I Did Not Anticipate This

Part of getting a little bit older has been admitting the parts of personality – good and bad – that are basically baked in, either due to genetics or my upbringing. Admitting my own helplessness in this regard has been largely a good thing, but it comes with some obvious drawbacks when it comes to big life changes. So when I found out that I was going to be a Dad in 2016, it was often hard for me to shake the feeling that I wasn’t up to the task of parenting, and that this failure was somehow beyond my control. I always had a pretty good sense that I’d be up to the domestic tasks – the diaper-changing, the nap schedules, the otherwise fatherly participation in the rituals of parenting. But what really frightened me were the elements of parenting that I didn’t have any control over –  Would I really love him enough? Would I resent him for changing my life so acutely? Would I be spending most of my waking hours with him out of obligation instead of love? Despite the raft of literature on parenting (to be clear, I have read none of it), there doesn’t seem to be much guidance on this front.

I know I’m supposed to say “I fell in love with him the first time I saw him.” And that’s true, in a way. Something did click when Simon was born, when it turned out that he was a real, breathing human instead of just a concept trapped inside a belly. And a lot of my other nagging concerns were answered early on: Not only was I good at fulfilling my fatherly duties -changing diapers was oddly satisfying (no one talks about this), and my adherence to a sleeping schedule easily could have been diagnosed as a mental disorder – but my sense of responsibility towards his well-being was rooted almost exclusively in my love for him. After a few months, I found myself thinking, “yeah, I can do this.” I had NO idea what I was talking about. I had NO idea what I was in for. I probably STILL don’t, because as it turns out parenthood is a form of insanity that alters your brain chemistry faster than you can possibly keep track of it.

Right from the start, Simon had this knack for producing ridiculous moments where a kind of love I didn’t know existed in me would just get sling-shotted to the surface, and these moments seem to happen every day. A couple of months ago we brought him into bed early one morning, and after some quiet snuggling, he lifted up his head to look me in the eye, broke into a huge smile, and whispered “good morning,” which sounded like “good moaning” but with a long and exagerrated “o” sound. We recently upgraded to a toddler bed, and the other night I was lying in bed with him at bedtime. At one point I lifted my head up to see if he was asleep, and he immediately reached his hand to forcefully push my head back onto the pillow, with a simple command: “Dada snuggle.” I experience each of these moments like tiny deaths. All of my brain synapses fire at once. My heart leaps out of my chest and punches me in the face. I hardly know what to do with myself.

Then there’s the fear. I thought that as he got older and less fragile, this would dissipate. I could not have been more wrong. The morning after my 35th birthday, Simon climbed out of his crib for the first time, and when I went into his room I could hear him crying but I couldn’t find him, which is the literal plot of 100% of my parenting nightmares. As it turned out he had landed in his clothes hamper face down and was helplessly screaming into his dirty clothes during the 60 seconds when I was looking for him – 60 seconds where I wasn’t there for him, where he was helpless and all alone, where he didn’t know where I was. And while he forgot about the whole thing in about five minutes, I’ve thought about it every day since. A couple of weeks ago he fell out of his chair after dinner and hit his head – a scene which replayed in my head over and over again as I tried to fall asleep that night. The other day, I was downstairs watching a movie after he had gone to bed, when I heard his crying upstairs immediately followed by Laura’s hurried footsteps to his room. And while I “knew” that nothing was actually wrong, that sound – the crying, the footsteps, the running – was enough to make me want to die. Because losing him is never far from my mind. Because every day that he is alive, there is more of him to lose, and more of me that he would take with him.

I know it’s only been two years, which means the verdict on my parenting disposition is far from decided, and my helplessness in the face of all of it is more apparent than ever. He’s at an age where he’s still pretty obsessed with me and his Mom, which is in equal parts amazing and transient – so much can happen in the next 30 years. Maybe someday he’ll decide that he’s a Libertarian, maybe he’ll decide to use his considerable brainpower to get into investment banking or the oil industry. Maybe he’ll decide that his bleeding heart Dad is just a disillusioned kook who isn’t worth seeing during the Holidays. Or maybe as I reach old age, my grip of reality will slip just enough that I start to view him as an enemy. Maybe the physical degeneration of my brain tissue will cause me to disown him because of some imagined slight. Anything can happen, and so much of it is still beyond my control.

