Game of Phones

(aka “A Screed of Depression and Hatred”)

This morning I’m feeling depressed.  The United States of America, the country I was born into and love, is in the hands of an idiot.  Puerto Rico, part of that country, has been all but destroyed by a hurricane, and the rest of us are being a little, well, slow in doing anything to save the people of that territory.

An in the midst of all of this, one of the hot topics of the day is a phone that costs 1,000 fucking dollarsSaying that felt good.  This is a slice of glass, metal, plastic and silicon, together with various forms of carbon and lithium, that people can carry around to talk to their friends and coworkers, take photographs, listen to music, and play games.

None of those are bad things.

What is a bad thing is that we have prioritized a toy that is–let’s be honest–a marginal improvement over the previous version of itself over the lives of our brothers and sisters.

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Why do I do This to Myself?

A few days ago, I discovered that Amazon was selling their Fire7 tablet (“New!  Improved!”) for about $35.

So, of course, I ordered one.

It arrived today, and at 7:00 I took it out of its wrappings and turned it on, and by 7:30 I was filing to return it.

The long and short of it is that inexpensive tablets haven’t improved since my last stab at one, and it’s not just Windows tablets that suck.

Why do I keep doing this to myself?  Why do I hope, against hope, that this time they got it right?

Look, I know this is supposed to be an absolutely entry-level everything-to-everyone tablet.  I get that.  But my phone works better.  And does more.

Using this for just a few minutes reminded me of why I don’t ordinarily feel that my life is incomplete without something that fits between my notebook and my phone.

Ned Ludd strikes again.

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The Invisibility of White Privilege

(Parts of this post were published on some weeks ago.)

I was in New Haven a month or so ago and it was 87F and humid. I had to dress up because I was going to an event in the federal courthouse that afternoon, but it was hotter than hell out there. On a day like that I would normally be wearing a T-shirt, shorts (yes, cargo shorts), and sandals if I didn’t have to go to court. But that day…well, at least I could leave my jacket in the car until later.  And so it was that, looking like this (see below), I got a lesson in white privilege.


I needed to meet a marshal to drop off a subpoena, and the marshal’s office happened to be in a rather nice office building downtown. I strolled in off the sidewalk, slid on through the lobby, saw the sign that said “All Visitors Must Sign In” just as I was reaching the elevator, and went “awe, fuck it” and went up. No questions asked then, or when I walked past the guard in the elevator lobby on my way out a few minutes later.

That’s when I realized that being white and wearing a suit made me invisible. The guard was looking for people to talk to, but not for people like me. Had I been wearing flip flops, or had my skin not been white, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts I would have been stopped.

White privilege isn’t like a credit card.  It isn’t something you pull out of your pocket when you want to use it.  It’s always there, and it’s as invisible as I was to that guard.  It’s a shield that permits some people to see you (you have priority with sales assistance in stores, for example) and some not to (police generally won’t bug you if you’re white and halfway reasonably groomed).  It shielded me from that guard’s attention.  It shields you, if you’re light-skinned.

Now, briefly, think about what life would be like if you didn’t have white privilege.  If it went away, and suddenly you were confronted with police who noticed you, guards who noticed you, sales assistants who didn’t notice you.  Police who assumed that you were not terribly valuable and who thus were more inclined than they might otherwise be to shoot you.  Imagine if your neighborhood lost white privilege.  Imagine if your children did.  And if you’re white, you realize, deep down, that the odds of what happened to Trayvon Martin, et al. happening to your child are pretty close to zero, thanks to that invisible shield.  And that the odds of it happening to any given kid who isn’t white are so much greater that the event isn’t even surprising when you hear it or read about it on the news.

That should make you angry.  It really, really should.



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I Sing the Body Electric

In 1980, I saw the movie Fame with a friend of mine.  It was a rainy fall evening in downtown Minneapolis, somewhere in one of the huge old theaters on Hennepin Avenue.  My friend, a Romanian émigré I had met in Hebrew class, enjoyed them film.  I was enthralled.

When I graduated from high school in 1976, I had two identities.  One was as an actor/theater person; the other was as a Christian.  While the latter identity hadn’t survived college really intact, and though I had managed only to fit a single theater class into my curriculum, I was still, in 1980, definitely a theater person.  I still had visions of the stage, though they were mixed with music by then.

