Explaining Facebook to a 1949
Factory Worker

 

T R A N S C R do not copy image2 copy 3I P T

TRAVELER 3182, ENCOUNTER 23
POST-CANCELED TRIP REC 719
THURSDAY 3/17/49
12:15-12:40 PM CST
41.455196 -91.022739
MUSCATINE, IOWA
SITE DESC: TABLE IN FACTORY BREAK ROOM

PAGE 1 OF 4 

I go back Tuesday. I needed the break. All I do is work on my thesis. It’s like a massive term paper that you have to defend against the Supreme Court. No thanks I don’t smoke go ahead.

I’m doing my thesis on something called Facebook. Face book. It’s a seminal social media . . . [UNINTELLIGIBLE] . . . [UNINTELLIGIBLE] . . . average people. You know that bulletin board outside your boss’s office? The one crammed with a thousand pieces of paper, the bowling league rankings, those fishing trip photos . . . Facebook is a bulletin board like that but it covers the entire planet.

Instead of cork and paper it’s made of trillions of bits of electronic info. They travel through the telephone wire or air just like a radio signal now. 
We look at the bulletin board with electric devices that have screens like televisions. Our viewing devices assemble the info bits into words, pictures and sounds we can access from anyplace on earth.

Well yeah I guess it’s swell. It changed the world. Not as much as time travel probably has but let’s not get into that. You can tack just about any non physical thing you want on the board. Not just notes and photos but even little movies and music recor—

Cars? Well they’re a lot smaller and quieter. Otherwise they’re pretty much the same. They look a lot different. Well they’re much smaller and less round. You don’t realize it but those cars in the lot outside are huge. No they’re not atomic. Ha. We wish. They still use gas.

You can organize the info on the bulletin board any way you want and that’s really the key thing. You can choose to only see stuff that’s been tacked up by certain people like your family members, your buddies, your kids, your—

Just gas. Gasoline. Unleaded gas. It’s gasoline without lead. I actually don’t know. I think it’s making your kids mentally slow. Honestly my crappy 2003 Accord is probably 75 percent the same as the Ford truck you picked me up in way out by the melon farm. I mean you’d be dumbfounded if you opened the hood like I am but then you’d start recognizing things. They still have the fan, the spark plugs, the hole for the oil, battery, all that. I’d say they’re 75 percent the same as now.

 

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Anyway the amazing electronic bulletin board allows you to maintain a particular kind of semi passive virtual relationship with hundreds of people all across the world. Thousands of people. All at once. Yes really.

We’re still figuring out how relationships that largely consist of frequent virtual reminders of a non-present individual’s existence and the shared perceptual connection are similar to or different from traditional distance relationships in which far less frequent but more intensely dedicated communic—

If you floored it? I don’t know . . . maybe 110 or 120. Yes miles. Well . . . your cars have bigger engines I think and . . . what? [UNINTELLIGIBLE] still 55 at least near me. Yes miles. It’s actually 65 in a lot of places but I think it’s a state by state thing. You probably have a lot of state by state things back now. That’s another game changing aspect of the bulletin board because it reaches acr— [UNINTELLIGIBLE]

Well I guess it is disappointing. I mean they get a thousand times better as far as maintenance and safety and . . . okay . . . [UNINTELLIGIBLE] 250 miles an hour is going kind of overboard isn’t it? Well there’s no intelligent reason for them to be saying this. They’re just making it up.

Car technology hasn’t completely changed but for raw potential of interactive technology to transform human society, which is my thesis, you have to focus on the bulletin board which has . . . excuse me . . . which has toppled murderous dictators from oppressive regimes by allowing disenfranchised citizens to assemble into vast networks spurring demonstra—

Well it might be 70 now but your roads are deplorable. Route 167 isn’t even paved. We had to drive around a wheelbarrow laying on its side yesterday. That’s the major road here. Kids stand in the middle of the intersection like they don’t care. I mean don’t you [UNINTELLIGIBLE]

I really don’t know. I think they dropped it to 55 like 30 years from now because of gas or safety reasons. I forgot to mention gas. It becomes a huge factor. What? From where to where? God I don’t know how many miles is that. Okay well that’s still really far. Well we’d probably do it in three days then because you’re going to see a major highway system constr—

I realize that. But you’re probably going to end up killing yourself in that truck and wiping out a whole

 

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family one night when you’re drunk. Cars just don’t get that much faster in the next . . . [UNINTELLIGIBLE] you know what every car in 2014 has cold air conditioning and cruise control and four separate radio speakers. And they ride like—

Oh bullcrap you have that. Come on. No way— Now? Huh. I did not know that. No actually I did not notice that. It sounded like a crappy AM radio to me.

God I don’t know maybe like 23 thousand dollars new. No I’m not. I am not. Why would I? For what possible reason?

No I don’t have a picture. I have a piece of crap Accord with 170 thousand miles on it. I’m a graduate student carrying around my professor’s laptop while he does field work for his bullcrap post war manufacturing grant. You think I’d have a car I’d take a picture of?

No I don’t I don’t smoke. All those guys are smoking one will have one. Yeah I think I have some change. I’ll walk over to the vending machines with you in five minutes. I have to go that way anyway. All right two minutes.

You have to understand that the magic bulletin board will not just change paradigms it will destroy them. At the global level it becomes an immeasurably powerful framework that invites average non-sophisticated people with little means to— no it is not swell it’s an irrepressible force that will change the face of . . . the political . . . [UNINTELLIGIBLE]

It has artificial intelligence. It’s smarter than people. Have you heard of artificial intelligence? You will. You definitely will. My friend. By the year 2011 the bulletin board controls how you . . . eat, marry, work, fly . . . no we like it. It does all the dangerous dirty stuff that we don’t want to do. Flying is the main . . . [UNINTELLIGIBLE] we don’t care about cars
.

Well they don’t really look like planes. They’re called

 

PAGE 4 OF 4

sky mobiles. Like snow mobiles but obviously they . . . [UNINTELLIGIBLE] commute . . . [UNINTELLIGIBLE] twice the speed of sound. On average. Of course I have one that’s why I can have a crappy car. No I don’t have a picture. Because we just don’t do that. Because we think it’s stupid. I don’t.

Let go of my . . . [UNINTELLIGIBLE] . . . had one I’d not only give it to you but I’d let you keep it and send it to the newspaper cause it doesn’t . . . [UNINTELLIGIBLE] they post cancel the trip it won’t be here anyway no one will remember stop . . . [UNINTELLIGIBLE] . . . gladly give it to you stop [UNINTELLIGIBLE] said let go [UNINTELLIGIBLE]

No actually I am not a fairy. That’s highly offensive to say to somebody in 2014. It’s not a joke anymore. You get fired for that. No for saying it. Yeah especially then but I’m not.

I don’t really care if I look like a pencil neck college boy to you I don’t take it personally because I know it’s due to your constrained exposure to your time. No. No actually not some are taller and some are shorter I’m actually of average height for my era. Well it’s true well it is.

That’s your opinion and you really wouldn’t know. A lot happens in 65 years. Well your totally theoretical grand kid might actually be a 
little fairy and then you’ll just have to deal with . . . [UNINTELLIGIBLE] because there’s no . . . [UNINTELLIGIBLE] no I’m saying you have no control over . . . [UNINTELLIGIBLE] quit . . . [UNINTELLIGIBLE] wouldn’t worry because you’ll probably be dead way before then in fact I know you will be. Well so am I stop [UNINTELLIGIBLE]


Yeah I have change . . . How much are [UNINTELLIGIBLE] take what you need from this don’t [UNINTELLIGIBLE] 

/END/

 

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Confessions of a Former Leg Man

nowalk3If you leave a city like New York for an extended stay in the suburbs, one of the first changes you’ll notice will be a drastic drop in the walking you do every day.

Everyone knows this.

Most suburban areas are famously unwalkable. You can’t perform any errands on foot. Maybe the odd errand to a nearby spot, but that’s it. Biking isn’t a reliable answer either. Your destinations are just too far away and far apart.

This is the definition of the suburbs. Your bank is two miles away. The dry cleaners is three miles in the other direction. The supermarket may be in the same strip mall as the cleaners, but how will you get the groceries home? The frozen food will melt.

Even if you can spend the day Johnny Appleseeding all over creation, there are logistical barriers. You’ll need to cross a four-lane road with a concrete median. You’ll walk in terrain that’s absolutely not intended for a trodding human; three-foot weeds and carpets of broken bottles make this clear. Drivers no longer expect to see pedestrians walking on the sides of suburban roads. Bill Bixby would’ve been killed in three episodes if they had tried to shoot The Incredible Hulk today.

A perk no more

Of course, the unwalkability of the suburbs was one reason Americans invaded them after World War II. The roach-infested city you hoped to escape from was highly walkable. The holes in your shoes proved it. The juvenile delinquents on the corner lived within walking distance. The rats eating your garbage were all hardy walkers, too.

If only novelty lasted. Unwalkability, like the stillness of a mausoleum by sundown, became a mundane reality of suburban existence. Neither appreciated or noticed.

Except if you spent the last 14 years in a city and you’re back in the suburbs for a year to write a book.

Then it’s noticed.

You notice a few other things, too.

1. Recreational walking strikes you as asinine.

There are walking trails in some suburban parks. Occasionally around man-made lakes. People seldom use them. To you, the activity feels like driving down to the circle near the bowling alley and going around and around. Because it’s good for the car.

2. You chafe at being forced1 to have a car.

Because you cannot walk anywhere, prosecuting some form of livable existence means that you’re forced to own, maintain or look after the wellbeing of an automobile. Which is like being forced to own a five-hundred-pound mentally-challenged chimpanzee that’s prone to unpredictable outbursts of rage.

I say this as a former car dude. I’ve known the joy of fine-tuning the timing on a straight six engine and spending an entire summer day installing a crappy radio with a tape deck. I’ve smelled transmission fluid with suspicion and wonder. My car was my chariot, steed, fifth limb. Me with Bondo and Son-of-a-Gunned wheels. A sanctuary that occasionally welcomed Don McLean. And I never missed driving. Not once. Fourteen years without owning a car fucking ruled.

3. You chafe at being forced to drive.

Because you must navigate an automobile if you want to avoid turning into an insolvent version of Howard Hughes circa 1970, you are compelled to regularly engage in an activity that’s exceedingly likely to cause your death.

You’ve moved to Smokesville in the state of Light’emup in the proud nation of 1951. Want to leave your house? Kill a carton.

4. You chafe at being forced to drink in moderation.

It isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a man, but it’s soul killing. Like being forced to wear a shock collar even though you have no intention of jumping the fence and fucking the neighbor’s collie.

5. You refuse to walk when you easily could.

Because no one ever walks in the suburbs—save a few suspect people who may be derelicts-in-waiting—you soon develop an aversion to walking.

This happens at the individual and community level.