But right now, this shit is real fuckin’ good; better than any drug I’ve ever done. And it seeps into every part of my life. I’m constantly stopping myself from over-sharing the most mundane parenting anecdotes with my friends who aren’t parents, because COME ON have you seen this kid? Have you ever watched him eat blueberries? Have you ever heard how he says the words “I love you?” (“Ah wah wah”) FOR GOD’S SAKE, HE POINTED AT A GUY WITH A BEARD ON THE FERRY AND CALLED HIM SANTA, HOW IS THIS NOT THE FUNNIEST THING YOU’VE EVER HEARD, WHY ARE YOU WALKING AWAY FROM ME, WHY WON’T YOU RETURN MY CALLS I JUST WANT TO TELL YOU ABOUT MY SON.

This love is painful. It’s bracing. It fills my every waking moment. It feels like too much to contain. That probably sounds like bragging, and it might be. But have you seen the fucking face on this kid? Have you heard his voice? Have you put him in timeout, only to discover that he feels and expresses genuine regret at the act that put him there? Have you watched him shuffle out of his bedroom in the morning while rubbing his eyes, in a slow-march-to-inevitable-snuggles, on a collision course for you? Have you held his sobbing body after he’s hurt himself? Has he asked you, unprompted, for a kiss? Have you lied down next to him as he’s falling asleep, your face only inches from his, and been 100% certain that he is falling asleep both knowing that he is loved and thinking about how much he loves you in return? No, you haven’t. Not with this kid. Because you didn’t have anything to do with his creation.

That’s MY son, and I’m his Dad. And I couldn’t be happier with this arrangement.

What I Watched in 2018

eyesopen

I do understand that some of these movies were released in 2017, but I watched them in 2018. So shut up.

This is now a movie blog.

Black Panther

Let’s start with a Marvel movie, because we are rapidly heading to a future where these are the only movies that are ever made. The thing is: I really, really liked this movie. And it’s actually hard for me to define WHY I liked it. The plot is typical, predictable, and the ending is just as you’d expect it to be. But man, this movie was good. It made me think a lot about how movies make their viewers invest in the characters, and how much of that work is done in subtle ways – so that by the time a character is in a fight or “dies” in a way in which you KNOW that they’re going to come back, you still FEEL something. And I felt a lot during this movie. The characters were amazing, the action was well put-together, and they took some real TIME with their characters. The main villain was deeply sympathetic and also completely correct, it’s too bad he had a penchant for killing lots of innocent people.

The Last Jedi

I liked a lot about this movie – I thought the buildup (and the music!) that went along with the culminating moment at the end of the movie almost made the bad stuff worth watching.

But the bad stuff… oh man. I mean, they took Finn – the most likeable and interesting  character from the first movie and basically turned him into Jar-Jar Binks. And though  I liked the eat-the-rich message of the scene on the casino planet, the more I thought about it the more I realized that it was a clumsily un-subtle dig at Trump, and it pisses me off that we can’t even have a fucking Star Wars movie that doesn’t re-litigate the 2016 election. I don’t need that, and neither does anyone else.

The very end of the movie, with the Child staring up at the sky and clutching a “Resistance” symbol was a strong indication that there will be approximately 1,500 more Star Wars movies during my lifetime, and we are rapidly heading towards a time when  they will every single one of them will be really fucking bad.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

There is so much going on in this movie that literally the only thing characters can take time to do is explain what the fuck is going on, all the way up to and including their specific motivations for each and every one of their actions. They might as well just kill all the dialog and have a narrator.  It’s too much, and I hope they all stay dead. The end.

Hereditary & Mother!

I put these two movies together because I think they are illustrative of two good filmmakers accomplishing very different goals through the medium of horror.