Fame fed all of that.  I saw high school, I saw theater, I saw romance, I saw it all.  Everything I ever wanted.  I was only four years older than the kids in Performance Arts.

Time has come and gone.  37-odd years now.  I’ve played music (and I’m way better at it than I used to be), I’ve done a radio drama, but most of my life has had nothing to do with the theater and never will.  And I’ve done stupid things, too.  Saturday, I was clearing the area behind the garage, stupidly wearing sandals.  Something got between my right sandal and my foot while I was carrying a piece of decayed fence, and it went into my foot.

So now I’m at home because I literally can’t walk.  And I decided, for the hell of it, to pull up Fame on Netflix.

You know what?

It hasn’t changed.  And my response to it hasn’t changed.  I’m still seeing high school, theater, romance.

Fame has held up remarkably well.  In the 37 years since I first saw it (and as far as I can tell, that was the only time I saw it before today) many things have changed and not held up.  There are no more Checker cabs.  There are no more heavy green telephones.  If you walk around New York today, you see people not talking to each other or looking around, you see people staring at cell phones (or talking on them).  The city is cleaner and less interesting.  I’m cleaner and less interesting.  Do you know how long it’s been since I went to a midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show?  Smoked dope?  Hell, my children are now older than the students in Fame.

It hurts, in some ways, to watch Fame, because I realize what’s been left behind, and a large part of it is me.  I was young in Minneapolis, and ready to stay up all night long and do fantastic things.  I’ve done things that I never could have imagined, and few of them have been fantastic.  But some have, I suppose.  Now I sit, a 60-year-old lawyer, in a pleasant house in Connecticut.  I go to bed around ten.  I don’t swear as much.  I don’t listen to music as much.  I’m in many ways less than I was.

But the dreams haven’t changed.  And I still love this song.


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A “Good” Education

Before reading this, I urge you to take a little while and listen to this.

OK, you’re back.

I want to start out by saying that, as an undergraduate, there was never any question that I was among the best and brightest at my school.  Starting in 1976, I attended the University of Minnesota, in the College of Liberal Arts.  All told, the University had around 55,000 students.  My student ID number was 990127.  Tuition, during my time there, was between $300-400 for as many classes you wanted each quarter (the University was on the quarter system, what is now known as the trimester system—each term was 10 weeks, and there were three normal terms in the university calendar, plus two shorter summer terms of 5 weeks each (plus, if I recall correctly, exam weeks)).  The University had, in addition to the CLA, the Institute of Technology, a forestry school, and an entire agriculture campus (that we knew as “Moo U.”  Plus there were graduate programs in almost every department and professionals schools for Law, Medicine, and Architecture.

I made the Dean’s List every single term.  I was in the honors program.  I was in chemistry classes with premed students and I earned solid As when they were getting Bs.  I graduated summa cum laude in sociology, with a gold phi beta kappa key and a GPA of around 3.8.  I never got less than a B.  Yes, I’m bragging.  I earned the right.

So what did I do for an encore?  Naturally, I applied to graduate school.  I applied to ten, and was accepted at nine.  The one that didn’t accept me (Stanford) may have done so because one of the people I asked to write a recommendation hated that school.  Those that did accept me—every one of them, from the New School for Social Research and Columbia University to the University of California at Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara—gave me scholarships.  In some cases, they gave me way more than free tuition–additional aid for living expenses, so I would finish loan-free (and loans were smaller in those days).

I ended up at the University of Chicago, one of the great schools for sociology, with a 3-year scholarship that gave me leave to take whatever courses I wanted, so long as I was making progress in the sociology department, and $1,500 each term for living expenses (Chicago was also on the trimester system).  $4,500 per year was not a hell of a lot of money, but a studio apartment in Hyde Park, with utilities, could be had for $400/month, and there were always research assistantships to be had, so it was pretty good.

Do you know the difference between a college and a graduate school?

