. She took a sip from her Nalgene water bottle and contemplated which gluten-free pizza chain she’d stop at.

She turned the corner onto a quiet side street where a man sat in a plastic lawn chair. Late 50s, early 60s, lined face, and rock and roll T-shirt. As she walked past, she could feel him glaring at her. He started talking, in a normal tone of voice, but clearly meant for her to hear.

“This place used to mean something,” he growled. “Punk rock. Graffiti. Trash in the streets. It was real. Real. CBGB. Debbie Fucking Harry.” His voice trailed off into almost a sob, then she felt the laser of his contempt refocus on the back of her neck. “You weren’t there. You could never understand. You just weren’t there.”

He couldn’t see her smile, and she didn’t realize she was smiling. God bless this city, where even hostility from random old guys put a spring in your step. A blast of hot air from a subway entrance caught her square in the face, bringing out fresh beads of sweat just below her hairline. She was nineteen years old and living in New York City and the world was hers.

Posted in Those that at a distance resemble flies | Leave a comment

Which Fastener Best Suits Your Meyers-Briggs Personality Type?

Philips flat head screw

ISTJ Drywall screw
ISFJ Lag bolt
INFJ Dowel screw
INTJ Washer head full thread rear panel screw
ISTP ¼″ Cap screw
ISFP Drywall screw (with anchor)
INFP Carriage bolt with countersunk head
INTP Hex bolt (zinc finish)
ESTP Philips head sheet metal screw
ESFP Straight head sheet metal screw
ENFP ½″ Flanged head machine screw
ENTP Copper wood screw
ESTJ Self-tapping machine screw
ESFJ Stainless steel hex bolt
ENFJ 1 ⅜″ Philips truss head gutter bolt
ENTJ  Nail
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Once They Walked Away

Those who walk away usually follow the river past low white houses beside apple orchards and into the hill country south of Omelas. The woods are full of edible plants and small game. In the summer the weather is mild. Plus Omelas is a rural town and Omelians are a practical people–a lot of carpenters, cooks, and farmers. Childhood gambols by creeks and everybody hunts deer. After a week of sleeping rough, an exile from Omelas thinks, there’s no reason I can’t build myself a cozy home out here. All I need is lumber, a hammer, a knife, some pots and pans…You might make it for a month before you start to run out of food. Maybe your first time outside in a thunderstorm–so pleasant when watched from a front porch back in town–will provoke the first true doubts. You’ll sit, filthy and exhausted, water running off your chin, and fantasize about returning, apologizing for the grandiose self-regard that masqueraded as virtue, and throwing yourself upon the mercy of your old friends and neighbors. But you know that they would have no choice but to avert their eyes and shuffle away. Failure to shun one who has walked away is at best a kind of walking away itself, and at worst a breaking of the Original Deal. Details are fuzzy, but it is clear that there would be consequences for all of Omelas. It is empathy for another person that drove you away in the first place: you can’t now go put everyone at risk. Once you walk away, there is no turning back.

Those who survive walking away from Omelas do so by finding others who have also walked away. Squatters’ camps ring the city: fire pits, vegetable gardens, and boosted tarps. As a new exile you might approach one in the morning, mist burning off the ground, heartened by the squalor–these are the people who can afford to show me kindness–but soon sense that something is not right. People evaluate you with a brief, unreadable glance, then return to whatever they were doing. Finally three men approach. They stand directly in front of you and one smiles. “Are you walking out?” he asks, the out of where being clear. You nod. “And now you’re walking in?” A glimpse around to indicate the camp.

“You couldn’t take it?” This from the biggest of the three. Maybe fifty years old. Bearded and completely bald. “You looked in the basement, saw the Child, and knew you couldn’t do it, couldn’t keep the Deal?” You want throw your arms around him and cry, but then the smiling one speaks again. “Guy’s got a big heart.” He steps closer. “Big heart.” His hand rests casually on the handle of a machete hanging off his belt. The bald one nods. “Lots of love,” he agrees. They’re standing so close now you can feel their breath on your face when they speak. Every pair of eyes in the camp is fixed on you. You feel them as prickles on your back. Who are these men

A new exile might go from camp to camp for weeks trying to walk In. Sometimes you are given food and directed to another camp a day’s hike away, only to find the reception so stony that there is nothing to do but walk away as quickly as possible. Ethnic differences that had seemed quaint back in town now became vitally important. Some people get lucky and are taken in by a distant cousin who had walked out years before. Others reach a level of exhaustion where the intimidation ceases to register, at which point they are given a job gathering firewood or digging latrines, welcomed reluctantly In, another mouth to feed. This part is hardest on young women. The young men in the camps circle, solicitous and predatory. There’s five of them and one of me. Of course it’s going to happen now. It was always only a matter of time. Then someone, you can never predict who, will step up and hiss “We’re better than that” and the moment will pass.

