LIVE FREE AND DIE

Posted in Rants on October 27th, 2014 by Ed

After a stretch of not terribly awesome news over the weekend and continuing into this week, I was talking with a friend about my favorite topic – feeling stuck in a place I don't particularly like. She noted, and I immediately agreed, that this is hardly a unique problem. If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone complain that they felt shackled to or stuck in a job they don't like, I would have a very strange way of earning money. I'd also have about twenty extra dollars per year. If anything I have less to gripe about than most job-haters given that I don't actually dislike my job but rather its location. Still, it's not pleasant. Just in case you imagined having no life whatsoever outside of work as being pleasant.

My standard line is to tell frustrated friends that all paid employment is pretty awful, because if it was fun and fulfilling they wouldn't have to pay people to do it. This is an exaggeration, but only just (notice how the unpaid intern economy focuses on professions like journalism and activism rather than mundane but economically productive jobs). I doubt this is comforting, but it is hard to get useful advice on this topic since we are all basically in the same boat. The vast majority of us would love to wake up tomorrow morning and never have to work again; more accurately, we would love never to have to work a given job because we needed it.

Everyone tells a version of the same story: I hate this job but I need it. I'm stuck, I'm trapped, it's out of my hands. The reason we all say this is that it is true. Unless you happen to be that rare individual with some high-demand skill, most of us are in an unhappy marriage with our jobs. We live paycheck to paycheck and struggle under some debt burden – educational, medical, consumer, or whatever – that keeps us going back to a job that makes us feel like shit day after day. Getting a different job sounds good in theory but with hundreds of applicants for every job in most fields these days we realize (and are repeatedly told) that we're lucky to have one.

We are not, in any meaningful sense of the word, free. Yes, anyone is free to quit and become a hobo. But for those of us who like living indoors and having exotic luxuries like electricity and running water, the feeling of being Stuck is overwhelming. We all realize that the job we have is the best job we can get and the other options reside several rungs down on the ladder. The more I think about this dilemma – and I'd estimate I devote about 25% of my waking time to it on any given day – the more I realize why Americans, particularly the ones under the most economic pressure, talk so much about Freedom and put so much stock in their 2nd Amendment rights and their, uh, unique conception of religious freedom. People cling to those more symbolic types of freedom because they understand, even without admitting it to themselves, that they don't have any real freedom. Saying "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays" or stocking your home with a ludicrous arsenal of weapons gives life a nice, shiny veneer that looks like freedom. Those things probably feel like great moral victories to a person who spends his days working at a job he hates and for which he is barely paid enough to afford his shitty house and shitty car in whatever eyesore of a town he calls home.

I guess guns and public nativity scenes and refusing to buy health insurance are symbolic things that allow people to convince themselves they are free, or at least to avoid thinking about how little freedom they really have. We are encouraged, and in many cases encourage ourselves, to think of Freedom as intangible because most Americans have none that is tangible. Like Bill Hicks used to say, "You think you're free? OK. Try doing anything without money, then you'll see how free you are."

RUGGED INDIVIDUALISM

Posted in Rants on October 27th, 2014 by Ed

Let me preface this by beating the most pedantic would-be commenters to the punch and recognizing that minor property damage obviously isn't a big priority for law enforcement anywhere. In the grand scheme it doesn't amount to much, obviously.

To make a long story short, after leaving my car in one of the many (obscenely expensive) parking decks in the most expensive area in Chicago, my car was broken into on Saturday night. A large hole was punched in the passenger window. When I found it on Sunday morning, I called the company that manages the parking deck, as there was no actual human on duty. I was told, in the coded language of corporate American customer service, to go fuck myself. This was expected, and I called as a formality since I assumed my insurer would ask. Next I called the non-emergency number for the Chicago PD to experience their new officerless system for filing police reports. Apparently that thing you see on TV where a cop drives up and listlessly fills out some paperwork no longer happens. Officer – oh, let's say "Grabowski" – informed me over the phone that for some reason the new File a Report by Phone system would not allow me to File a Report by Phone and instead I would have to drive to the nearest CPD station.

OK, no big deal. I mean, the entire vehicle is filled with shards of broken glass and since I don't happen to have a shop-vac on my person I can't do much about that, but I'll sit on the glass and get a decent amount of it stuck in my clothes and arms so I can drive to the station with the film backing on the window flapping around and tossing additional bits of glass in and out of the car. Cool. After waiting 45 minutes at the station for no discernible reason – I was the only person there and the gaggle of officers passed the time talking about Jay Cutler – I was informed that it was my fault because I left a pair of gas station sunglasses on the passenger seat. Suitably chastened, I waited until Officer – Oh, let's say "O'Halloran" – finished the report I would need to file a claim. This process complete, I was set free. I asked Officer O'Halloran if perhaps someone could provide me the use of a dustpan, or a roll of masking tape, or a piece of a garbage bag, or anything that I could use to clean up some of the glass or cover the hole. I was told, in proper police procedural speak, to go fuck myself.