You begin to regard walking any distance beyond 600 feet as an alien act of folly. This hastens general deconditioning, even if you workout regularly. You’ll find yourself recoiling in horror when the opportunity or, Christ forbid, necessity to walk arises. Especially to a destination that’s within reasonable ambling distance for any human that isn’t wearing leg braces or pulling an oxygen tank.

Let’s say the car isn’t available and your medication is sitting in a Walgreen’s eight blocks away. This predicament will trigger a cascade of mental calculations:

“I could walk it. I mean, I could. Up and back. How sore will I be? I can do three miles on the treadmill, but that’s inside while I’m watching TV. What if I twist my ankle? I could have a heart attack. What if it starts to rain? What if a drunk driver hits me when I’m crossing route 68? I could run into a group of thugs from the next town. Or a rabid dog. Am I even immunized for that? What if a cop pulls over and asks me just what the hell I think I’m doing? Doesn’t that pharmacy deliver? I could call her and have her pick up the medication…but she’ll need my insurance card. Fuck! What do I do?” 

6. You become more obese faster.

City living charges you a microscopic energy toll any time you do anything. If you want a slice of pizza or coffee, or diapers or Scotch tape or stamps, you will almost certainly need to walk at least a couple hundred steps more than if you were only making round trips to a parked car.

On any given trip, the calorie expenditure from these extra steps is trivial. But as it accumulates2 over months and years, it probably prevents one additional shit-ton of fat from getting stuffed into your gut sack.

Which doesn’t make you thin. Just somewhat less obese.

Conserving those calories by driving is like throwing five extra pennies into a jar after every trip. And that’s above your usual nightly surplus of small change, remember.

After a year, you’ll have a lot of fucking pennies. You won’t have precisely five for every trip; tortuous processes of biology siphon off handfuls while you sleep and sweat and shit. But every month, there are always more. In five years, the fuckers are filling closets. You’re drowning in pennies. You give off that weird smell of bleach, shoe polish and semen wherever you go.

You occasionally get pissed off and decide you’re going to shovel out enough ingots to see light through a second-story window.

Then you learn that—if you’re committed and work hard—you will be permitted take one roll of fifty to the bank per day.

Enjoy.

7. You no longer buy crap about “walkable communities.”

According to the constant “best places to live” lists, this has been a civic planning trend for twenty-five years. Except in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and any other state in the union you’ve ever been to. New developments continually sprout on the wrong side of untraversable highways that are unwalkable distances from new strip malls with new parking lots the size of Kuwait. Luckily there’s a freshly-paved walking track in a park a few miles from the strip mall.

8. You realize the suburbs need cabs.

Taxis are one of the banes and salvations of city life. After you fork over your cash and slide off the wet seat, the Crown Victoria chugs off. You disgustedly pay ten or twenty or thirty dollars more than the trip was worth and then once again forget automobiles exist.

Taxis encourage walking. You’ll walk in your intended direction as you try to flag one down, because it makes fruitless hailing slightly less frustrating and gives you the ridiculous notion that you’re making progress toward your destination.

You also frequently start walking because you know you can puss out and hail a taxi if you get tired.

In the suburbs, the puss-out option is the only choice. And you gotta buy the Crown Victoria.

I try to imagine what a workable3 cab network in the suburbs might look like. I envision medallioned Camrys and Jeep Cherokees running along main streets every ten minutes. The hows and wherefores would probably take sick plotting and deal-making. The grifting would be epic, as usual. Maybe it’s impossible. But there are a lot of cars and a lot of people who want to make money. And technology makes more cockamamie shit plausible every year.

Maybe what I’m seeing in the haze won’t involve taxis at all. Maybe it’ll be some ride-sharing scheme dreamed up by eggheads and investors who see how a smartphone app, GPS and PayPal can make an obscene number of empty back seats inch closer to justifying their existence.

It might be a chaotic orgy of rape, robbery and dropped popsicles. Or it might work. It might become another mundane reality of the suburbs that nudges people to at least consider walking somewhere, sometime, because they know they can change their minds.

If you see me hitchhiking, for God’s sake, stop?

 

Footnotes

1I’m not using “forced” in the libertarian sense of having a bayonet in your back. I’m using it to mean “there’s no other option to accomplish the desired goal that’s reasonably comparable in cost, effort or time required.” In addition to sneakers and bikes, this criteria knock out buses, mopeds and Segways.

2I hate money experts and fitness dweebs who throw out “little things add up” examples as if the concept was compelling. Most miss a key point. You will not be eating cat food in your old age because you’re wasting $4 on a latte every day. You’ll be eating cat food because you are the type of person who wastes $4 on a latte every day without seeing the need to save enough money to buy future lattes or any consumable produced outside a Purina plant.

Similarly, nobody is obese because they live in the suburbs.

3The current taxi services in the suburbs are not useful for anything other than the incidental airport ride or the rare “even I know I’m too fucked up to drive” occurrence. Having to phone for a taxi, wait 40 minutes and pay a minimum of $30 to go anywhere worth going renders it useless for routine needs.

 

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Silent with Prejudice

oldphoneMy father was born in 1915.

He never really cottoned to the telephone.

At least from his sixties onward, he regarded a ringing phone to be a minor emergency. Like a Western Union man banging on the front door with a telegram. The telephone was an expensive communication device to be used sparingly, if at all, and it posed several technical hurdles that were marks of a contraption not quite perfected. One was dialing. This act required opening a book, adjusting eyeglasses, concentrating intensely to place a finger in the correct hole in the delicate rotary thingy and applying just the right clockwise force to make the desired number register.

Naturally, being up in years increased his difficulties with gadgetry. But I never took his pained approach to using the phone as a late-life issue. I tend to think he always viewed the telephone as something between a technical nuisance and a clanging miracle box. Hell, when he was a kid, you still had to turn a little crank to get some telephones to work. He told me that. The nickel the only handy phone required? That was a slice of pie. Dropped calls pissed you off.

For most of the last hundred thousand years, humans have dealt with the same geographical hurdle when it came to spur-of-the-moment communication: you couldn’t talk to anyone out of earshot. For simple messages, maybe you could bang on a hollow log, wave a torch or make smoke. If you had more time, you could ask someone to tell so-and-so something, or scribble pictures on a rock or write a letter or postcard or send a telegram. All were slow, tedious options. And highly abstract. The medium wasn’t you. At best, you could have a chopped, stilted conversation that was nothing remotely similar to speaking in person.

The telephone didn’t really change that for many people.

If you’re over 40, the phrase “it’s long distance” will mean something to you. So will “I’ll accept the charges.” You’ll remember that hiss and disorienting delay you’d hear when talking to a party ten states away, let alone on another continent. Getting California on the horn in 1978 was no trivial thing. It occasionally meant shouting and saying “go ahead,” like you were calling for air cover.

And when the bill came, it reminded you that talk—even if it’s forgettable and unimportant—sure as hell wasn’t cheap. Reaching out and touching someone meant digging down and paying someone. A forty-dollar phone call, when you were lucky to be making four hundred bucks a week, stung like a snapped towel after Ma Bell tallied the damage.

In short, the telephone made the planet about five hundred times smaller but that still left a big, fat planet. Calling far away wasn’t something you did on an empty whim—at least not frequently.

This provided a natural buffer for people like my dad, who hated talking on the phone. And it gave a small but critical atom of clemency for people who chronically, miserably suck at keeping in touch with others and quickly run out of things to say when they do get in touch. Like other people I resemble.

If you didn’t speak to the relative in Idaho for a year, or that friend in Albania for three years, it was possible that it wasn’t entirely due to you’re being an evil, nasty, heartless person. Distance and existent technology made communicating slightly tedious or at least mildly expensive, which made the “one week just went into another” excuse a scintilla less lame. And it was often mutual. Was your relative or friend burning through their light-green stationary and filling your mailbox? Calling you once a month? If not, the cliché about how “time just got away from us” might almost seem defensible.

In the last decade, that hundred-thousand-year buffer—and any hair of clemency it offered to the pathetically incommunicado—was obliterated.

It’s completely gone.

Email, Facebook, instant messages, cell phones and Skype blew it to smithereens.

Now, you are not simply silent—you are silent with prejudice. You are no longer missing because you haven’t gotten around to getting in touch—you’re willfully MIA because you lack the basic common decency to click a laptop or a smartphone, dial a free number or otherwise expend the molecule of effort and tact needed to acknowledge some effortless virtual poke.

The speed of this change has been a gut kick. I clearly remember phoning a friend in Italy in the early 1990s. I remember the clean dopamine spurt in hearing those long tones finally sound after three or four failed call attempts—you had to dial in those 68 numbers perfectly. I recall the happy surprise in the other person’s voice when they heard a foreign language and realized they were getting a telephone call from fucking America.

Both parties had the continuous awareness that every second was, if not precious, at least piling toward it. Even if you were using a relatively cheap phone card—which added dizzying dialing complexity—the meter was running. You couldn’t get a sentence across? Quit trying; it wasn’t worth it. Four people needed to extend holiday greetings? You passed that phone around like a grenade. When the fifteen bucks on the card were up, they were up. Saying goodbye meant signing off with weighty finality; once you hung up, the wormhole connecting you was gone. The human you just spoke to might as well have been on a moon of Saturn.

Even at just 19 cents a minute with a $1 connect fee, it was still long distance.

Today, nothing is long distance.

No one you know, who is still alive, is likely ever out of hair-pulling range, metaphorically, much less earshot.

Almost every person you know, who is still alive, is perpetually standing in your front yard. And they see you peeping at the window.

If you have a Facebook account, regardless if you rarely use it, you are now a regular patron of a diner that is constantly—24 hours a day—crammed chock-full of your relatives, close friends, extended friends, acquaintances, warmly regarded colleagues, neutrally regarded colleagues and swarms of other people with whom you share some illustratable connection, past and present.

Every single one of them.

You’d like to think that you could walk quickly to the counter with your head down, get a coffee and walk out, speaking to no one. Or maybe just lift an awkward eyebrow to a random soul or two before getting out of there. But every time you do that, which is just about every time you venture into the conclave, you know you’re subtly insulting scores of people. They might not care. Most assuredly don’t. Hell, all but a few absolutely don’t. Maybe none at all. Right?

But they all could care, at any minute. So could you. And you do, sometimes, though it’s probably rare. Like when your well-intended, weightless but not totally trivial Facebook message or post goes completely unacknowledged by a person who is obviously on Facebook every now and then. Like yourself. Or surely on email. Like yourself. Or, son of a bitch, certainly glancing at least once in a while at the text messages buzzing on the goddamned pocket communicator we all carry.

You might go years without caring. But you know, every day, the math has changed and it’s never going back to what it was. And you know everyone knows it.

You are now choosing to not be in touch.

Choosing to maintain the illusion of the “where did the time go?” excuse after its weak underpinnings have vaporized.

You are never just silent now.

You are silent with prejudice.

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Old-Time Radio Shows:
Why I Listen to This Ancient Crap

welles
Listening to old radio shows is not a pastime that suffers a lot of discussion.