For those who manage to walk In after walking away from Omelas, something like a normal life eventually resumes. There is always too little food and a cold that never leaves your bones, but at some point the camp starts to feel like home. It’s only then that you start to think back on what brought you out here in the first place: the dingy basement, brown light trickling in through ground-level windows, the Child. That moment you first saw the Child, terrified, lying in its own filth, and knew that your whole life in Omelas had been a lie. Later, sitting upstairs in the living room on those dilapidated yellow chairs, the adults explained how the Child stays in the basement and we live. And when the Child dies there has to be another Child, picked at random, and don’t worry you’re already too old. You looked around the camp and knew that everyone had sat in that living room on those particular chairs, and felt–what? Not just horror, because everyone felt that. No, it was the unshakable sense that what was being done to the Child was also being done to you. Walking away was not protest, it was sheer self-preservation. But in the end even the worst horror dims and you resolve back into yourself, finding your way through what is still just your life.

In these camps there are hierarchies and rivalries, a politics that is opaque to one who has just walked Out. One of the first things that falls away is that tiresome Omelian piety about not being soldiers. Here everybody fights. With scarce resources comes stealing, punishment and retaliation, justice rough and improvised. Nobody wants violence (we’re better than that) but there are constant standoffs. Sometimes fists and clubs, the occasional shotgun. There’s also the matter of the farmers who live far south, at the edge of the camps. No one bears them ill will, exactly, but they’re not exiles, and they have stuff we need. Two exiles broke into a storage shed at the edge of a field in the middle of the night and, amazing luck, found an axe. But when they emerged from the shed the farmer was standing there, holding a lantern, his family huddled in the doorway of the house behind him. He could afford to lose the axe, but if he just turned on his heel went back inside, that would be helping an exile, wouldn’t it? The one with the axe took a step forward, face hard, ready to take a swing. Nobody wanted this, but everyone sensed that a plausible show of hostility was required, as part of the Deal.

In the evening smoke from the fire pits drifts up to a dark blue sky where it is blown northward by soft winds, back up the river. For some the camps become their life, the town fades like a dream. For others, Omelas looms ever larger in its absence. Some of them scheme about how to make a return: what kinds of contact might be permissible, how the Deal could be subverted, everyone reunited. The Happily-Ever-Afterers. Others still fantasize about commando raids to free the Child, spirit it off to the camps, where it will be shown love commensurate with the horrors it has known. This would certainly be a breach of the Original Deal with dire consequences for all of Omelians, in and out. Good, say the Bring-Down-the-Housers, let the town burn. Theirs is an elaborate eschatology that sees everything–Omelas, the Deal, the Child, exile–as inevitable necessity leading up to them, sitting in grim circles around low fires, steeling themselves for the moment when they venture out to bring it all crashing down. But they are in the minority. Because what would happen then? Would the town actually burn? Would its residents wander south, stunned and bleary-eyed, needing charity? And how do you walk outside of that?

Posted in Those that at a distance resemble flies | Leave a comment

It’s My First Time at the Rodeo!

Is that a real cowboy?

What are the barrels for?

What does the clown do?

These seats are really comfy.

The talking cactus on the Jumbotron is cracking me up!

Mmm…fried mushrooms.

When does it start?

Oh, it’s already started.

That looks like the Albanian flag.

(Why are we whispering?)

A waiver for what?

That can’t be safe. Is that safe?

Are those guys looking at us?

It’s like I’m the only one who’s noticed the lightning.

Why does the announcers’ voice sound like it’s being played backwards?

(Those guys are definitely looking at us.)

Where did you go?

Stirrup. Which one’s the stirrup? I don’t know what a stirrup is.

What? “‘Run’?” Run?…Run!

I was expecting more cows.

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Racism: Bad

I literally agree with almost everything Robin DiAngelo, professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University and author of What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy, says in this interview about the phenomenon of “white fragility”. Well-meaning people born into a privileged segment of society (for example non-blacks in America’s black/not-black dyad) enjoy advantages that they may be unaware of in a fish-don’t-feel-the-water kind of way. It is useful to remind them of this fact. In the course of doing so some white people may get their feelings hurt, and basically the way to handle this is for those white people to grow a thicker goddam skin.

All that said, I feel like there is often a kernel of disingenuity hiding in structural-racism arguments like this. It’s subtle, and I usually can’t put my finger on it. Here, though, I think I can identify the offending passage. It’s where DiAngelo proposes a more nuanced idea of racism.