Hereditary is a movie that is beautiful, terrifying, and brilliant. It made me feel like absolute shit for most of the movie, I couldn’t sleep the night after watching it, and I was thinking about it the whole next day. The filmmaker reached into my soul and pulled strings that I didn’t know were there, because whoever made this movie understood a great deal of the human condition. I’m OK with that, even if it didn’t make me feel good. It made me appreciate the craft of film-making while exploring grief and fear and family.

Then there’s Mother! – the only purpose of which was to break my spirit. In making this movie, Darron Aronofsky wanted me to feel worse than I ever have before while watching a movie. He wanted to cause me pain. He wanted to make me suffer. And yeah, he did a really good job of it. But FUCK him. And fuck Mother! I hated this movie. And I’m now a Republican who believes in censorship. Thanks Darron.

Sharp Objects

Man, this show. It wrecked me in so many ways. Having pretty recently attended the funeral of my biological teenage son in the south, watching a show about…. lots of dead teenagers in the south – with threads of suicide and grief throughout – was maybe not the best move for me. But I found this show to be completely gripping. It’s a show where the atmosphere was SO much more interesting than the story. And that atmosphere is enough to make the show worth watching.

That being said. I partly enjoyed this show because I was able to suspend my disbelief about the whole thing until approximately the last 30 minutes of the final episode. It was at that point that it all came together, with a ridiculous twist that made all of the time they put into developing the characters seem completely pointless. It also brought together something that had been nagging at me throughout the show. I realized that Sharp Objects is – without exaggeration – the most deeply sexist show I have ever watched. Literally every single one of the male characters in this show – even the ones who turn out to be pretty shitty – have an underlying current of earnest nobility running through their veins. They’re all cool under pressure, they all really just want to do the right thing. They all are constantly tempted and led astray by females who want to lead them off the path. The corrupt sheriff is mostly just foolish and protective. The FBI agent falls head over heels for the central character and just wants her to love him back in a devoted monogamous relationship, only to have his heart broken. Even the least sympathetic male character’s central crime is only that he has been deliberately ignorant of the heinous crimes of his wife. These men are just trying to do their best in a world full of damaged women trying to lead them astray.

And about those women: Wow. Starting with the supposedly very young teenage girls in this show, every single woman portrayed is completely fucking broken and devoted to death, destruction, and the tarnishing of male nobility. I’m not even joking here. This caricature runs all the way down to the young girls in this show, who seem to spend 90% of their time wearing absurdly short skirts, riding around on roller skates, drinking, and attempting to seduce older men. The main character’s mother is a child abuser and murderer, and her sister helped her mother both kill and dismember the victims. Even Amy Adams – who is an incredibly sympathetic character – is a deeply broken self-harming alcoholic who has no problem seducing a source for a story and sleeping with a broken 19 year-old boy who had just lost his sister.

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that the only way this stuff could have even made it to the screen is if the vast majority of people involved in production and approval had been male – which is undoubtedly the case. Given that, I was shocked to find out that the author of the books that were the source material for this show was a woman. It just goes to show you that the misogyny runs deep.

You Were Never Really Here 

This is worth watching just for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. The story is ridiculous in a lot of ways, but he’s so fucking good. From the very first time you see his face, you know that he is a deeply broken man who just needs the right kind of pressure to snap. And you watch just to see it happen.

Phantom Thread

A deeply strange movie about weird bourgeois culture, with un-relatable characters and a very slow pace. And yet there’s an incredible 3-minute scene near the end (the dinner scene) that makes it entirely worth watching.

Annihilation

One of the year’s best movies, despite being sabotaged post-production by Sony and released only on a limited basis. It was haunting, beautiful, and stuck with me for weeks after I watched it. While different from the book in several important ways – some of which made sense and others which seemed totally unnecessary – it had the same effect. I was unsettled throughout, thrown off-kilter at every turn, and found myself in tears at the end. Please watch this movie.

Hostile

What a beautiful film in so many ways, with incredible casting to boot. But at the end of the day, it couldn’t seem to decide whether it was a Cormac McCarthy novel or Dances With fucking Wolves. The movie didn’t stick with a single story and didn’t have an identity. By the end of it, I wasn’t even sure if the title made sense.