There are several reasons. First, the whole genre of “old-time radio” is alien to most people under 75. The big-network sitcoms, dramas, cop shows, horror and thriller series, westerns, variety programs and so forth that defined America’s home entertainment in the 1930s and 1940s were all effectively dead by the mid 1950s (the period known as the “golden age of TV,” not coincidentally).

This means that a person born after, say, 1936 will typically react with a squinty-eyed, gaseous expression when you mention old radio shows. As if I Love Lucy1 isn’t back far enough and you’re trying to out-old them.

Secondly, a lot of people consider the idea of listening to a recording of a play featuring long-dead actors—people even their parents would not remember—to fall, on the entertainment scale, somewhere below knitting in prison.

At least knitting has a point. Tell someone you basically like to switch on TCM and then stare at a wall, and you’re asking for judgment.

However, anything that’s extinct and irrelevant will be irresistible to certain individuals.

I’m in this camp.

Loosely. I’ve never been to a convention or phoned a nursing home to talk to a bit player who still has moments of lucidity. But you will hear The Whistler, Escape or Dimension X playing in my New York apartment most evenings.2

The Cronkite box set

My introduction to old-time radio (OTR, in geek slang) was a CD box set labeled “The 60 Greatest Old-Time Radio Shows of the 20th Century Selected by Walter Cronkite.” I bought it in 2004 and played the CDs while doing mundane tasks like sorting receipts, computer work and cooking. The collection contained horror shows like Inner Sanctum and Lights Out, science fiction shows like X Minus One, comedies like The Great Gildersleeve and thrillers like Suspense.

Of course, it also had the infamous 1938 Orson Welle’s adaptation of War of the Worlds. My mother, then four years old, spent a night shivering in a Jersey basement after that broadcast while her grandfather kept vigil for Martians with a shotgun. (This Radiolab episode has good info on it.)

There was no epiphany in listening to these CDs. It wasn’t like stumbling on buried treasure. Like most Xers and Boomers, I knew radio shows had preceded television, but had never listened to any original programs in their entirety. My exposures had mostly been parodies or homages, like A Prairie Home Companion, Radio Days by Woody Allen and “The Albert Brooks Show #112” sendup on the comedian’s hard-to-find 1975 album.

The CD box set made two things apparent: the genuine radio shows were better than their hammy parodies and they hit a sweet spot in brain distraction.

A more perfect diversion

Like most humans, I like to listen to something pleasant when doing things that only require moderate concentration. But the usual options have drawbacks.

Music often doesn’t engage my brain deeply enough; idle neurons start contemplating threats to my existence. Talk radio is too relevant; current-event intrusions piss on the ember of optimism I try to keep in my soul. Audio books require too much attention (and writers often have annoying voices). Finally, I cannot passively monitor television. I’m a TV junkie. I’ll watch vintage A-Team episodes, History Channel filler about mummy curses or Nazis,3 Bob Ross reruns on PBS, car crashes caught on tape, anything. Bad TV is my crack cocaine. I haven’t owned a TV since 2005, but I could relapse at any moment.

Old radio shows lack these flaws. I can keep tabs on an interesting story that has a beginning, middle and end, and can miss portions without losing the narrative thread.

As for the hokey factor, for every corny “cue the organ” moment you hear in sub-par shows (which were likely considered stupid when they first aired), there are a dozen tight, well-written programs that pack a punch 60 or 70 years after they were recorded. Especially thriller shows4 like Escape and Suspense, which use plots later stolen by TV shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.

The long-ago aspect of radio plays can be comforting. They portray universal struggles—stifling marriages, jealousy, fear of death, greed—but the distance of time makes them seem softer-edged. More manageable. It’s like talking to elderly people about life during World War II; you know they pulled through. Nostalgia dilutes. The horrors of the past have a ceiling. That can make it a safer place than the present—if you keep your visit superficial.

A sampling

Here are some of my favorite episodes. Others are more notable or historically important, but I love a good yarn. There are thousands of free recordings on the Internet; see the sites I’ve listed far below (this one is about the best). I stream OTR stations on Live365.com. An $8 monthly subscription gets rid of the commercials.

A Gun for Dinosaur, X-Minus One, March 7, 1956. A sci-fi tale from a short story by L. Sprague de Camp. Alistair Duncan is effortlessly natural as the hunting guide. There’s a particular way only a pissed-off Brit can say “don’t be a bigger ass than you can help.”

Zero Hour, Suspense, April 5, 1955. An adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s5 short story from his 1951 collection, The Illustrated Man. Suspense performed the script four times; I prefer the second. The broadcasts received thousands of complaints from disturbed listeners. Which is silly. Your children would never have you killed.

Earth Abides, Escape, November 5 and 12, 1950. The only two-episode script in Escape’s eight-year run; here’s part 2. A classic episode from one of my favorite programs. It’s a post-apocalypse survival tale from a 1949 sci-fi novel. John Dehner’s role as Ischerwood Williams makes it crackle.

Johnny Got His Gun, Arch Obler’s Plays, March 9, 1940. Dramatic one-man play starring James Cagney as a wounded World War I vet who’s lost his limbs and four of five senses; he can only perceive touch. He’s a grain sack in a hospital bed and Cagney narrates his thoughts. Based on a 1938 novel. Stunning for its anti-war stance.

The Thing on the Fourble Board, Quiet Please, August 9, 1948. Widely regarded as the scariest episode of this prominent horror series. I won’t quibble. Twenty years ago, I worked with a weird guy who had a wife no one had ever seen. She was rumored to be a mail-order bride. I doubt he found her in an oil derrick, but this show makes me think of him.

New Year’s Eve with Edward G. Robinson, Amos ‘n’ Andy,6 December 31, 1943. The usually goofy sitcom took a serious turn with Robinson portraying “prisoner 1-9-4-3,” sentenced to death for horrific global crimes. It’s a fascinating mid-war show that gives a taste of the time.

Classic radio sites

https://archive.org/details/oldtimeradio
www.speakingofradio.com
www.oldradioshows.org
www.radiolovers.com
www.oldradioworld.com
www.oldtimeradiofans.com
www.best-otr.com
www.otrfan.com
www.myoldradio.com
www.greatdetectives.net/detectives/
www.mysteryshows.com
http://wamu.org/programs/the_big_broadcast

 

Footnotes

1I Love Lucy was originally a radio show called My Favorite Husband, with Lucille Ball safely married to a Caucasian bank manager. It was a sucky radio show.

2Noting that I’m single should be unnecessary.

3Why can NOVA answer the grand question it poses in every episode while similar programs on the History Channel must end with the question wholly unanswered and all original conjecture intact? The producers must joke about the inevitable last line of narration, which always goes something like, “Whether this was the work of X or Y, one thing is clear: it will be a tantalizing mystery for generations to come.”

4I’m less fond of comedy programs like The Jack Benny Show, The Burns and Allen Show, The Red Skelton Show, Fibber McGee and Molly, etc. All can be enjoyable (except for Abbott and Costello; seriously unfunny on radio) but they feel more dated than thriller and dramatic programs. Also, it might take you a few episodes to fully appreciate the inside humor. Several of these shows ran for decades (Jack Benny had a radio show from 1932 to 1955, for God’s sake), so listeners knew characters intimately. They knew, for example, that Benny’s announcer Don Wilson was a fat drunk, so situations tickling that could forego overt punch lines. Howard Stern’s show operates similarly; if you have no clue who Baba Booey is, a random episode probably won’t leave you in stitches.

5Radio shows were rapidly dying by the early 1950s, but this period did yield excellent adaptions of works by science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Philip Dick. I most enjoy the Bradbury adaptations, especially Mars Is Heaven, Dwellers in Silence and There Will Come Soft Rains. Listening to these shows makes Star Trek far less impressive; its template was already dusty by the early 60s.

6Amos ‘n’ Andy was a highly popular show that ran from 1929 to 1960, but its racial controversy (due to the cartoonish black dialect used by the show’s two white creators) has kept it out of many OTR compilations. The furor over the racist aspects of the show probably seems overblown to most people who are highly familiar with it—meaning, people who have listened to at least 50 episodes, not five. But a white actor using what’s been called “verbal blackface” isn’t going to fly with lots of people, obviously.

The faults and proclivities of the shows main characters (laziness, craftiness, opportunism, stupidity, cheapness, etc.) become offensive when they invoke black stereotypes, undoubtedly. But it’s worth noting that characters in other radio shows exhibited identical traits and behaviors, and characters in modern sitcoms still do.

Some scholars have argued that Amos ‘n’ Andy helped race relations by exposing many white folks to positive (or at least not overtly negative) examples of black people, the same way that Jack McFarland on Will and Grace supposedly reduced homophobia. Others have argued the opposite. Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll didn’t do anything racially brave or progressive with the show’s storylines, sadly, and long exposure to the characters Andrew H. Brown and George “Kingfish” Stephens certainly didn’t soften hearts in Birmingham.

The shows are easily findable. You can form your own opinion.

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The Death of Quirky

monkey“She wasn’t quirky. She was crazy.”

This was my friend’s assessment of a woman I had met on OKCupid. She had ended our pleasant test drive after two months when I showed ambivalence about naked time. That typically happens when I realize I’m not in it for the long haul but still enjoy the dinner conversation. Sort of like an actor in a play that’s closing. Even if the backstage mood sucks, you might still like getting dressed and going on.

My friend’s comment wasn’t empty. She was psychologically troubled. It didn’t take a medical degree to see that. Bits of her past trickled out in the first two weeks and then dropped in large chunks. An abusive parent, pill addiction, years of crippling depression, weight swings, promiscuous eras. On “medication.” The drugs were heavy-duty mood stabilizers, not like the ones in the commercial with the frowny ball. Ads for these pills could use Amanda Bynes.

Sadly enough, this is a fairly typical load of baggage for females in their thirties and forties I’ve met on sites like OKCupid, eHarmony and Match.com—or at least the small subset of women I’ve been lucky enough to encounter. Specifically, the subset that doesn’t recoil at my photo, finds my described life acceptable and, in ideal cases, gives me a least a little rise. Where these circles converge, the cohort will bear no resemblance to the motley horde at large. Dark hair, large breasts and mental instability might run 70 percent.

You pays your money and you takes your chances.

“A long time ago being crazy meant something. Nowadays everybody’s crazy.”—Charles Manson

“Everyone’s crazy, so you’re just trying to see if your crazies line up,” one woman I met on eHarmony told me. She had a small platoon of mundane demons not dissimilar to those accompanying the OKCupid woman—meaning her life could have been an after-school special in 1975 but wouldn’t get a yawn from a Dr. Phil booker now.

She was simply saying there’s someone for everyone—the proverbial lid for every pot—as long as you’re not looking for cinematic perfection but rather a human being you’ll like most of the time.