For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist–we don’t engage in those acts. This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time–that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not “doing”.

This is saying two things at once: one true, and one that I don’t buy. The true thing–echoed elsewhere in this interview–is that social power often manifests subtly and implicitly, and can cause real damage even when no one bears any conscious ill will. The part I don’t buy is that people who concern themselves with these issues use the word “racism” in this technical we’re-all-racists sense, without any sense of moral opprobrium.

If they did, that would be a problem: bearing hostility towards an entire group of people on the basis of fear, meanness, and idiotic pseudoscience really does make you a bad person, worthy of particular scorn. It’s useful to have a nasty-sounding word like “racist” to refer to that. When I say, “My father-in-law is a racist” I mean that my father-in-law mutters darkly about welfare and street gangs, not that he is an admirable, generous guy who unwittingly enjoys the benefits of long-standing structural inequities. If we call clueless whites “racists” what do we call someone who hates black people?

DiAngelo states, literally, that “good, moral people” can be racist. If you thought you were clever and asked her, “So does that mean you are also a racist?” she would say “Why, yes” because I’m betting like me she knows that the first rule of privilege club is that you never deny being a member of privilege club. This may be an insightful account of the way power gets deployed, but it’s not what most people mean when they say “good”. I think there are two senses of “racist” in play here–the my-bigoted-father-in-law sense, and the racists-are-good-people sense. There is no clear distinction between them. Instead we drift between one or the other as suits us rhetorically, which leads to sloppy thinking and miscommunication. For example, someone posts a link to this interview on Facebook. Some white guy takes offense, insists that he’s not a racist because he really, truly has no problem with black people, and then everyone piles on and mansplains how no, racism is actually a more complicated phenomenon. This is fun the first ten times, but then it starts to feel like a waste of energy. At its most perverse, admitting that you are a racist is just a sophisticated way of signaling to everyone that you’re not a racist.

I don’t think DiAngelo is trying to be slippery here: it’s just a tricky subject. But she wants everyone to be able to talk clearly, and I’m on board with that, so here’s my proposal: racism is bad. Structural inequality is also bad. The two are intertwined, but the former requires conscious hostility while the latter implicates us all. We should keep these concepts distinct. It’s useful.

Posted in Belonging to the emperor | Leave a comment

Fuck You, Trident

Boingo, the company that provides wireless service in airports, either charges for time or gives you free access if you are willing to watch an ad. They know you don’t want to watch the ad, so use tricks to hold on to your attention. Usually this just means refusing to activate your connection until a short video spot has played. Yesterday, during my layover in Atlanta, I was told I additionally had to “Interact” with the ad Boingo was serving for a set number of seconds in order to “earn” wi-fi access. The interaction was a jokey quiz based on the content of the preceding video I had ignored. A readout showed me how many seconds until I was free.


I get it: without these measures no one would watch the ads, Boingo couldn’t justify charging advertisers, and so would not be willing to offer free wi-fi in airports. Compliance generates billable eyeballs, but at what price? I was treated like a recalcitrant employee who needs to be watched like a hawk so that he doesn’t slip off for a smoke break while he’s supposed to be working. Usually I’m ok with ads—the money has to come from somewhere—but the fact that I encounter Boingo in every airport I go to and only in airports makes me think there’s something shady and monopolistic going on and I’ve basically decided they’re my enemy. I make a point of turning down the volume and averting my eyes whenever the ads they host play so that the products fail to register. This extra hoop with the quiz, though, made me pay attention to the point where I remember that the ad I saw was for Trident. The Trident brand made an impression with me. But the impression was something along the lines of “So it’s Trident that hijacked my computer and forced me to watch something I didn’t want to watch. Fuck you, Trident.”

The myth about advertisers is that they are genius manipulators who have turned the art of separating fools from their money into a science. I imagine this is true to an extent, but my Boingo experience makes me wonder which fools, and whose money? Is it worth it for Trident to pay for the privilege of annoying me? Is this simply a case of there being no such thing as bad publicity? I feel like I have become marginally less likely to buy Trident gum, if only because I’ll remember that shunning them is a way to stick it to Boingo. Are the advertisers who put this together playing some deeper game with me that I don’t get? Because, come to think of it, I never give them money. Not a cent. I couldn’t if I wanted to. Their money comes from the marketing department at Trident, whose trust they have presumably worked hard to secure. So maybe Boingo isn’t really my enemy after all. Maybe they’re giving me a little wink and saying, “Here, pretend to watch the ad we convinced someone to pay us to broadcast. Have a little free wi-fi while you’re at it, so you can go up to Facebook and ignore the ads there too. God knows why these chumps keep giving us money, but we won’t say anything if you won’t.”