At the center of this movie is a compelling nugget – the idea that lifelong enemies who have suffered greatly at each other’s hands have to learn how to get along after decades of war. If you’re able to set aside the fact that Native Americans and occupying American soldiers are somehow placed on the same level in terms of atrocities committed, I think this movie could have derived some interesting lessons and powerful moments if it had stuck with that story. But for SOME reason, the writers tried to inject about 17 sub-plots – romances, bromances, kidnappings, and everything in-between. By the time the redemptive moment comes between Christian Bale’s character and the Native Chief who has been his lifelong enemy – it feels almost farcical, because only 10% of the movie has been devoted to leading up to that particular moment – and it’s not even at the end, because the end of the movie is Christian Bale deciding to hop on a train to follow the female lead of the movie to Chicago, because… I guess it’s a love story now? Alright then.

Sorry to Bother You

This movie was great – partly because I really agreed with the anti-capitalist message of it (duh) – and partly because I found each of the characters to be incredibly interesting and likable. That being said, the less subtle the critiques of capitalism got, the less enjoyable the movie became. By the end it felt like Boots Riley was hitting you in the face – repeatedly – with his message. At least it was a good message!

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Coen brothers are masters at their craft, and this movie almost felt like they were showing off – which I’m perfectly fine with. A movie with six distinct stories, all of which managed to get me invested in each character and storyline – some with nary a line of dialog passed for most of the story. It’s deeply impressive filmmaking and I really really enjoyed every minute of it.

What Does Kate Brown Actually Believe In?

Brown

I can’t claim to be an ardent follower of Oregon state politics. I have however been following the Oregon Governor’s race with an increasing level of interest, because it seems like there’s an increasingly real chance that Kate Brown could be unseated by her Republican opponent, a man whose skin is made up of approximately 40% earlobe tissue and whose eyes have been replaced by LITERAL BEADS -a man whose campaign platform is based almost exclusively on eviscerating the state’s public pension program and gutting regulations on corporations. His name is Knute Buehler, and he sucks.

So why would Oregon, a blue state whose US Senators are two of the most reliably liberal in the nation, elect a man like Buehler over an incumbent Democrat? What is it about Kate Brown’s plan for her second term that has made voters consider putting someone else in the Governor’s mansion? Wait… actually, what IS Kate Brown’s plan? She’ll have the mandate of a second-term governor, and there’s a real possibility of a blue wave that is could boost Democratic numbers in the state legislature too. Surely she must have an ambitious agenda that will drive people to the polls, right? Actually, here’s what her campaign website: says:

  • Going forward, Kate will continue helping small businesses across Oregon thrive by cutting red tape.
  • Kate will continue to stand with working families by supporting policies that help give opportunities to all Oregonians.
  • Our state is at the forefront of a supply chain for an emerging technology, and we can leverage this opportunity to grow our a robust and globally connected, statewide economy.
  • Just as families have to keep to a budget to make ends meet, so does state government.
  • She convened a Task Force to review and propose options for making up to $5 billion in payments toward PERS costs. Made up of a diverse group of stakeholders, this group is considering the most cost-effective methods to save money while still remaining committed to our Oregon values.
  • Kate will continue to protect the progress that we have made to make reproductive healthcare accessible in Oregon.
  • Kate will continue to fight for the resources necessary to make sure every student enters school ready to learn, and stays engaged and on track throughout their education.

Two things jump out at me while reading through these. First, it’s clear that she’s not planning on DOING anything during her second term – she’s committed to keeping the lights on and that’s about it. Second, there’s not a single promise that she’s made that couldn’t be just as easily made by a Republican. That’s not because she’s going to implement Republican policies, mind you – it’s because all of her promises are so vague that they could be made by anyone, for any reason. A Republican could just as easily promise you that they’ll “stand up for working families” by voting to end Oregon’s status as a sanctuary state, for instance.  Knute could promise to “fight for the resources necessary” for Oregon students by destroying the state’s public employee pension plan and “re-investing” the money in schools, as he has actually proposed. He could promise to “help small businesses” by cutting the minimum wage. These phrases are meaningless, designed deliberately in a way that avoids taking genuine policy positions or creating a vision for the future.