Finally I called my insurance company – not one of the cut rate ones, but a Legacy Brand – whom I pay handsomely for the privilege of being able to legally drive my vehicle. I thought perhaps they might send out one of those little hatchbacks with the company logo garishly painted on it, just some dude getting paid time-and-a-half to work Sunday to fill out a claim and maybe help me clean up a little. Nah, they don't do that except on the commercials. They told me to go online later and file my own claim.

You know, I certainly don't expect the world to concern itself much with a rather insignificant property crime committed against an insured white male. It would be nice, however, if perhaps the people who are paid to help out when something comes along to ruin my day in this manner could trouble themselves to pretend like they give the slightest shit. Or offer the most basic "Oh I'm sorry, I'll give you a hand for the three minutes it would take to help you." Life has taught me not to expect much, yet I always find in these situations that I end up wildly disappointed. All that rugged individualism we hear so much about came into focus today; basically when something goes wrong, you're on your own save for whatever help you can wring from a long, frustrating conversation with the overseas call center.

And that's the story of how why 12 hours later I'm still picking microscopic glass shards out of my ass and elbows.

ROCKETS' RED GLARE

Posted in Rants on October 20th, 2014 by Ed

I was living in Bloomington, IN when they demolished the Hoosier Dome (aka RCA Dome) in nearby Indianapolis and I kind of regret not making the drive to watch it come down. After considering it, I decided that it was a little too white trashy / low brow to drive an hour to gawk at a giant building imploding. But what the hell, it's a spectacle and not the kind of thing one sees very often so why not.

In that spirit, I won't make the same mistake again by missing the opportunity to watch St. Louis burn to the ground in a couple weeks when the grand jury announces that we don't even need to bother with the formality of a trial before letting Saint Wilson off the hook.

This case is following a very familiar pattern, with details extremely friendly to the Official Version of Events being leaked at regular intervals while dragging the Grand Jury process out long enough, the police hope, to give everyone a chance to lose interest or forget. Mind you, details like the victim's blood being found on the police car don't actually prove anything about the Official Story. They are the kind of details one would cherry pick to support it while conveniently ignoring other questions like, "If you fired twice in the car, why was it necessary to shoot four more times when he was 15 feet away?"

But no matter. The point – one we've had reinforced quite often lately – is that the amount of force one uses to retaliate against a black male who makes you Feel Threatened (legitimately or otherwise) cannot be questioned, second-guessed, or challenged. Once you determine that you are Afraid for Your Life, basically you can pull out a gun and keep pulling the trigger until you feel sufficiently less afraid or run out of ammunition, whichever comes first.

I'm not going to lie, I hope the good people of Ferguson raze that place. Some places are so terrible that there's no compelling case for their continued existence. And all the while we will have to listen to White America talk about Looting and Those People and Like Animals and sometimes I think maybe it would be best if we just leveled the whole country and started over.

YOUTHFUL SHENANIGANS

Posted in Rants on October 19th, 2014 by Ed

Growing up in the Chicago area I was only vaguely aware that anything existed south of Interstate 80. I did hear rumors of some distant hamlet called Carbondale, which would not be noteworthy (or perhaps even exist) except as the location of Southern Illinois University. With respect to SIU alumni and faculty, some of whom are among my friends, SIU is a party school. Located near nothing, excepting the fireworks-and-Oxycontin vortex point at which Missouri, Kentucky, southern Illinois, Arkansas, and Tennessee converge, SIU is the school that Chicago-area high school students choose when they can't get into University of Illinois, or UIC, or Northern Illinois, or somehow not even Illinois State. While some of its academic programs are actually pretty good, the modal SIU student does not really belong in college and has interests ranging from drinking to getting high to facilitating unplanned pregnancies.

Southern found its way into the national news once per year at Halloween, when the students rioted. Literally rioted. Tore that one-horse town a new asshole. Overturned cars, smashed windows, injured themselves and one another, and set fires. It got to the point at which the school was known for little other than the annual Grain Alcohol Thunderdome. After many years of tolerating the rampage – Party Schools face the Catch-22 of trying to limit delinquent behavior while admitting to themselves that it is part of the attraction for potential students – Carbondale and the university cracked down hard in 2000 after a particularly destructive melee. Bars were closed on Halloween, fraternities were not allowed to host parties, and so on.