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Girl, Melting

Recently the listicle “9 Chivalrous Habits Of A True Gentleman That Make Women Melt” drifted across my social media radar. In it “fabulous twenty-something” lifestyle blogger Jen Ruiz bemoans a general lack of class on the part of men on the modern dating scene. Here are some of the small-but-meaningful gestures she suggests they might re-adopt: Opening Doors, Suffering though a Girly Movie, Putting Your Jacket On, and Sending Flowers. There you go, fifteen seconds pleasantly wasted.

Depending on which Sex and the City character you most resemble, you may find this cute, saccharine, or retrograde. If you fall towards the negative end of that spectrum, your sticking point may lie with the concept of chivalry, which at its worst is a kind of patriarchal noblesse oblige codifying the ways in which women are the weaker sex. (The original URL of this article refers to “girls” rather than “women”. Presumably changing the title was a last-minute editorial decision, though “girls” is truer to the tone of the piece.)

I share this reservation and make a point of doling out small courtesies in a gender-neutral fashion, but I’m willing to grant a bit of leeway in the area of heterosexual dating since that is an inherently gendered activity. Besides, the clanking plate mail of the word “chivalry” is too comic to provoke outrage. I only ever hear it as part of the stock phrase “Is chivalry dead?” which indicates to me that chivalry is pretty much dead.

If anything, the hackneyed nature of this evergreen women’s mag cliché makes me kind of like Jen Ruiz. I imagine her suddenly realizing that she had fallen behind in her monthly listicle quota and hurriedly banging this one out in ten minutes before rushing out for a fabulous twenty-something night on the town during which men may or may not have opened doors for her. But then I went back and reread the boilerplate she uses to introduce her list.

In a world filled with late-night booty calls, infidelity and a general “hit it and split it” mentality, it’s easy to become jaded by today’s dating scene.

As women, we brace ourselves for the worst, proceeding with extreme caution during the first few months, for fear of falling victim to the aforementioned debauchery in which so many men partake.

Even though none of the nine chivalrous habits have anything to do with sex, the opening paragraphs are all about it. This is not a non sequitur because the list is a gently chiding account of the ways in which men disappoint women, and one way men do this is by tricking them into bed. It goes without saying that a woman would never initiate a late-night booty call or an affair. Women are naturally asexual creatures except when (I’m speculating here) dangling sex as bait to capture The One or, in a moment of weakness, giving in to their baser drives and becoming victims.

It’s the word victim that sticks in my craw. Maybe I shouldn’t read so much into it. Ruiz’s trifle is not written in the mode of the cultural left, where “victim” carries heavy connotations along with a prickly sort of pride. It only appears here as part of the idiom “fall victim”, so the tone I get is more “Oopsie, girlfriend, you fucked him. Better luck next time!” I’ll bet Jen Ruiz is herself nobody’s victim, and may even (speculating again here) have taken part in at least one late-night booty call in a strong, non-regretful, sexually self-determined sort of way. The whole sex-is-a-thing-men-do-to-women thing feels more like a rhetorical tic, something a harried writer produces on her way out the door. But there it still is, denying women’s agency, albeit in a breezy amirite-guys kind of way.

There’s so much to as-they-say-unpack here I’m at a loss where to begin, so let’s start with this: the clear desire for some rules. This whole sex-and-relationships business would be easier to negotiate if everyone knew what the hell they were supposed to do, but they don’t because the generalized taboo about sex extends to talking about sex with someone you might like to have sex with, so Mars and Venus are left to communicate via oblique signals and ossified codes. This, however, is true of human relationships in general. You don’t make new platonic friends by presenting an agreeable candidate with an itemized list of your emotional needs. Instead the two of you just hang out together and see if you click. It’s a kind of seduction.

Actual seduction, though, involves sex, which for some feels fraught, scary and beset with traps. The non-sexual silent mutual agreement thing is nerve-wracking, but the Ethical Slut explicit negotiation thing feels weird. Then in heterosexual relationships mix in the power differential between between men and women, which to the baseline sense of interpersonal nervousness (that, depending on your disposition, is why you either hate going on dates or love going on dates) adds an ethical component. There’s the discomfort arising from sexist baggage (bad) and the discomfort arising from sexual vulnerability (totally hot), and in the moment it may be difficult to disentangle the two. Given such complications, people may feel inclined to fall back on whatever guidance is available, even when that guidance consists of these really awful old man-woman scripts that serve no one.

Posted in Those that tremble as if they were mad | 2 Comments