A college turns out people who go into a wide range of disciplines—they may become small business owners, artists, housepainters, musicians, actors, shopkeepers, draftsfolk, bus drivers, electricians, plumbers, clerks, soldiers, luthiers, police officers, managers, account executives, bicycle mechanics, insurance salespersons.

A graduate school turns out professors.

Now, I have no argument with professors.  I’m married to one—one who also received an excellent scholarship from the University of Chicago and who (unlike me) finished her PhD (and on-time!).  But I wonder sometimes, regarding my own case in particular and graduate schools in general, if we don’t make a mistake by funding the routing of the undergraduate “best and brightest” into the professoriate.

I’m thinking about this in large part due to having listened this weekend to the Malcolm Gladwell podcast I’ve linked above.  Because the reason I don’t work in a factory today, and the reason I’m now in my third exciting career (I’m now doing law, after teaching and software engineering) has much more to do with that undergraduate education than with graduate school.

Gladwell makes the point that America is a country in need of weak-link aid rather than strong-link aid.  That is, in context, that it would make more sense to put money toward improving the education of the many, including the “not so hot” students, than it does to put increasingly vast amounts toward the education of a few, fantastically smart students.  He uses the analogy of soccer vs. basketball, and argues—convincingly—that America is trying to play the latter when it needs to play the former.  We should be funding the bench, not just the superstars.

Now, there are good reasons to fund smart students.  I remember sitting in one class at Chicago and realizing that the person to my left had a BS from Yale (he quit grad school the next year and went on to be a lawyer), and the one to my right had a BA from Harvard (finished grad school and has been chair of sociology at Chicago!).  I was smart, and I did good work and communicated some useful things to people.  Not as smart as them, but I was smart.

But.  Had the thousands spent on my abortive graduate career gone to the University of Minnesota, easily a dozen people could have earned BAs.

I’m not sorry that I went to graduate school.  It was a great experience—I met my spouse, branched out to a new city, learned things that I still use in everyday life, met exciting people and minds (see Yale and Harvard, above).  But the marginal advantage was small.  Perhaps that’s why I dropped out of graduate school.  What I learned as a grad student didn’t build all that much over what I learned as an undergraduate.  Or perhaps I wasn’t cut out for it, and wasn’t as smart as I thought.

And maybe Malcolm Gladwell is right.  Maybe what we need is not a few people with great educations, but a whole lot of people with good ones.  Looking at the current political situation, it’s hard to argue with that point.



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Lessons from Squirrels I: Mortality

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

–John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, “Meditation XVII”

OK.  Pretentious title and text (which I hope to invoke again later) out of the way–

This post is inspired by two things, ten or more years apart.

Thing the First:  As readers of this blog know, I’m a morning person.  So it was around 6:30 AM, in a small town in Wisconsin, I was riding my bike to work, not yet far from home, when I came across a disturbing sight.  In the middle of the road was a squirrel–upper body smashed by a tire, but its legs were moving.  It was still trying to escape.  It knew death was coming, and it didn’t want to wait around for it.

Thing the Second:  This morning, this time driving to work, I saw a smashed squirrel.  But what was significant this time was a non-squashed squirrel that was sniffing at it and touching the body tentatively and solicitously.  A relative?  A mate?  A total stranger?  But it was not “playing” the way squirrels do; it knew something was wrong.  It knew it was dealing with death.

OK.  Maybe I’m being anthropomorphic here, but consciousness of death implies something.  These “lower animals” understand mortality.  And they don’t like it any more than human beings do.  And consciousness of death, well, that implies so much more.

This is something I haven’t thought much about since I took a course in “animal rights” back around 1980.  My final paper for that class was on the question of consciousness and its role in morality.  On these grounds, books like Watership Down and The Plague Dogs (which were among the books we read at Professor Sartorius’ assignment, together with Peter Singer’s work) are rather disturbing, in part because they privilege their protagonists’ species (as we do our own).

I remember thinking, while I was writing that final paper, about the cat that lived at my parents’ house and  whom I had known, at that time, for more than 12 years.  I think I wrote that I would have a very difficult time reconciling what I knew of that animal with eating her.  She was a person.  I was not acquainted with the squirrels to whom I refer above, but I am coming to think, bit by bit, that just as much as my cat, those squirrels are persons also.