Listen, I know that Oregon is a uniquely tough state to govern. When Republicans had some level of power in the 80s, they ensured that any Democratic Legislature would have one hand tied behind their back for the foreseeable future by requiring a 2/3 vote in the legislature for any kind of tax increase. The funding model that existed at that point was messy, and remains so, because no one has had the numbers to change it. That makes it hard for ANY Governor to promise ambitious new initiatives that would cost any kind of real money. So the state Democratic party has taken the most extremely Democrat position possible: “We can’t do anything about this right now, so why even mention that we might want to in the future?” So we’re left with an incredibly boring, technocratic, anti-aspirational gubernatorial campaign that inspires nobody and could very well propel a man who will do an incredible amount of damage into the Governor’s mansion. It’s the exact kind of campaign that Hillary Clinton ran against Donald Trump, and those results speak for themselves.

If Kate Brown loses to Knute Buehler, it won’t be because he’s a good candidate. It’ll be because people are struggling across the board and she promised to deliver them nothing to alleviate their suffering. It’ll be because she thought she could coast to a second term without making any policy commitments. It’ll be because she failed to offer a positive vision of a real future where the government can actually help people. It’ll be because she Doesn’t. Actually. Believe. In. Anything. And there’s a real possibility that we’ll all be worse off because of it.

(In case anyone is wondering, I’m still going to fucking vote for her)

I Just… I Can’t With This Shit

Trump Putin

Yesterday, President Trump besmirched America. He was weak. He took Russia’s side instead of the side of our vaunted intelligence agencies. It was unprecented, remarkable, a day which will live in infamy. It was.. I dunno, someone toss me a Churchill quote. Yeah, it was that. Definitely a big deal.

It’s hard to overstate the extent to which the media and political establishment’s language towards Russia has changed over the last year and a half. Vladimir Putin has been de facto leader of Russia for the majority of my lifetime, but only in the last couple of years has everyone decided at once that he is an urgent threat, an Enemy Who Must Be Dealt With. It’s so interesting to me how quickly the worm can turn, how much our military and intelligence agencies are still able to create and drive a narrative, and how quickly someone can become a supervillain once we decide that they should be judged as such.

Let me ask you this: to the extent that Russia (a land mass) can behave in certain ways, what exactly has changed about that behavior in recent years? Vladmir Putin has been been an asshole for as long as he’s been in charge of Russia. I actually pay attention to this shit, and I happen to remember the devastation that they unleashed on Chechnya in the early 2000s. I happen to remember when they invaded Georgia in 2008 and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.  Back then, we treated these events like we treat any global atrocity – we wagged our finger, told them to knock it off, and then went to bed.

Has Russia’s behavior changed over the last few years? Is their aggression in Crimea and Ukraine vastly different than the carnage they unleashed on Chechnya and Georgia? Does their involvement in Syria and their disregard for civilian casualties differ that much from our own? Maybe. But I can’t see the degree to which the change justifies our change in posture, our change in language. Because in the last year, we have adopted the language of war. The language of treason and sedition. The language of good vs. evil. And it’s genuinely frightening to me how quickly the American people accept these new narratives, which have the real potential to drive our politics for the foreseeable future at the expense of everything else, at the expense of things that actually matter.

What’s really missing from all of this is a sense of scale. Of all of the myriad of scandals of the Trump Administration, of all of their disgusting misdeeds, this is the only thing that our political culture is capable of funneling our energy towards. People in Flint still don’t have clean water. More than 2,500 migrant parents have still not been reunited with their children, and possibly never will be. Hundreds of thousands of people could die from starvation and disease in Yemen because of a war that our military is actively boosting. Republicans are ushering in a 20+ year Supreme Court reign that will likely overturn Roe Vs. Wade and successfully squash out any legislation that is remotely progressive, even if our sclerotic legislature could actually pass anything in that vein. In the midst of an economic recovery, real wages are literally declining. Health insurance “markets” are crumbling, as they are rapidly regressing to the pre-Obamacare norm, which is to say that more and more people are suffering at the hands of a machine that is literally designed to profit off of that suffering.