Even young and conformity-prone Ed kind of thought it odd that for so many years it was considered Good Old Fashioned Fun for thousands of mostly white college kids to have a riot. Euphemisms like "party" or "disturbance" were used; the police responded but with remarkably little enthusiasm, content to let the kids go nuts and make a few arrests of kids who crossed the line from Acceptable Crimes (minor property damage, disorderly behavior) to Unacceptable Crimes like assault or use of weapons. The authorities seemed to treat the riot like a regular, predictable weather event – batten down the hatches, board up the windows, and wait for the destruction to run its course. Because what else can you do, right?

It goes without saying that there is a double standard involved in media coverage of and social attitudes toward "urban" riots – the kind that involve poor and dark-skinned people – and the Youthful Shenanigans of white middle class college kids. The former must be repressed with the maximum available force to ensure that the natural order of society is not disturbed and that the poor remain docile, servile, and without illusions about their second-class status. The latter…well, that's just boys being boys. After all, it's important for white college students to get the opportunity to rebel against the social institutions that bend over backwards to coddle and privilege them.

PROPERTY RIGHTS

Posted in Rants on October 15th, 2014 by Ed

Two related anecdotes.

1. A woman who has recently moved to this city is walking down a residential street with me after dark. She is at the tail end of five minutes of stories relating surprise at the frequency and intensity of catcalling here relative to other places she has lived. We approach three 18-to-21 looking males hanging out on a street corner. They are obviously wasted. As we walk past, they say nothing to her but one nods toward me, makes eye contact, and gives me the trying to be cool "sup" that young males do.

2. A different woman is having dinner alone at a bar. She texts me to live blog the old creeper who is accosting her (not physically) and does not seem willing to leave her alone. She laments that she does not have a boyfriend or at least some male to sit next to so that she might go to a bar and sit there in peace.

It's equal parts intriguing and disturbing how often men treat women with respect – not invading their personal space or shouting things at them that they would prefer not to have shouted at them – not because they think women deserve to be treated with respect but because they are with a man. The inebriated young men didn't refrain from making suggestive comments because they realized that it's inappropriate; they refrained because I was next to her. Old creepers and "pickup artists" do not leave accompanied women alone at bars because they recognize that ignoring all the "please stop" signals is behavior that trends toward Rapey. They do it because the has a Sold tag on her and is already the property of some other man. And many men who would happily treat women with the utmost disrespect would recoil at the thought of disrespecting another man by hitting on his Property.

Many years ago I accompanied a female friend, at her request, to a car dealership. Being younger it didn't occur to me at the time that I wasn't there because I have any special automotive knowledge that might have been useful. I was there because if the (inevitably male) car salesman wouldn't treat her too insultingly in front of Her Man. Women are probably so familiar with and used to this dynamic that they barely bother to think about it anymore. I, on the other hand, never thought about it seriously until the two incidents above happened in quick succession. I understood intuitively for a long time that having a male companion helps women receive better treatment from other men in some circumstances. However, I only recently did the math – women only get treated respectfully incidentally, as a side effect of respecting another man's ownership.

MY DAD OWNS A DEALERSHIP

Posted in Rants on October 14th, 2014 by Ed

Hopefully by now you have seen this video of a bunch of Tech Bros (allegedly Dropbox employees) trying to kick some teenagers off a soccer field in one of San Francisco's many neighborhoods in which real people are being displaced by this decade's version of Gordon Gekko.

The root cause of this incident, leaving aside the social tensions and gentrification issues in SF for the moment, is a simple misunderstanding. Apparently the park district has made some kind of policy change that allows fields to be reserved and they haven't done a great job of communicating that to residents. It's not that the Army of Bros is wrong to be peeved. But you would think that just one of them, or possibly even more than one, would be aware enough to say "You know, there's no way we are going to come out of bossing around and arguing with a bunch of teenagers looking like anything but assholes." It's like these people have some kind of status-induced autism that makes them completely oblivious to what is an appropriate way to conduct oneself in public.

It might have made more sense to leave and call the park district in an effort to get them to resolve the problem on future weekends. I mean, that's what a normal adult might have done. Instead, they decided to let the world get a good look at who they really are and trot out every Frat Asshole cliche on the planet. On camera.

I can never tell if these people honestly don't understand that they are being huge assholes or if they figure that they're so rich they don't have to care what anyone else thinks.