It’s a reassuring thought: We’re all nuts, each one of us a stinking sack of Freudian horrors just trying to survive.1  The wacky need not walk alone; no matter how demented you are, a tolerable mate—your mirror-mutilated lid—is out there.

We know what kind of crazy2 is being referred to in “everyone’s crazy.” It’s everyday crazy. Peculiar. Harmlessly neurotic. Different-drum eccentric. Maybe even occasionally off-the-rails kooky. But never malicious, unnervingly strange or sick-ass weird. Phoebe on Friends, not Adam Lanza.

It means—how I hate the word—quirky.

The death of quirky

Quirky, according to the Oxford American English Dictionary, means “having or characterized by peculiar or unexpected traits or aspects.” It’s from quirk, which appears in the early 16th Century to mean a “subtle verbal twist, quibble.”

Crazy means “mentally deranged, especially as manifested in a wild or aggressive way.” Its root, craze, traces to “late Middle English (in the sense ‘break, shatter, produce cracks’).”

The connotative meanings of crazy have wandered into quirky’s front yard (“dig that crazy hat”), but the differences are clear:

1. Quirky maxes at strange but tax paying and presentable. And the quirks may be deliberate choice.

2. Crazy has no grip on reality and may start breaking shit.

In 2014, everyone is quirky. It is literally the new normal.

This is largely because the threshold for deeming someone quirky is almost non-existent. You will call a person quirky if they have at least one habit or behavior that you find bizarre, pointless or annoying but not a relationship deal-breaker. Like eating a hamburger with utensils. Or wearing a Bear Bryant hat during sex.

When you’re sizing up another human as closely as you do in dating, you will inevitably find at least one—and probably 35—such quirks. The harder up you are the less they’ll initially bother you. At minimum, though, with old-fashioned quirky, which will hereafter be known as normal, you will not strongly suspect that the quirks stem from a troubling psychological issue that could turn your life into Stephen King fodder.

The birth of quirky-crazy

Given that quirky is ubiquitous, it ceases to be. There is no quirky. Should you meet someone who is strangely devoid of quirk, you’ve met another Ted Bundy.

The death of quirky leaves three main categories in mate selection:

1. Quirky-crazy

2. Crazy

3. Crazy-crazy

Quirky-crazy is now the step below normal. It’s quirky that really starts to worry you or piss you off. The quirks don’t seem to be performed by whim of choice, and they have strong negatives—usually by dint of being a pain in the ass to you.

Importantly, in quirky-crazy, you do strongly suspect that the offending habits or behaviors stem from a troubling psychological problem. You can only take heart in knowing you have no goddamned idea what you’re talking about.

Finally, the odd habit or behavior could become a deal-breaker, depending on how hard up you are.

Some examples of quirky-crazy:

  • She needs to get to the airport eleven hours early for a domestic flight.
  • She must leave all the lights on when sleeping.
  • She cannot eat in front of another human being.

It is not “she hacked your email account” or “she stores walnuts in her anus.”

Those are crazy, which gets into the severely destructive, you-need-serious-help shit. In rare cases crazy may devolve into crazy-crazy, which might watch you wake one day to find a bloody nub above your speechless testicles.

Dating quirky-crazy

The distribution of quirky-crazy and crazy in the single population in New York, and I’m sure most elsewhere, presents a pickle for a man in his late thirties or forties who’s looking for a wife (especially when he’s not solidly certain in which of those buckets he sits). From his point of view, and by his I mean mine, every woman he’ll encounter will have at least a dozen big-boned skeletons, and he’s packing a graveyard himself.

In these circumstances, you must disregard deficiencies that you may have once considered to be deal-breakers if you desire coupledom.

For example, in my early twenties, finding Zoloft or Prozac in a woman’s medicine cabinet was enough to start moseying for the hills. It was a trite joke among men my age at the time. More than once, I recall a college friend saying “found the happy pills in the bathroom” with a resigned sigh, as if he regretted having held out that naïve sliver of hope for the new bird he’d been seeing.

Happy pills were viewed as a clear indication of quirky-crazy, and they also raised the odds of crazy. At minimum, you were warned that you’d be in for bouts of Exorcist-like behavior if you stuck around.

Remember, this was the dark ages of 1992. “Depression” still mainly brought Flannery O’Connor to mind and “antidepressants” conjured the pointing-finger photo of Marilyn Monroe’s nightstand.

Then Prozac buried North America.

By 2001, in New York City, you had a better chance of finding Bin Laden busking in the subway with a lute than finding a 30-something woman who wasn’t on antidepressants. So it lost nearly all relevance as a dating qualifier. In fact, when it came to alarming a would-be suitor, most psychiatric medications took a step down. Antipsychotics became antidepressants, and antidepressants became M&Ms.

Thus, quirky-crazy is not only viable relationship material, it’s probably the best you’re going to do if you’re not exactly Tyrone Power. In fact, it’s both cruel and wrong to reject a romantic partner for being mildly quirky-crazy. I think I first learned this from Ally McBeal. Social norms demand that you laugh at quirky-crazy, which is why television comedy writers wallow in its marshes. You must also laugh at seriously pathological quirky-crazy when it’s packaged for entertainment; I think I first learned this from Monk.

Mild quirky-crazy deserves the benefit of the doubt in dating because, at minimum, we assume the person is aware of their weird behavior and wouldn’t do anything truly heinous. And let’s not forget that the quirky-crazy person presents the two huge advantages of existing and being sexually attracted to you. These overcome a container-ship full of negatives for many men.

Parsing mild quirky-crazy from its more malignant form—in which the underlying psychological problems are significant enough to up-end life or, unthinkably, worsen into genuine crazy—is an incredibly difficult sifting feat. There are no clear lines of demarcation separating mild quirky-crazy, dangerous quirky-crazy and (gulp) legit crazy-in-waiting. Rather, there are hundreds—thousands—of gray zones shooting through universes of behaviors and contexts.

Spotting even crazy-crazy is a tough call, as it likes to put on a quirky-crazy teeshirt and mingle incognito. The school and workplace shootings in recent years have generated a lot of talk about how people might flag crazy-crazy when it’s walking around being merely non-homicidally crazy, or—far worse—annoyingly quirky-crazy inches from you. Experts insist you can’t do it. The coworker who sobs uncontrollably in the bathroom stall and sucks both thumbs at once in meetings may never hurt a soul, while the one who buys the department muffins every week may be preparing to sew your head on his dog’s carcass at this moment.

In life and dating, you can only pray that you’ll sniff out real trouble early enough to do something about it—without missing out on a beautiful opportunity just because it comes to you soaked in uncertainty.

You pays your money and you takes your chances.

 

Footnotes

1I may have extrapolated her basic sentiment in ways she had not considered.

2There’s a segment in the mental health community that objects to the use of the word “crazy.” They feel it’s objectifying, hurtful or something called ableist—which apparently describes a word or phrase that pokes fun at, or is somehow linked to, a disability. “Lame” is a common example. “Retarded” is the hot one.

In southern New Jersey in the 1970s, “retarded” meant boring, unfunny, meaningless, compulsory, not the right brand, out of the ordinary in a bad way, out of the ordinary in a good way, highly valued by the person you wish to put down, careless, messed up, illogical, difficult, uncooperative, conspicuous, precious or twee. If it was used in reference to an actual developmentally challenged person, which almost never occurred, one would say “mentally retarded.”

 

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The Mid Night Howl

mlCtdlK
When I was writing a book eight years ago, I engaged in a temporary mode of living that was hyper focused and backwoods boring. I would rise every day at about 5:30 am, work in a determined fashion until noon, eat, exercise, see an old movie at a nearby theater or meet a friend, eat, and then be in bed by 8:45 pm. I’d listen to an old radio story while I read a blog or two (come back, Joe Stirt), then fall asleep by 9:30 pm.

At about two am, I’d wake up. Or rather, I’d open my eyes and find myself in a state that felt a lot like wakefulness, but not quite. I’d have a highly sensitive perception of the dark room I was in, but no sharp awareness that I was no longer asleep. It was an odd, placid form of being awake; more aware but less alert. There was no tug of tiredness trying to pull me back under, nor any restless notion to get up or turn on a light. It was a ripe sentience that allowed clear but limited thought and wanted stillness.

I was experiencing segmented sleep, something that was as normal as defecating outside up until about 150 years ago. It’s as close to Lincoln as I’ll get. (Segmented sleep, I mean.) Evolution probably created it so we could listen for predators, count the younglings and tend to a dying fire. Internet porn is a more recent use.

During the hour between “first sleep” and “second sleep,” sometimes I’d write in a notebook without a light, sightlessly recording some marginal thought I would never reference. Or click on a radio play. Or just concentrate, trying to recall a sequence of music notes I heard when I was drifting to sleep a few hours earlier.

The music has been happening more frequently in the last decade. In the minutes before losing consciousness, I’ll occasionally hear a symphony score roiling with colors and textures, deep strings and jumping clean horns. Every score seems different. Since I’m not fully asleep, I still have that molecule of live reasoning to wonder if the music is original or would be tonal gibberish if I heard it in daylight. Trying to recall it is meditative and challenging and melancholy at the same time, like eating an imaginary slice of cheese.

I lived in that lockstep mode for four months in 2006. It suited me, though I didn’t realize it at the time. There were no swings, including the kind that adds variety to life. Gluttony felt repulsive. Sleep was good, but never the sweet coma-like convalescence you enjoy after boozing or pulling an all-nighter. The occasional beer or wine had magnified taste and heft, rather than just being the strange water taken at every meal. Food lost the ability to deliver joy or disappointment; it was appreciated calories and all dirty plates looked agreeably the same.

It was a repetitive existence without angst, agitation or excitement, the kind that spits out one bale of hay for every thousand metronome tocks without any reflection or relief in finishing. Frustration and satisfaction never climb above three on a ten scale because neither can bloom for more than a few minutes. It’s precisely the existence we’ve been told is a living death by self-helpy types and economists. (I don’t think I made one clothing or gadget purchase during those four months.)

It was the definition of nearly single-minded simplicity, which is very hard to indulge in if you’re not childless or independently wealthy. Life circumstances rarely allow this kind of living. Or maybe they’re always conspiring to compel it, but we refuse to give up the fight for complexity.

The difference between a routine and a rut is wholly perception. They can swap in an instant. It’s another reason to be careful about heeding advice.

Second sleep made a brief return visit during hurricane Sandy, when I was without electricity for five days in October 2012. It’s impossible to do anything by candlelight other than screw or plot war, so I started nodding off an hour after sundown and waking at dawn. By day four it was as if I had been doing this my entire life. Then the lights, radio, microwave and clocks exploded on all at once at four am on a Saturday morning, thank God, and complexity flourished again.

I’m in that mode of lockstep living again. Working on a book. Part of me feels pathetic for dropping off to sleep at 9:30 pm; another part feels pathetic for not doing so for the last 35 years. Second sleep has returned. Laying in bed with fingers folded at three am, hearing faint arguments and distant train whistles probably an hour’s walk away, wishing the occasional bed partner was in sync with me but also content to be alone, it’s a sensation I’ve never known well enough to miss. I hope it sticks around for a longer spell this time. I hope I figure out what it has to teach this time around.