Despite all of that, nothing tickles the pickle of the American imagination like a foreign espionage scandal. The tone of media coverage over the past few days has been straight-up manic – like little kids on Christmas morning. It’s a sick conglomeration of our comic-book addled minds and our for-profit media landscape. So many people want to be part of something larger than themselves, a battle between good and evil, the decisive conflict of our times. And since the war on terror has run its course (Did we win? Does anyone give a fuck?), America wants for nothing more than a foreign menace stalking us at all times, hiding under our beds, hacking our very democracy.

Nothing good will come of this. And I don’t just say that as a devoted peacenik, which I proudly am. I mean, how can anyone have experienced the run-up to the Iraq War and not see the similarities here? Like, we’re just gonna anoint a new enemy and everyone’s gonna be cool with it? We’re all going to accept that as our new reality? We’re just going to repeat the words “Russian interference in our election” until we experience another war aneurysm? Do we really have to fucking do this?

Russia is a country that we will never defeat militarily. We will never occupy them. We will never force them into a more democratic government. We will never deliver the smackdown of Vladimir Putin that will cause him to retreat into a pool of his own tears and resign as Russian Premier. What we WILL do is…. well, everything we’ve always done since the end of the Second World War – those things that we do best when we are dealing with foreign menaces:  We’ll engage in aerial bombardment of supposed client states, killing countless numbers of civilians and sending their civilian infrastructure back into the stone age. We’ll overthrow governments. Literally hundreds of thousands of people will die. Oh, and at the tail end of the probability curve, there’s always the possibility of a nuclear fucking holocaust.

And if you think that the Trump Administration won’t sign up for this shit when push comes to shove, boy howdy you’ve got some surprises coming your way.

There’s Politics in Everything

This came up on my Facebook feed recently, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot:

InkedFiscal Reform_LI.jpg

The think tank that my Facebook friend quotes above is called “The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.” If you peruse their webpage, you’ll find reams of policy papers about the necessity of cutting Social Security benefits, but nary a word about the regressive nature of the taxes which fund those benefits, which fall disproportionately on low and middle-income people. Not coincidentally, you’ll also find out that their board is made up almost entirely of former congresspeople who are now working in the banking and finance industry, no doubt pulling in millions of dollars a year. For these people, the most clear and present danger in American society is the possibility that the government may someday decide to actually meet its obligations by raising their taxes to ensure that everyone else has the basic standard of living that our country can clearly afford to provide them.

That stuff is all par for the course, I suppose. But here’s what really gets to me: He claims here that Social Security and Medicare are not  “partisan issues.” Millions of people depend on these programs every day for their literal survival, but this person’s advice – and the advice of the think tank who he’s quoting –  is that these programs need removed from the realm of politics. People need to put aside their petty needs like “putting food on the table” and “paying for cancer treatment” and trust that people in Washington know what’s best for them. It’s not about politics, they say. It’s about making tough choices and voting against your own interests. It’s about doing what’s best for the country. It’s about trusting your betters.

Social Security and Medicare are the most popular social programs ever instituted in this country’s history, full stop. Cutting benefits to these programs is vastly unpopular, which is why they have managed to survive for so long in their current form. The only people who support these kinds of draconian cuts are those who have no stake in the outcome – those who can rest assured that their Social Security check will only be a small percentage of their post-retirement income. These people make up a very small percentage of the American public and have vastly different interests than everyone else, so of COURSE they will tell you that cutting your benefits is not a partisan issue. Of COURSE they’ll tell you that these reforms are “common sense.” Because if they admit that people’s very lives and well-being are in the realm of politics, they’d have to admit that they are on the wrong side and are destined to lose.