SELF-PARODY

Posted in Rants on October 9th, 2014 by Ed

An economics textbook could probably phrase this more eloquently than I do, but I'm fond of saying that the final stage of the life cycle in capitalism is self-parody. First you sell people an SUV, then when you get criticized for it you sell even bigger, dumber SUVs. You try to entice people to eat at a place called Golden Corral, and once you become the symbol of the rural obesity epidemic you install a fountain that oozes pestilent, lukewarm chocolate on any object placed in its orbit. First you sell the Shake Weight as an exercise implement, then you make fun of yourself and sell even more as joke gifts. Basically, you make one last financial windfall on an idea by becoming a caricature of exactly what you were accused of being all along. When everyone mocks your bad food and gargantuan portions, fuck it: introduce the Super Size.

Now that the bloom is off the rose of the Susan G. Komen For the Curetm foundation, fewer people look at it as a good way to support cancer research and more look at it as a shameless marketing firm that will slap a coat of pink on anything for a buck. The foundation appears to have embraced the hell out of that stereotype, partnering with some fracking company to paint an industrial sized drill bit pink. You know. For the Curetm.

drill

This is not the Onion. A company engaging in an activity proven to increase cancer rates in the vicinity came to Komen, proposed splashing some pink paint on their equipment, and the people running Komen said, "Sure, why not!" Because fuck it, right? Once people have figured out that you're a joke you might as well be the biggest joke you can be. Having long since established that shame is not a relevant concern in free market capitalism, once you no longer care about your reputation the opportunities to cash in become legion.

THIRD-RATE VILLAINS

Posted in Rants on October 7th, 2014 by Ed

A devoted comic book fan explained to me that the biggest issue with making a good series of films based on Batman is that other than The Joker, most of the villains suck. The Joker is #1 and once he's gone the drop-off to #2 and beyond is huge. Since the end of the Cold War, American foreign policy (and the military-industrial economy) has had the exact same issue.

The USSR was a great Villain. Americans and their elected leaders could turn the USSR into whatever they wanted, and the Soviet leaders were generally dyspeptic enough to confirm our fears. The (second) Bush administration certainly tried to turn al-Qaeda and then Iraq into the same thing but even people who go through the motions of believing it…they have to know. They must know. They have to know in their heart of hearts that despite al-Qaeda's capacity to execute some genuinely horrific attacks, it's just not the same. Discounting the 15-20% of the population who believe literally anything Fox News spits at them, there's no amount of squinting that can make al-Qaeda look like an existential threat to the U.S. (Oddly enough, the same people who claim that argue that Islamic terrorists are cave-dwelling camel fuckers, and the contradiction speaks to how implausible it is to conceive of them as supervillains. But I digress.)

Now we are going through the same song and dance with ISIS and the overwhelming lack of real interest in or attention paid to the current situation is indicative of how serious we perceive their threat. Sure, they can do all of the things that Modern Terrorist magazine recommends for groups with ideological fervor and minimal resources – maximum shock value tactics like execution videos and post-firefight blood and gore images – but let's be serious here. It's fitting that the group sounds like a third-rate Connery era Bond villain because even by the standards of terrorist/paramilitary organizations they're not terribly impressive. Despite the intense effort by the media to hype them into a suitably terrifying nemesis, very few people who aren't Senators from South Carolina or Texas honestly think "ISIS is coming, the end is near." I mean, what is the narrative? It was at least plausible to think that the USSR could (but wouldn't) launch a nuclear sneak attack in our sleep; is anyone putting the kids to bed with dire warnings that ISIS is going to swoop into the suburbs and blow up the three bedroom ranch?

They sure do pose a threat to private security contractors and certain kinds of international aid workers. That'll give the kids nightmares.

LENGTHY

Posted in Rants on October 2nd, 2014 by Ed

Students complain a lot. This is neither surprising nor new. Students complaining about their classes is like adults complaining about their jobs; it's something everyone does no matter how good or badly they have it. George Carlin said there was a club for people who hate their jobs – it's called Everyone and it meets at The Bar. Replace people with students and jobs with classes and that's what it's like to work in education. You learn not to take it too seriously. Bitching and moaning is just part of what students do. It's not personal.

In the last two or three years, however, I've heard a brand new complaint with alarming frequency. I'm used to the traditional student gripes – the class is too hard, my grade sucks because you're a bad teacher, this class isn't interesting, etc etc – and I pay them little mind as long as I know I am doing my best in the classroom and the class as a whole is performing well. When I changed universities in 2012, though, I noticed a marked increase in complaints about the workload. In fact during my first semester I assigned Mark Twain's short story "Cannibalism in the Cars," figuring it would offer an enjoyable alternative to the extremely dry introductory readings on Congress. The students told me, when it became apparent that they got nothing from it, that it was just too long. In 12 point font with 1.5 spacing, the PDF was nine pages. I thought they were messing with me until one student helpfully offered, "We have the attention span of goldfish." This is a true story. I appreciated his honesty.