 

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Do Not Say “Welcome to Middle Age”

father-knows-best. Jim Anderson
Where’s the cancer?

I don’t want cancer. Unless that’s going to be in the cards soon anyway. I want my body to stop irritating me with a series of annoyances that cause me to see some doctor, take pills, bitch and lose productive time.

A variety of bizarre, premature shit has cropped up solely to piss me off in the last few years. Arrhythmia. A half-paralyzed face. A Dupuytren’s whatever-the-frig in my left hand. Gout. Pneumonia.

Pneumonia. The old man’s friend. I’m not yet 44.

Meanwhile I’m healthy. “Healthy.” When people say “Thank God for good health,” they specifically mean me. No brain tumor. No lung cancer. No lupus. No diabetes. No Lyme disease. No Lou Gehrig’s disease. No artificial limbs. Nothing that qualifies me as bad off in the slightest.

“Things happen,” my young Eastern European doctor says. This probably means no ailment I could ever get will impress her. If rebels are shooting your dictator while you’re in grade school, my EKG isn’t going to make you wet eyed.

Yes, there’s the usual helping of inane first world depravity that’s speeding me to an early death. Namely about 37 unnecessary pounds distributed atop internal organs which probably don’t appreciate the company.

But that’s allegedly it. There’s nothing on any of my test results that gets a red Sharpie circle with an exclamation point. Nothing that would make a doctor take a drink of water and look at pictures of his kids before dialing me up. Nobody is telling me that my courage is inspiring. I’m too healthy to be inspiring.

When I hear about somebody younger than me being diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer or aggressive MS or whatever, I naturally feel bad for that person and lucky for myself. For about 15 seconds. Then I go back to feeling belligerent about getting winged by grapeshot every few months with some bullshit problem that is not cancer, not cardiac arrest and not a stroke but will screw up my day-to-day life for an undetermined period of time.

It’s like the health-calamity god is constantly flicking me in the ear. He occasionally wanders off to destroy the life of some innocent son of a bitch who was minding his own business and feeding five kids, but then he comes back. He resumes flicking.

Flick.

Flick.

Flick.

I want to grab the motherfucker by the throat and scream “Just kill me! If you’re gonna do it, do it!”

It needn’t be said that the Bell’s Palsy put me here.

One Thursday morning in March 2010, I noticed that I dribbled when I tried to drink and my right eye wouldn’t blink. Weird. I went to a scheduled dentist appointment without faintly considering the possibility that I had suffered a stroke and might die.

I didn’t consider that because I’m healthy.

“There’s someting wong wid my face,” I said.

My dentist, a man in his fifties named Moe, looked at me like he was seeing a witch melt. He told me to run to a specialist one block from his office. Tests showed no stroke. No brain damage.

“It looks like your typical Bell’s Palsy,” the neurologist said. Which paralyzes half of your typical face. For about two weeks, usually, and then it goes away. At least in 85 percent of cases. The other 15 percent of people spend the remainder of their lives feeling greater empathy for the Elephant Man.

Why was this happening?

“We don’t know, it just happens,” he said. “We have no idea why. It might have to do with a nerve in your neck. There’s nothing we can do about it.”

This was not a satisfactory answer.

For the next ten days, I endured curious and pitied stares from strangers and intimates. I felt like an acid attack victim without the admirer.

I didn’t get hit with the 15-percent nuclear missile. It went away. I resumed trundling about the earth as normal.

Months later I noticed a small, sinewy knot in the palm of my left hand. Upon examining this I discovered that I could not fully straighten my ring finger.

“You’ve got Viking hand,” the hand surgeon said. He seemed almost congratulatory.

Viking hand?

“That’s your typical Dupuytren’s contracture. It usually hits people with northern European blood, like Scandinavians. So that’s where the Viking connection comes from. We have no idea what causes it.”

“I’m not Scandinavian,” I said.

He thought for a second. “Any English? Scottish?”

Fuck.

It might stay the way it is and never need treatment, he explained. Or it might progress and require an in-office surgical procedure.

“There’s no way of knowing. In any event, we wouldn’t treat it unless it gets much worse.”

This was not a satisfactory answer.

I can’t place my left palm flat on a table or fully extend my left ring finger, and I must endure this until—and if—my finger eventually retracts into a curly fry. But in sixteen months it refuses to worsen. I’m accustomed to fixing things that break just a little. Now that MO is useless.

Some months ago, I noticed a similar lump on the sole of my left foot.

“That’s Ledderhose disease,” the podiatrist said. “It shows up in a percentage of people who have a Dupuytren’s contracture. It’s Dupuytren’s but in the foot.”

Total mystery. Might not progress. Needs to get a shitload worse before they treat it.

“Is it called Viking foot?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

She explained that a doctor named Dupuytren saw it in the hand and another doctor named Ledderhose saw it in the foot. We shared a chuckle at the absurdity.

“And a French guy named Peyronie saw it in the penis,” she added. Heehee.

Not that I should worry.

“If that happens, I will call it Viking dick,” I said.

Taze me, bro

If you eat 80 ounces of steak every day and die of a heart attack at 41, at least you die having the perverted satisfaction of knowing a justifiable, fingerable cause-and-effect ejected you from the planet. But when you start getting hit with a string of afflictions that are technically known as “weird shit,” you don’t get that piddling solace.

Nobody wants health ailments that are the medical equivalent of UFO sightings.

Every man has the right to direct the adage “you screw with the bull, you get the horns” to himself in some philosophically manly way. While omitting mention of the urine streaming down his leg from fear of incapacitation and death.

It’s retaining the microscopic dignity of accepting justice and acknowledging what’s cosmically right, even if it burns you. When you freely admit that a punishment fits your crime, you can pretend that you’re the type of guy who will, in some small way, go out with his boots on. Maybe one boot. A lowcut trail shoe. A camp slipper.

At least with the gout, I felt as if some of my bad habits had been vindicated.

“We actually don’t know why some people begin to process uric acid inefficiently,” a doctor recently told me. “It doesn’t really tie to diet, weight or alcohol consumption as much as we once thought. A lot of it is still a mystery.”

Fuck.

Maybe the ridiculously uneven progress of medical science is to blame. In a building that houses a $150 million anticancer proton accelerator the length of a football field, no doctor should be pointing to my toe and shrugging his shoulders.

But that’s happening.

Repeatedly.

If anyone says, “welcome to middle age,” I will beat that person to death with a shovel. Should a shovel be handy. Under 12 pounds.

This isn’t middle age. Not the middle age promised in a post A-bomb world.

I was supposed to stride into middle age like Robert Young, not leach into it like fucking Derek. I realize that starting out like Robert Young would have been a significant help to this plan, but it’s defeatist to dwell on that.

I’m not asking for medical science to make my problems magically vanish. All I’m asking for is to hear reasonable explanations of how my body is avenging the abuse I’ve done to it. Getting a palms-up “things happen” is not satisfactory. Sorry, Petronela.

I know that reading this in weeks or years hence, when cancer and Lupus and Lou Gehrig’s disease or whatever have made themselves known, I’ll probably beg to regain the state of annoyance I clomp around in now. I can’t change that. I can only bitch for today.

Excuse me while I prepare for Viking dick.

 

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Caged Heat, with More
Blood and Less Heat

Raze-Choker“Because you watched The Human Centipede.”

These words sat atop my Netflix homepage for weeks and could not be removed. The movie suggestions below were not helpful; think of movies like The Human Centipede that you’ve never heard of. When the film came out in 2010 and caused a mild ruckus, it played at the IFC theater in New York. I meant to see it there but never did. Years later, after I ventured a private viewing via Netflix, I was reminded of it every time I launched the damned website.

I envisioned the doorman in my building, Mike, standing in my apartment with a cop while covering his nose and clicking though my laptop. “I don’t know what he died of, but I can tell you what he liked to watch,” he says.

When the next deviant-but-talk-worthy movie came out, I’d catch it in the theater. Keep things tidy.

So I saw Raze on the big screen.

It’s about abducted women forced to fistfight to the death for the entertainment of rich people. The New York Times actually recommended this film. I know reviewers occasionally applaud an unthinkably bad movie just to throw a change-up, but the review provided the atom of legitimacy that made buying a ticket for this film defensible. Not that I need that, but it’s nice.

Raze defeated expectations. If you’re not a squeamish moviegoer, see it.

The filmmaker seems to have applied Martin Luther King’s “if you’re a street sweeper, be the Michelangelo of street sweepers” sentiment to creating a film about babes beating the living piss out of each other for people’s amusement. This movie may not be a brain-bending act of genius, but it’s probably The Davide of Caged Heat flicks.

That’s because it throws a curveball. It’s asexual. The fight scenes are violent and the women are young, fit and attractive. But almost no element in the film seems intended to be sexually suggestive. There are scattered hints of carnality; brush strokes that remind you the females would be portrayed far more lustily if another hand was at work. Some trash talk makes weak inroads to domination banter. But that’s it.

Nothing arouses. Nothing titillates. The wife-beater tank top and dirty grey sweatpants each woman wears resemble garage-cleaning menstruation-wear more than anything else. Here the intentional desexualizing is most noticeable. Under their tank tops, the women appear to be wearing triple-ply bras that make cleavage and nipple poke-through impossible. Not a thread of propriety-saving cotton is once dislodged while eyes are gouged and necks are broken. Killing your opponent is mandatory, but there’s no pantsing.

Peckinpah blood, Capra nudity.

I imagined some Garrett Morris-like translator in the lower corner of the screen shouting, “Hey fuckface, this isn’t a lesbian movie!”

It can’t be, because the actors aren’t rendered as women. They’re humans forced to act like animals. Animals trying to keep one of their own, on the outside, alive. If the characters were ever sexual beings, it was many bleedings and killings ago.

In short, every choice in the film appears designed to dump a bucket of ice cubes on any poor slob who tries to will blood into his pelvis while watching it. A Leavenworth lifer couldn’t self-pleasure to this movie. Perhaps sensing this, one dour-faced man in his sixties got up and left the theater about forty minutes into the film. I wonder if he had the balls to ask for his money back.

Usually before I take in any movie, and almost certainly before I write about one, I research it to some degree between cursory and day destroying. But I wanted to see Raze in clean-slate ignorance. Something about this film begged for it; I didn’t want to corrupt my first impressions with knowledge of the sausage making (so I avoided reading interviews with the director, Josh Waller, like this one).

From such a blind viewing, the movie feels like the product of a talented filmmaker who was hired to make a softcore flick but decided he’d screw over some fathead by making a real film—from an arch-brained eunuch’s point of view. He made a deceptively simple movie that’s harsh, fast and sexless. It’s refreshingly lean. The absence of any expected larding almost singlehandedly allows the film to be compelling.