In 2012, as part of my graduate program, I went to Washington DC with a group of classmates to learn about the process of making public policy. We visited the Brookings Institute, we met with Democratic and Republican representatives from Oregon, and went to a couple of different lobbying firms. To a person, they ALL talked about the necessity of cutting these social programs – the consensus was bipartisan and overwhelming. These policy discussions have been meticulously channeled into a limited number of possible actions by think tanks who are funded by the very people who benefit from keeping the parameters of that discussion the same. And that manages to filter down to professional-minded people who are interested in being Very Serious, who furrow their brow and talk about the necessity of being balanced, who think that the extreme right and the extreme left are somehow the same thing, who think that the most important thing you can do in politics is to avoid upsetting anyone. And up until this point these people have had a pretty clear hold on the politics of the Democratic party. You can judge the results for yourselves.

Here’s the deal – if you believe that the role of elected officials is to somehow make decisions that are deeply unpopular amongst the vast majority of Americans, but have been deemed “the right thing to do” by a small number of people who have been secluded in the literally delusional centers of power of DC politics for the majority of their lives – than you’re not a progressive. You’re not even a centrist. You’re a monarchist. It is fundamentally conservative to think that people need to put aside their personal wants and needs when they vote and take the word of the people who are already at the top. It is fundamentally antidemocratic to believe that people don’t know what’s best for them when every poll ever conducted on these programs shows that people don’t want their benefits to be cut and actually support raising taxes on the wealthy. It’s fundamentally elitist to believe that everyone needs to follow the advice of the people who are already in power.

On the other hand, if you believe that the role of government is to improve people’s lives, than it should be obvious to you that there is politics in everything. If you believe that the purpose of politics is to advance the interests of the people who do the voting, than you understand that “common sense” dictates that the government should be working to advance the interests of those very people. You have to be able to see that these interests are diametrically opposed to those of the people who are already at the top.

We are in the midst of a class war, and politics is literally the only weapon we have at our disposal. The primary goal of the 1% has been to convince the rest of us to lay that weapon down. They want us to believe that they have our interests in mind, that the budget deficit is somehow more important than putting food on the table or your ability to access health care when you need it. These people are actively work to dismantle every possible guarantee we have of a basic standard of living, and have been doing so for the duration of my lifetime. And they’ve made obscene amounts of money while all of this has been happening.

They are not to be trusted.

They are not listening to you.

They are not on your side.

You have to start advocating for your own interests. You have to start voting for people who do the same.

The New Joint

open kitchen

It’s a newer restaurant, but you recognize the aesthetic. It’s a small, “intimate” space. In fact, the lack of space is screaming at you, telling you how valuable the seat you’re occupying is, and the prices on the menu back it up.

Because it’s so cramped, you’re concerned that your conversations might bleed into those of the people next to you. But you needn’t worry about that – as soon as you sit down, you can’t hear anything. The music is loud, and the pace inside is frenetic. The dishwasher is running. There are plates being moved, pots and pans crashing. It’s an “open kitchen” design, so you can look on as the cooks, servers, and bartenders all work at breakneck speed. You marvel at their efficiency in such a cramped space, at how they never seem to slow down. There’s only one person making drinks, and he impresses you with both his speed and his attention to detail.

Luckily, you didn’t come here to relax. In fact, there’s nothing remotely relaxing about this experience. There’s a feeling of high anxiety throughout the joint. When you get up to use the restroom (It’s called a Wash Closet here), you’ll almost certainly be in someone’s way, so you’ve got to keep your eyes peeled and be ready to move out of the way quickly. Even in your seat, it seems like people are constantly trying to squeeze by you. The value of the space you’re sitting in is further reinforced by the cadre of people you see gathered by the entryway awaiting their turn to get a crack at the menu.

The workers are sweating away in front of you and getting something close to minimum wage from the people who own the place. You know – as they do – that their bread is buttered by the tips they make, and that knowledge brings you a level of satisfaction. You monitor them closely, and if they fail to meet your expectations – if you see them linger a little too long in the kitchen or if they get your drink order wrong – you’ll punish them by decreasing their take home pay. In this place, you’re not just a customer – you’re the employer. This knowledge seems to make the food taste better.