To be blunt, I went many years without hearing this gripe because my classes don't require an extraordinary amount of work. In my intro American government class, for example, I do what almost everyone else on the planet does: one textbook chapter per week. Gentle reader, this is not a lot of reading. Intro textbooks are basically formatted like teen magazines or popular websites these days. A chapter is about 25-30 pages. A good portion of that is not text (pictures, graphs, charts, and other visuals). It takes me about 20 minutes to read; for someone reading very slowly and carefully due to unfamiliarity with the concepts it might take 45. This is the total reading load for seven days. As my colleague is fond of saying, "The only way to assign less reading would be to assign none."

That is true, yet the students' complaints get louder every semester – there's too much reading. The underlying problem here has been studied both empirically and anecdotally by anyone who has been in a classroom in the last 15 years. An alarming portion of the students who enter college classrooms apparently have not read…anything, really. I have serious, well-founded doubts as to whether some of the students I deal with have ever read a book. I know for a painful fact that most of them read no news. At best they look at headlines. Essentially anything longer than a tweet or a Facebook status update is too long. Any video longer than about 3 minutes – the average Youtube clip – is also incomprehensible. This is the first generation of college students who were raised on both the internet and wireless devices, and it is absolutely goddamn staggering how poorly they are able to focus on anything. Anything at all, be it educational or entertaining. Open a textbook in front of them and their attention is drifting off to their smartphones before the end of the first page.

It's revealing to walk through the library in the evening, particularly during the busiest exam weeks of the semester. Every single student has a book open in front of them, and every single student is looking and pecking away at their phone. I am starting to think that these students think that if the book is open near them it counts as "reading." When I ask students who express concern about their grades how much they study, their answers make me wonder what portion of the time they report consisted of sitting in front of an open book watching TV, dicking around on the internet, or talking to their friends.

I know that every generation of teachers cries that the sky is falling because of The Kids These Days, but in barely a month I've had a parade of students through my office telling me that there's just too much reading (There isn't) or the reading is indecipherable (Intro textbooks are basically written at an 8th grade level). While these students are not illiterate, obviously, I really doubt that some of them are capable of sitting down and reading a chapter in a textbook. Those of you who do not deal with teenagers in this environment probably think I'm kidding or exaggerating, but it is becoming frighteningly obvious to those of us who do that these kids are leaving high school without the ability to focus on anything long enough to read a novel, a textbook chapter, or even a decently incisive magazine/website article.

When I really want to freak myself out, I remember that as a professor at an expensive private school my students are probably better than most. God help us all.

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TRASHED

Posted in Rants on September 29th, 2014 by Ed

I've lived in the same rental unit for over two years and I make the same walk to work and back every day, rain or shine. Thanks to that experience I can draw from memory the labels of every single brand of bumwine and bottom shelf hard liquor available for sale in this state. Ditto every fast food wrapper, quasi-generic brand of soda, and fried salt snack known to man. Oh, and for good measure, dozens of previously unheard of "state minimum" cigarette brands.

I lived in the Midwest for decades before I moved here, so very little surprised me about this place. The boiling summers, the arctic winters, the flatness, the omnipresence of ranch dressing and bland food – I'd seen it all before. One thing I wasn't prepared for is how dirty everything is. I've never seen so much litter in my life. On the rare occasions that anyone cleans any of it up – by which I mean "When I take a garbage bag and walk a few blocks picking up trash and hoping that you can't get herpes from touching a 40" – it's back again in a day or two. All of the fun stuff that accompanies urban decay – the abandoned buildings, the graffiti, the boarded windows – is here in the expected amount and doesn't really faze me. But I'm still not used to the "Everywhere is a trash can" thing.

Oddly enough the available research does not establish much of a correlation between poverty and littering. It doesn't help that the local government is short on funds and can't provide things like street cleaning as often as they might. What it boils down to, though, is not money but mentality. It's like being in the home of a really depressed person – when someone lacks motivation and has given up, the dishes in the kitchen tend to pile up. When a city is depressed, economically and otherwise, I guess everyone feels like it won't make any difference if they throw their empty Doritos bag on the ground. And even though it makes everything a little more depressing to look around and see trash everywhere you go, the idea of cleaning it up seems as overwhelming as a mountain of dishes with caked-on mac & cheese.

In short, I guess when people have pretty much given up (and not without reason) you get well acquainted with the design of Salem packs and Thunderbird bottles.