Importantly, the villains are briefly interesting rather than just cartoonish placeholders for evil. The fight ring’s wispy, effete kingpin is an emaciated actor with rake teeth who appears freshly liberated from Dachau. His proper Delta Burke-looking wife is both motherly and cruel to the women. The guards are your typical paramilitary heavies from Central Casting, but they bait and die in ways that don’t muck up the film.

Restraint makes Raze different. It’s what the director left out. This demonstrates a good lesson for any creative work: even if there isn’t genius in brevity, at least there’s brevity. The film only runs 87 minutes, which wouldn’t have strained bladders in 1931 much less 2014. It doesn’t dawdle in side stories, comic relief moments or, to a large extent, even incidental lines that don’t forward the action or develop a character necessarily. That kind of discipline is inspiring to encounter and, I’m sure, hard as hell to pull off.

I can hear the pain-in-the-ass conversations that probably went on. We cut the rape. We cut that humanizing back-story. We cut the shower scene. We cut that joke. We cut all the jokes.

Whoever made Raze took an extended-play club mix of I Touch Myself and sliced out The Letter.

Whether you’re working for Larry Flynt or Pixar, you can make something great if you have the discipline to do that.

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“Being a centrist means you can always find yourself contemptible.”

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The Farrah Poster

Hobo! / Foter / CC BY

 

Like about ten million other Gen-X guys in the mid 1970s, I was exposed to the Farrah Fawcett poster in a typical way: courtesy of an older brother. A friend’s older brother, in my case. He was fifteen, reckless and mean, getting into the kind trouble that would cause him to have a short life. An aroma of denim and pot followed him. He lived in my friend’s basement where he played his Led Zeppelin records. At six, I was curious about what went on down there. Whatever it was, I was pretty sure it would kill me.

The poster appeared in the basement stairway one day, on the slanted ceiling above the basement steps. Near the bottom. I was heading down behind my friend, perhaps shuttling a Coke to the older brother, or some message from his mother that likewise required two to deliver. I don’t remember. Most memories of that basement are down to faint odors of musty carpeting and the pastel covers of board games that were missing pieces the baby sister would occasionally cough up.

I remember that poster, though. I remember looking directly at her eyes when I was halfway down the stairs. I saw those teeth. Those teeth and that hair. The next step down was one small step for a six-year-old, but one giant leap for a boy beginning a life that would hopefully be complicated by females.

I saw the nipples.

I knew that ladies had nipples. I had already spent a few minutes with a nudie magazine, courtesy of another older brother, and had seen nipples. But this was different.

Her nipples were covered, and therefore supposed to be hidden. But they protruded through her top in a bold, celebratory, look-at-me way that had to be purposeful. Her face made it clear that it was purposeful. And the way she was looking at you made it your problem. I knew very little about pornography, but I knew it when I saw it. And this was it. Have the people in this house lost their minds? I thought. Don’t they see what I see? Does anyone see what I see?

But what was I seeing? This was a billion things more than a girl poster. The parts were simple and several, but their sum was infinite. It was punch-in-the-face clear and endlessly maddening.

Like a practice run for Fight Club, you could not talk about the poster. Or, God forbid, the nipples. We had a bizarre, once-in-a-lifetime case of adult-sanctioned pornography, and talking would break that spell. My friend and I stole looks at every possible opportunity, but we didn’t say a word.

“That’s the Six Million Dollar Man’s wife,” my friend finally said, probably hoping I’d break the dam.

The Six Million Dollar Man’s wife…of course! That explained the poster’s power. To a six-year-old in 1976, The Six Million Dollar Man was the most potent force of cool on the planet. Seeing this lady’s obscene nipples and knowing that they and she were his possessions, it put the universe back to straights. If you’re that cool, you naturally and rightly possess every desirable thing in the world. The yearnings this poster created could now be grasped: they’d make sense when I had bionic strength.

In the following days she was identified as Farrahfawcett Majors (one four-syllable word followed by “Majors”), who was on some show that wasn’t The Six Million Dollar Man. Then, at some point, the poster disappeared. Replaced by another, or just gone. I can’t remember. I didn’t think of it again. I forgot to remember it for 14 years. It became the world’s best-selling poster, with guesses ranging to 6 to 12 million copies sold if you include knock-offs. It found a place in the Smithsonian.

In 1990, I opened a door to a storage closet at the carpenter shop where I worked at college, and there it was. On the inside of the door. Ripped and crinkled around the edges. Her suit was more dull orange then red, a sign of fading or that it was one of the millions of fakes. The poster grabbed me by the throat as it did that day in ‘76—but now my fully descended testes had to grapple with it, too. I ran my eyes down the long, backwards S of Farrah’s head, neck, torso, and thighs.

Time had passed outside of the poster. She was no longer Farrahfawcett Majors, no longer the Six Million Dollar Man’s wife. The Six Million Dollar Man was long extinct and curiously absent from even drunken reminiscing. By 1990, Bo Derek and about nine hundred other faces and bodies had somehow vaulted past Farrah in the hierarchy of famous females who bewitched men. But that was all outside of the poster. When you’re looking at it, she’s untouchable. The woman. The female. No one else exists, or ever could, while you’re looking at that poster. Which you can do forever.

Later, I was able to rationalize more about why the poster entrances me, as if why matters a lick.

First, there’s the universe of evolutionary biology. In this shot, Farrah has the perfect cross between the functional, unsexed athletic body that the male brain sees as a strong, hardy, capable partner during lean times (Nadia Comaneci during her medaling years) and the jiggly, curvy, for-fun-and-babies-only body that could pump out whole villages from your seed but would never stay under roof for long (Jayne Mansfield). Farrah’s mid-sized breasts are both efficient and ample, and her nipples prove that they’d be working feeder-ports for at least two of your progeny. The striations of her abdominal muscles under her suit invoke a lithe, rugged body, while the very slightly plump, pleasantly squeezable expanses of her thighs belong to a woman who’s meaty enough to be physically formidable.

Then there’s the geometry. I’d bet my health that the poster is an orgasmic study in the golden mean. That’s the ratio popularized during the Renaissance that makes everything—faces, buildings, breasts, plants, bridges, silverware, everything—beautiful and harmonious to the brain. (It’s 1.6180339887 and represented by the Greek letter phi.) The arcs, angles, spheres and lines in the poster are likely dripping with enough Fibonacci sequences (related to the golden mean) to set a mathematician to convulsing. I’ll wager some science journals did articles on this 37 years ago, with more than one titled She’s So Phi-ne.

What’s not in the Farrah photo is just as important. The blanket behind her colorfully contrasts Farrah’s vertical curves but offers no competing noise or distracting schema, and that allows the viewer to project any fantasy he wants. Is she at a beach? Is there something nautical going on? Is she in your den, waiting for you? All or none, as you wish.

What if she was sitting on the deck of a yacht? Or if there had been little palm trees on that blanket? Or if she was holding a bottle of beer? Or lifeguard whistle? Or a kitten? It would be a sexy shot of a gorgeous woman, but we’d have no iconic image. Toss in any trifle of a prop, and this piece would be about the Raquel Welch cave girl poster.

Since this single photo made a mint, why wasn’t the feat repeated? Why haven’t any other photos of Farrah—or any other woman—overtaken this one as the most iconic female image in history?

Because it was an accident. An Iwo Jima Moment. A dumb luck, right-time-right-place snap, where countless elements too abstract for the conscious mind to conceive or ever hope to manipulate magically fell into place for one beautiful, perfect instant. Had the shutter clicked a split-second before or after, it would have captured something imperceptibly different. In fact, it did. The photographer, a guy in his late thirties named Bruce McBroom, took hundreds of shots of Farrah on that summer day in 1976, though only 36 of her in the one-piece suit (he’s claimed that he was under orders to get a bikini shot). Two other frames of her in the red suit made posters that sold thousands of copies. Which no one remembers.

Outtakes from the shoot are easily findable on the Internet. Many are objectively better photos—better face, more body, more feeling. Many are terrifically sexy shots. Just like the hundreds of other highly produced photos of Farrah that followed in the next 25 years. But none are Iwo Jima Moments. Those happen when divinity steps in. They can’t be conjured. They can’t be forced into existence. God knows untold millions are spent every year in trying.

Standing at that storage closet door in 1990, I recognized Farrah’s smile for what it really was. There were no eyes in the smile. It wasn’t seductive. It wasn’t cute. It was mocking. She was mocking the very idea of being seductive, wholly unconcerned that her exaggerated grin and head tilt contorted her face into something slightly skeletal. The smile was all about the nipples. And it was ruthless. She wasn’t a docile receptacle in wait of a man. She was erect. Penetrative.

Farrah probably made that face because she was tired, but it didn’t matter. In that Iwo Jima Moment, it transmitted a woman-to-man message that cut to the bone. Sex with her might be frivolous, but it would be no game.

I was pretty sure it would kill me.

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Top 10 Benefits of Using a
BIPAP Machine for Sleep Apnea


10. Feeling of self empowerment in choosing to endure whole new level of inconvenience rather than lose some weight.

9. Got $4 for white noise machine on eBay.

8. Crimping hose may be less traumatic for both angry partner and myself than smothering me with pillow.

7. Most expensive electronic item in home no longer does something silly like play media or preserve food.

6. Joy people feel in repeating extremely trite low-effort Darth Vader jokes.

5. Forgetting passport now second stupidest realization at airport.

4. Seldom face awkward mornings with new bed mates.

3. Going on a respirator will mean sleeping in.

2. Final time I lie rigidly on my back and hold object with both hands I may actually look like I’m sleeping.

1. Can stop using BIPAP when I need REM-deprivation excuse to commit psychotic act.

 

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The Professor, 1924-2014

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My inner eight-year-old is in grief over Russell Johnson from Gilligan’s Island.

I looked up to the Professor as a role model more than anyone else on television in my pre-adolescent years, thanks to my addiction to old reruns (though they weren’t so old then; far more recent than Seinfeld is today) and the pervasiveness of Gilligan’s Island. The Professor was intelligent, safe to approach, respectful of ladies, even-keeled and the absolute best person to have around in a jam — but still human, flawed, prideful and occasionally self-deprecating. He got his chops by going to college for a long time and reading those books in his hut, not by being an alien with pointy ears or having some super power. I felt like a bit of the “scientists rule” atmosphere from the Mercury and Apollo years spilled into my childhood through him.

I wonder if he was cooking up some smart way to get us out of this big jam we’re in and was nearly ready to spring it on us at the bamboo table.

Whatever big jam you want.

Goodbye, Professor.

I will imagine that your last words were, “pulu cee bagoomba.”

And you were talking about us.

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View from the Pitchfork Mob

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The disturbing public excoriation on Twitter that upended the life of 30-year-old PR exec Justine Sacco on Friday, December 20, 2013—after she sent an ill-conceived Tweet1 that went viral—was one of the greatest spectacles of mob violence in social media to date.