As you finish eating, you conclude that the waitstaff has performed admirably. Your food arrived in a timely fashion and was arranged with obvious attention to detail. You know that as soon as you exit the restaurant, you’re entering a world that makes you feel completely powerless, so you order one more drink and smile to yourself as you watch the bartender rub the lemon peel around the edge of the glass – something you didn’t even know you wanted until you saw it happen. That man just earned himself a good tip, you think.

You still feel like shit, and you’ll feel even worse in the morning. But you can’t wait to tell your friends about this place.

Fix Yourself

From the beginning of my time in the Real World™, I’ve been consistently shocked at the extent to which self help culture permeates every aspect of American life. From my days working in a grocery store to my days working in the classroom, from grade school to grad school, I’ve had it hammered into me that the world that exists a rung above me is fixed and unmoveable. I’ve been told that the decisions made above my station in life are what they are, and nothing that results from those decisions can be changed or fixed. I’ve learned, over and over again, that what I CAN fix is my attitude, my outlook.

Every time I think I’ve escaped the self-help bubble, I turn a corner to see it rearing its ugly head again. Over time, I’ve come to understand that this an integral part of how our society shifts responsibility for our collective problems to the individuals who are least responsible for them. Our energy for change is always directed inward and downward instead of outward and upward. It’s the grease that keeps this machine running.

I have to admit here that I have, in the past, directed a great deal of judgment at the people who gravitate towards self help culture. I’ve always found it odd that people can approach this kind of stuff – which is ultimately so repetitive and so limiting – and find some sort of revelatory value in it each time. There’s clearly a religious element in the whole venture, and at my worst moments you can always find me sneering at anything that even vaguely smells of religion.

But even moreso than the ritual of it all- the spiritual incantations, the meditative mindfulness, the practiced reactions to the world around us – there’s a fundamental faith in the rationality of the world around us. In this world, credit scores are an act of God and police are rational arbiters of all that is right and good in the world. In this world, anyone who works hard enough can become rich, and anyone who has sufficient belief in themselves can navigate the incomprehensible maze that our society has set up for them and somehow come out on the other end with their dignity intact. The fact that the mechanisms of this world punish people for failure to navigate its intricacies through depriving them of food, housing, and healthcare is an immutable fact of life. These mechanisms are a result of natural law in the same way that the rising and setting of the sun is. To maintain this faith, a person almost has to engage in religious rituals. A person has to assume that any problems they encounter are a result of their own personal defects.

Of course, the reality of our country’s economic structure isn’t exactly easy to stomach. The reality is that wealth and comfort are primarily reserved to those who are born into it, regardless of the effort they put in. The reality is that people who possess the worst character traits are are often ushered into positions of power through systems that are designed to limit opportunities for people of conscience. The reality is that with every day that passes, a person born into limited means is less likely to escape their social station than a person born the day before. And things have been heading inexorably in that direction – albeit at varying speeds – for the entirety of my life and that of millions of others. There simply aren’t many people who have the social and economic foundation built under them to function regularly in their daily lives with that knowledge and understanding.

So at the end of the day, people who are chasing self-help culture – the ones who go to the workshops, buy the books, and practice the rituals – are channeling their energy in the only way our society allows. And that pursuit is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. They are trying to tackle an impossible task – to change the very wiring of their brain and rid themselves of the nagging doubt about the world around them. Not only is that a tough mountain to climb, it’s the only one that they can see in front of them. And good for them for trying to conquer it.

Of course, this doesn’t mean I agree with our society’s incessant need to shift responsibility from institutions to individuals. Self-help purveyors have their share of hucksters, ambulance-chasers, and those who profiteer off of human suffering – but what religion doesn’t? These purveyors are chasing what capitalism demands that all of us chase- a growth market. They’re selling, selling, selling to an audience that is only growing larger every day. And it makes sense that it’s a growth market. Right now, the expectations that we are placing on individuals to succeed are greater than ever in a world where there are objectively fewer opportunities to succeed than ever before. It makes sense, in this world, that people gravitate towards a philosophy that asks them to direct their energy inward instead of outward. It makes sense that people are yearning to maintain their faith in the world around them even as that world is proving itself to be woefully inadequate to the needs of its people. The alternative is scary as shit.