Being a person means that someone is not interchangeable with someone else.  That applies to humans (and it’s something we all too often forget) as well as animals.  My cat (unofficially denominated “Miss Meow,” though officially “Samantha”) was not like any other cat.  She knew her home and her people and behaved in a certain way that no other cat behaved.  To be sure, there were commonalities with most other cats–a love of barbecue, cheese, and catnip–but so there are commonalities among most other people–a love of barbecue, cheese, and coffee.  And people are not interchangeable, either.

What makes us people–what makes us persons–what makes squirrels persons–is the recognition of the individual quality over the collective quality.  And to the extent that is recognized, mortality becomes a force with which we much reckon.  Each death of a human being affects me because I am a human being.  The bell tolls for me (and thee).  Each death of a squirrel affects all squirrels because they are squirrels.  The bell tolls for them.

But more importantly, we should observe that the death of another, regardless of species, to some degree diminishes us because of the individual quality of that being who has died–because of its loss.

Am I going vegan?  Not likely.  Vegetarian?  more likely, but see above, barbecue.  I’m human.

Still.  Let us, even in our carnivorous moments, acknowledge the individual, regardless of species.  The bell tolls for we.


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Where do the Children Play? In Flander’s Fields.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead: Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved: and now we lie
In Flanders fields!

Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you, from failing hands, we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields

(John McCrae)

I have a problem with Memorial Day.  It’s not that I don’t understand it; I do.  It’s not that I don’t have any skin in the game.  My brother served in the Cold War and later in a hot one, in Fallujah, and I have a son currently serving in Afghanistan.

No, the problem is a disconnect between what we want the deaths of soldiers to mean and what they really do mean, from a military perspective.  In ordinal terms, those meanings are (a great deal) and (not much).

I just finished reading We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, a commanding officer’s account of a seminal battle in Ia Drang, Vietnam.  While General Moore, the author, goes out of his way to humanize his soldiers, what is striking about the book is not their sacrifices (and let’s be clear, there was a hell of a lot of that; men seriously wounded who fought on, who tried to pull wounded comrades to safety, who literally threw themselves onto grenades to save their fellows).  What is striking is how little those meant.

The battle in the Ia Drang in 1965 valley wasn’t for some territorial objective; its rationale was simply to engage and learn about the enemy–to see how well men and helicopters worked together.

The consequence was that hundreds of Americans and thousands of Vietnamese died, hundreds more were wounded, hundreds of thousands of dollars of ordinance and equipment was expended, destroyed, captured and/or just lost.

And more importantly, the total significance of all of this death and destruction was no  more than that of a boxing match.

Once you realize that, you realize what war is about.  It’s about depleting resources.  In the cold war, the resource was money.  The US outspent the USSR on nuclear weapons and weapon systems.  No shot was fired.  We simply spent our opponent into the ground.

In Vietnam, the resource was people.  General Westmoreland thought a “kill ratio” of 10-20 enemy killed for each American soldier was acceptable. Acceptable.

But that that doesn’t take account of is that human beings are not fungible.  You can’t assign the same value to John Smith and Jane Black.  They’re different people, each valuable.  But war demands that we treat them as if those are simply the names we assign to two interchangeable parts.

General Moore’s book tries to humanize the dead and wounded and living by telling you where each came from, how old each was, whether they had a family, that sort of thing.  But the moment it does that, it ceases to be about the battle.  Because it doesn’t matter for the purposes of the battle whether it was a family man who gave up his place on a helicopter for a worse wounded comrade (and then was shot and died) or a slacker who tried to pull his officer to safety (and who was then shot through the heart and died).  Their humanity has no military significance.

The same goes for the enemy, who died by the thousands in the same battle, only of course, we don’t know about their backgrounds, villages, families, education.  Their hopes for the future.  They’re no more fungible than Americans, but here they are simply the enemy.

I am reminded of a scene from Harold and Maude:

Memorial Day celebrates the sacrifice, but fails to understand what is sacrificed.  It perpetuates the myth that these deaths were heroic in some meaningful way, special, when there was usually nothing heroic about them.  People meant something in life, but in death were merely cogs in a machine.  And that’s why I have a problem with Memorial Day.

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