I couldn’t resist joining in.

When I got wind of the brouhaha over her tweet via a post on Boing Boing at about 7 pm that night, I booked over to the #HasJustineLandedYet feed and had me a good time watching the blood orgy on my iPhone.2

For context, there was a juicy charge to the situation: the victim had no clue she was being ripped to shreds by Twitter users worldwide. She sent the tweet a little after 10 am EST while in London, then boarded an 11-hour flight to Cape Town, South Africa. She reportedly flew first class on British Airways, enjoying amenities3 that sum to a veritable inflight anus licking but evidently don’t include that newfangled trifle called WiFi.

As I ate nachos and drank Coronas alone in a mediocre Mexican restaurant in Greenwich Village, I thumbed in these clever tweets to give my evening some free amusement:

It’s like 2 million people are waiting for her with the lights off
to see her expression as the earth explodes.


What’s the German word for the sick anticipation of waiting
for an imminent catastrophe to hit an unexpecting person?


When she gets to Africa it’ll be like the Beatles landing at
JFK, except for the wishing she was dead part.

Type type, munch munch. Small satisfied smile, somewhere between Grinch and Mona Lisa. You don’t get to watch a public torturing too often these days. It masturbated the dopamine puds in my rat brain. And I was safe in the crowd, knowing that I wasn’t anywhere near her worst tormenter. Hell, I wasn’t even insulting her. I was commenting on the situation. Some people were wishing AIDS, rape, death and worse on Sacco. Even circulating photos of her family.

But my tweets were toothpicks on her funeral pyre. I certainly wasn’t one of the few bastions of digital humanity calling for people to knock it the fuck off. Like this fellow:

Josh Greenman  @joshgreenman
Hey, if you’re mocking Justine Sacco relentlessly, please stop,
look in the mirror, and give to an anti-AIDS charity.

When I started seeing these tweets, shining like burnished tin in shit, my contrarian mode immediately engaged and, not ironically in the least, found their sentiment worth aping.

There ought to be some difference in the vitriol over a stupid
joke gone bad (likely this situation) vs. deliberate hate talk.


I hope every person who sends out a self-righteous
unnecessary-to-say “words have consequences” tweet
gets Tourette’s.

I sent a couple more tweets like these two. It wasn’t nearly as fun. More effort, less hedonistic payoff. Like my dopamine jerk-off session had run out of lube. Instead of being in non-thinking harmony with the masses, I was running outside of the group and being antagonistic to it.

This requires intentional cognition and the nakedness is animalistically unpleasant. You’re no longer a herring in the school. You’re in open water, begging to be snapped up by something toothy or abandoned in a cloud of excrement. Your ganglia tell you that you’re asking for death or isolation and wonder if you might care to explain why.

2.

While I’m sure I’ve been part of more subtle mob attacks over the years—you can easily do this when you think you’re being high-minded—it’s been decades since I recognized it immediately and felt shame afterward.

The last time was in December 1989, during a fraternity pledge season. I had pledged4 the semester before, so it was the first time I could dish out some of the theatrical whup-ass that had been dished to me six months before. Rookie brothers are especially vulnerable to being asses during pledge season, it is generally known, and it doesn’t help when you’re a wee bit more immature than the average bear.

Some time before midnight, the pledges lined up soldier-style on a bridge on the outskirts of campus. The militaristic nature of fraternity initiations has always struck me as interesting. We were in college. When men want to mix subjugation and camaraderie, marching happens.

We were in the black cold with one distant streetlight. The brothers filtered slowly through the line like water through tree roots. Like the others, I soon began hollering at a postulant (what my fraternity called pledges) for not knowing someone’s “information,” which meant he had not memorized a home address. My stint of method acting fed on itself as I played the exasperated, end-of-his-rope guardian of the fraternity’s competency standards. I was probably going for Martin Luther meets Sergeant Carter.

My eyes bugged and my throat tendons bow-stringed as I berated some dude who was three months my elder, though neither of us was 20. My acting job was greased by the fact that I held a mild dislike for this guy, mostly because I felt he held the same for me. When in each other’s company, there was some unspoken acknowledgment that we preferred conversation with different people.

Cigar smoke and insults whirled around me. I can’t remember what I said, but much of it probably started with a condescending, “do you actually think…” After perhaps three minutes, I pulled out a thatch of my hair to punctuate some question with violence. It ripped out audibly, at least to my ears. Like Moe tearing a handful of mattress stuffing from Larry’s head in a Three Stooges short.

After the burn from yelling left my throat—that burn and adrenaline must have distracted me from the pain on my head—I immediately regretted what I had done. Not harassing the pledge; ripping out my hair. I was thinning and badly needed the few dozen strands from my front tuft that I now clutched in my hand. Realizing that I’d just accelerated my balding by nine years made me scream in frustrated rage at all the pledges, now marching off to their activity.

I felt a hand hit my shoulder. I turned, still needing to yell, furious and verklempt. Do you believe what he did?! I said to a friendly face.

An alumnus of one year blinked a few times, greeted me and said my name. There was an awkward pause while he waited for me to switch off the act. He greeted me more pointedly. I shook his hand and felt angrily, stupidly balder.

3.

Later that night, I sat at my desk and examined a hideous hole in my character. It showed a core ugliness, far more defining than any above-the-dregs qualities I thought I might have.

“You must never be in the position to rule over other people,” my mind said gravely. (I remember my mind speaking gravely.) “You will hurt them. You are sadistic.”

My flickering self-respect tried to shout this down. Ever since I was the first team pick for a classroom trivia contest in second grade, I had nurtured the notion that what Mr. Rogers told every kid was at least equally true in my case, even if it manifested itself by collecting wheat pennies instead of climbing that motherfucking rope in the gym.

Yet here I was, several pegs below common. Beneath contemptible.

The new revelation wouldn’t die. It was a crack in the mirror that cut jagged through my face and couldn’t be wished gone. I was separated into two opposing forces: I was the worthless Nazi grunt beating a Jew while laughing demonically and I was some moralist a half-century away knowing such a thing was vile and must be destroyed before it can rear its head.5 The duality was unbearable because it wasn’t reconcilable. You can’t be both. But I had proven to myself that I was.

If a nineteen-year-old brain that couldn’t remember the exact route to the mall could contemplate the nature of evil, that’s what it was doing. Though it was more like piecing together a preschool puzzle, the kind with six huge pieces, than Hannah Arendt deconstructing Eichmann.

I kneaded the possibility that the majority of the world’s jack-booted thugs aren’t any different than me. They aren’t black-hearted monsters or even inwardly convinced of a cause, despite whatever bullshit they spew. They’re just weak-willed yokels trying to fit in. They might only be slightly more vulnerable to group momentum than the average person, but they get a head start by showing up. They’re malleable and guidable, and prone to emotion-fueled naivety that diminishes their IQ by 20 points in pivotal moments that they later regret.

I was hollow. My stomach seemed to dematerialize along with my spine. I felt like a pus-filled wart on a shark’s ass.

Self-esteem was running low that night in 1989.

Like most visits of depression or euphoria, it didn’t last past breakfast the next morning. Perhaps I realized I wasn’t going to kill myself, so I had no existential choice but to rub one out to a Playboy since my roommate was at his girlfriend’s dorm and then go to bed.

There was no identifiable moment of illumination in the coming years when I gained the inkling that wanting to be anything more than a wart, in the grand scheme, was the drive to be human. It was simultaneously natural, egotistical and (unless you’re Jesus, Gandhi or Sinatra) mostly futile. I’m also not sure when I realized that you have at least a little choice about which shark’s ass you infect. Some have feeding patterns that are less galling than others.

4.

Five years after college, I mulled over these platitudes in a Mead notebook. I recorded my suspicions that it wasn’t inherent good or evil that made a person a saint or monster, it was the capacity for empathy. Some people have a lot; others, almost none. We all know someone who yelps in pain when seeing strangers get their fingers slammed in a door, literally or figuratively, and we all know someone else who just watches like a reptile and looks for exposed bone. People fall all along that spectrum. If they didn’t, that donation can in front of the register at the Wawa would either fill up in an hour or never at all.

Empathy is not my strongest characteristic.

I drop in my coins, but mainly because I don’t want them littering my pocket and I somehow manage to retain the quarters. Occasionally I have maudlin fits of self-loathing in which I’ll consider the absurd bounties in my life against the crumbs more innocent and deserving people have been given, and I’ll make some grandiose charitable gesture to quiet the cancerous feeling. Those fits have been getting more frequent. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. Diligently reporting each act of self-flagellation to my accountant probably doesn’t signal that my humanity is evolving for the better.

If there’s been growth in my empathy, it’s been budged forward a centimeter here and there by experience. I’ve gotten my fingers slammed in more doors over the years. Heavy ones. A few hydraulic presses. If this wasn’t a metaphor I’d be eating my beef stew in the facedown position now. So when I see a digit amputation in my circle, I no longer have the luxury of reacting with detached bemusement, clueless of how the strange creature in front of me is suffering. Some sensory memory butts in and reminds me of the time I fed the wood chipper in that particular way.

It’s a self-centered means of backing into an artifice of empathy, since ignoring their bloody mash-up would diminish mine. But it’s better than nothing.

5.

I didn’t give a goddamn about Justine Sacco. While I was the target of group ridicule as a kid, like many children, I didn’t extend the cold, isolated dread that washes over such a child to Sacco’s predicament. I’ve never been reputationally disemboweled by a headless pitchfork mob on social media. That peculiar hole in my empathy resume, amid canyons, made it easy to find this ugly affair interesting and amusing at the outset.

Sacco also made a good target. She’s white, blonde, young, at least comfortably in the upper middle class, worked at a prominent media company that runs brands people have heard of (like OKCupid and The Daily Beast), and was a high-level PR flack, for Chrissakes. Her tweet was likely a failed attempt at snarky humor6, perhaps to zing white privilege or the myopic press coverage of the AIDS crisis in Africa, but it wasn’t an aberration. Her online attackers found several prior tweets that painted her as smarmy. None were truly awful, but they weren’t the missives of a salt-of-the-earth type, either.

Of all the people who’d rise above the squelch on my broken empathy meter, it wouldn’t be her. Moralistically, in compassion for another human being, it should have been. But in looking for answers on my failing, I’m left staring at the same dun canvas and the only non-answer that gets anywhere close: I just ain’t that good of a person.

In 1989, I didn’t care enough about that guy to avoid using him to give some of my adolescent pettiness and repressed scorns a little air. He wasn’t a sympathetic character in my view, so I never felt bad for him. I felt bad for me. I felt pathetic. I felt sadistic. I had wronged something very large, very important, and it wasn’t him.

6.

I don’t feel bad for Sacco. Her comeuppance was overly severe, but her repeated attempts to get a shock reaction from her Twitter followers through mildly offensive or nasty remarks gave her an almost perfect fitness to be an example for other Twitter provocateurs who want to hold corporate jobs.7 She didn’t deserve a global lynching, but she’d long been asking for a semi-public ass beating. Having contempt for the witless rabble that stormed at her, myself included, does nothing to generate feelings of sympathy for her. These are two different things.

Targets of mob attacks usually have the last laugh, anyway. Being worthy of attack sets them apart from their worthless-cog tormentors. As long as Sacco doesn’t put a bullet in her head, the darkest crevice she settles into during her fall, financially and socially, will still be far above the greatest heights most of her Twitter detractors will ever enjoy in life. They know it. Lobbing a rock at someone during a group attack eventually brings a twisted melancholia. It reminds you that you’re probably not worth that stone.

 

 

 

 

Footnotes

1The tweet read, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

2Just saying this makes me want to drive into the middle of Camden, New Jersey, pull myself out my car and beat the living shit out myself.

3According to the British Airways website, flying first class on this route costs about nine grand. I’ll feel a little less irritated the next time the Greyhound bus WiFi craps out after four minutes.

4I hated this verb back then and hate it now. I would rather say “joined,” but it’s not like you waited in line, signed a paper and then received a bundled uniform. It was a bit more involved. Naturally I’ve been sworn to secrecy on any details, other than what I’ve divulged here. In one episode of the Andy Griffith Show, in which a seven-ish Opie got himself in trouble with a few kids in a “secret society” meeting, Barney Fife refused to tell Andy a tidbit about his own boyhood secret society. It was a throwaway joke, but it was good enough for me.

5Everything goes back to the Nazis. If you grew up with a bookish interest in history and a typical male interest in extremes, there is no trail of thought or metaphorical comparison that does not go back, in some way, to Nazi Germany. Like the History Channel, I outwardly weep for its existence in a stentorian voice while I inwardly, shamefully thank God for the copious sustenance of fodder it will always yield as it is churned and churned again for endless purposes. “I hate you Hitler, thank you” hides in the stomach of many of us who love black-and-white movies but weren’t alive when they were made.

6If you ever find yourself on the bloodied end of a nasty Twitter beat-down, you can bet that your offending tweet will be a failed attempt at humor. Murderous Twitter swarms target power and arrogance. Attempting humor is a form of arrogance. Nothing makes a troll push up his Coke-bottles faster than seeing a “look how funny and smart I am” tweet from a person who probably pulls in a decent salary and occasionally gets laid.

7Sacco’s older tweets show that she seemed to fancy herself as a straight-talking off-stage comedian who had the latitude to broadcast eye-poking, just-short-of-outrageous tweets solely intended to draw attention through shock value. One example was, “I had a sex dream about an autistic kid last night.”

You can’t throw this kind of cringe-bait up on Twitter and expect to swim in the world of biweekly paychecks and offices and people with titles. You have to choose. You can’t be Sarah Silverman part-time. Gilbert Gottfried tried to keep a pinky toe in the corporate machine while still being his uncensored self, and found out that those two cannot coexist for long. Not in a world with Twitter and slow news days.

If you’re a freelance writer and rarely use Twitter, however, by all means, continue typing whatever crap you want on the Internet.

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When a Bar Dies

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Wrenching the old payphone off the wall should have been harder. A man who’d been pouring beer ten feet away for better than twenty years muscled a pry bar between a cinder block and the black metal box, and the relic heaved forward with a crunching groan, its broken attachments hanging like mangled arms. Two grey cords strained from the wall, like some last-ditch plea to let the phone stay where it’s been for, God, longer than anyone can remember. The bar opened in 1945. “Sometime after that” often ended discussions about the origins of things.

I was in the carcass of The Back Fence, a saloon on Bleecker Street in the Village. It was the afternoon of Sunday, September 29, 2013, a few days after it poured its last official beer given an ill-timed tangle with the city’s department of health. The bar had long been set to close on September 30, but the health-department troubles spurred the owner to go dark early. Perhaps most hurtfully to long-time regulars and employees, it meant canceling the goodbye shindig planned for the final weekend.

On that final Sunday, the lack of closure was palpable. Sullen staffers with dirty hands slowly emptied the bar of its decorative trappings. Some were auctioned. Outside, people seeking a free souvenir tore brown fence posts off of the exterior wall, leaving a hockey smile that confirmed you were now passing an empty building. A dead venue. A neighborhood watering hole that was there for 68 years, with live music every night, but is now shuttered and gutted. Soon to be another restaurant, another yogurt place, yet another bank. Something other than the irreplaceable nightspot it was.

It’s not mourned alone. The area has seen several notable bar deaths in recent years. Odessa, an East Village bar for 50 years, died a few days after The Back Fence taped its sparse goodbye note on its door window. Milady’s on Prince Street in SoHo, a dive bar alleged to be about as old as The Back Fence, closed in January 2014. Kenny’s Castaways, a few feet west of The Back Fence, closed in 2012. The Stoned Crow keeled over in 2010. Chumley’s locked its doors in 2007 and will likely never serve another pint. CBGB, perhaps the most prominent death, died in late 2006.

That’s just looking back. As a resident of the Village, I don’t much care to look forward. If you need ennui, visit a blog that’s dedicated to memorable New York places that have gone extinct: vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com.

Some of these bars, like Chumley’s (which suffered a ceiling collapse), died quickly. The Back Fence did not. Rather, its last two years felt like a protracted version of that afternoon of amateur demolition. The death throes were painful to watch, especially when it’s your local, but they were unremarkable.

It was a tired tune. The long lease was up, and the rent went from barely-doable-now to absurd. The owners couldn’t cover the new monthly nut. Not with this bar. Not in this Village. Some say business started to wane about five years ago, though others claim the slide began well before the financial crisis. I first noticed it in 2008. The sardine-can crowds on Friday and Saturday started to thin, stopped hitting the occupancy max, stopped bulging at the front doors. More people balked at the five-dollar cover after scanning the room. You could see it.

It was a gradual balding of the twenty- and thirty-something bridge-and-tunnel boozers, the ones who wave bills fresh from the ATM and whoop reliably to the opening riff of Sweet Home Alabama. Soon, when the bouncers kept removing the stools on weekends at dusk (to let bellies cram against the bar), it seemed like nostalgic wishful thinking. Weeknights were often crypt-like. It wasn’t unusual for two or three quiet sippers to have the bar to themselves.

Tips eroded. There was less vomit outside. Staffers had more time to cut fruit and do shots with customers. They texted. They did a lot of texting. They searched for answers, like you do when a job you don’t want to lose is ending.

“It’s because we lost the Wall Street guys,” some offered. “They used to come in here with expense accounts, run up astronomical tabs and they’d make your week. That’s gone now.”

Sure, the missing suits probably played a part. But there was also an uncomfortable element that nobody really wanted to talk about: the bar likely wasn’t appealing to the young set like it once did. It was that fickle chemistry of being a place where people wanted to be—that invisible inch between being a grungy, iconic, cool dive bar with an unsigned wonder wailing classic rock songs and a dusty, empty beer joint with a lone cover-song veteran trying to beckon people in. Maybe too many young eyeballs pressed against the windows and started seeing the latter. They couldn’t see history, what made the bar more than it seemed in that glance. They kept walking.

Many found what they were looking for. One block away, at the corner of Sullivan Street, Thunder Jackson’s is packed every weekend and does fairly well on weeknights. It’s a youthful, painfully-trying-to-be-hip bar, circa 2009. A place that looks like it was assembled action-movie style with every trope that supposedly appeals to Generation-Yers with Lena-Dunham eyeliner and untucked Hugo Boss button-downs. It has pumping Top-40 music and countless televisions. Decent wings and burgers. Young female servers run about in tight, revealing garb, and seemingly change every month rather than every decade.

In short, Thunder Jackson’s is everything that The Back Fence wasn’t.

The Back Fence was a bar for people who wanted to see live music and get drunk. Peanut shells piled on the floor (at least until the Health Department got far more uppity about vermin two years ago). The journeyman bartenders could be curmudgeonly, uninterested in conversation. Short with any alcohol novice who asked for guidance when ordering a drink. It had small, dirty bathrooms and an unassuming coat of crud in the McSorley’s spirit. No dancing (“we don’t have a cabaret license”). Crap wine. No leg and precious little cleavage behind the bar.

But Kerouac and Ginsberg allegedly got stupid here. Lou Reed and Richie Havens played on that pitiful wart of a stage. The liquor pours were generous and the peanuts were free.

It was a take-it-or-leave-it dive bar. A refuge for the parched and lonely.

The kind that many New Yorkers still love.

Just not enough.

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Dispatches from Gout Land

woodface21. 

Gout is one of the few afflictions humans have given the royal “the” prefix. The plague, the flu, the AIDS. Gout is in this elite group because it makes the thought of burdening the world with just one more purple-mottled corpse—one that can no longer feel its big toe—seem like such a small thing to ask.

2.

The two green indomethacin capsules in my body are only the piddling vanguard. There are tiny crystals slicing up the cartilage in the knuckle of my right big toe and these pills will soon be fucking up their party. Now would be good. If soon was now, that would not be unappreciated by the owner of the toe cartilage.

3.

Gout is a reminder that you’re hurtling toward death and your final hour will not be dignified nor poignant but most likely end with you pleading for something extremely unpleasant stop. It may involve frantic searching for an off-switch, as if you were trying to silence a smoke alarm at 3:30 in the morning. 

4.

Waiting for indomethacin to kick in can take more hours than childbirth might require under ideal circumstances. Women get clemency for childbirth.

5.

Excruciating is an overused word. It’s too often applied to things like having an awkward conversation. It was likely first uttered by someone being tortured in the middle ages, or having a gout attack. It begins with a vowel and can be heaved from the chest to communicate transcendental anguish, in contrast to “painful” which is anemic in such situations.

6.

Crucifixion is often perceived as the gold standard of agony in pre-gout life. It bears thought that God had Christ die at age 33.

7.

If my own life template held for Christ, he wouldn’t have dealt with gout for another nine years. Though he surely ate less daily protein day to day and I’m not sure how much ale was consumed in Jerusalem when he lived.

8.

I’m not sure if Christ spent the majority of his life in Jerusalem. It doesn’t sound right.

9.

You can avoid screaming if you breathe as if you’re about to thrust your face into a bathtub of magma.

10.

No one is comparing gout to crucifixion. That comparison is lost to the ages.

11.

The existence of gout in an era before indomethacin is not consistent with the concept of a sentient deity. And no organism would struggle for survival with gout on the other side of the natural selection door. Gout is in theological no man’s land.

12.

Indomethacin is proof of mankind’s capacity to innovate himself out of Armageddon instead of just into it.

 13.

Meaning, preventing a thermonuclear holocaust due to nation-centric aggression or terrorist acquisition of suitcase devices cannot be unachievable in a world with the green capsules.

14.

For such work to be done with the full optimistic ignorance it requires, it should be left to men under the age of 40.

15.

Or 34 if you really want to be conservative about it.

 

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