The Purge

A couple of people who are close to me have been undertaking similar projects over the last few days. Both individuals are going through extensive archives of their past writing and work and, to put it bluntly, chucking most of it. I’m fascinated by this, as both individuals are brilliant in their own ways, and my first reaction to both projects was one of horror. It was a truism of my education that holding onto some sort of archive of your creative and professional work was very important, though as I’ve been forced to confront this, I realize that I never fully understood why this should be. Was the assumption that if you ever hit it big, some future biographer would have need of the accumulated detritus of all the years during which you basically sucked at your chosen art? Maybe, as you gradually began to suck less, you were supposed to be able to glean important insights into your own progression, but what exactly would that entail? The more I’ve thought about it, the less I really understand that original dictum to hold onto your work. And watching what I’m sure (knowing both these people) are some perfectly non-sucking works get hauled off to the pulp factory, I’m wondering if it was ever correct.

One point to note is that when it comes to the dictum, I’ve never actually followed it myself. I can’t do a similar purge personally, because I’ve got almost nothing to purge in the first place. I think a couple of college papers have survived in a tattered blue accordion file in my garage. There’s a dog-eared journal, partly filled, that I could probably find if I had to. But there are no drawings, no serious attempts at fiction, no outbound correspondence (though I think I have a handful of letters from friends, dating back to the days when people actually wrote that sort of thing). That’s about all. Which means, essentially, that somewhere along the uneven arc of my own pursuits, thousands of pages of other crap have gone where the woodbine twineth.  And I don’t find this particularly troubling. I mean, I did read the college papers a couple years ago, before tucking them back into the disintegrating blue file. They were fine – good undergraduate papers on which I scored well. I imagine that’s why I kept them in the first place, though by state college standards I was a competent writer and didn’t have a lot of academic misses in that department anyway. But they taught me nothing in particular about myself, or my development as a thinker. I was a reasonably analytical nineteen year-old who could string a few words together, but I could have told you that already. I was something of a socialist, which in that time and place was more or less a normal manifestation of puberty. That’s kind of it. I’m not at all sure that my life (or writing, or professional work) now would be meaningfully enriched by having a couple more boxes of this stuff. Nor can I imagine anyone else that would benefit from the same. There are people who care about me enough to dutifully wade through it if I dumped it on them, but this would be an act of personal sacrifice on their part that I don’t pretend to deserve.

So on reflection, I do get it. I don’t have the boxes myself, but if I did, this would be a viable moment to consign most of their content to the recycle bin, and I probably would. But this raises an interesting question: why is this such a popular moment to be purging one’s archives? Two people in my own life don’t, by themselves, don’t constitute a trend. But it’s not just them.

You’re probably familiar with Marie Kondo, who’s having quite a moment right now. I do’t mean to suggest that either of the individuals I’ve mentioned are in any way under Ms. Kondo’s sway, but there’s a kind of broad cultural alignment at work here. Ms. Kondo has achieved some viral popularity (and quite a few book sales) by arguing for a sort of minimalist lifestyle, with a focus on de-cluttering one’s environment, and surrounding oneself only with items that “spark joy,” or something. I’ve actually avoided her like the plague, but at a certain point you can’t avoid at least encountering the reactions, however unfair that may be. But of course, Ms. Kondo isn’t the cause of any of this. She’s a symptom – someone catching a wave at just the right moment. But what’s the wave?

It’s popular to position this overall movement away from material acquisition as a kind of generational change, but I’m not sure that’s right. The dominant narrative seems to be that Millennials, however defined, have turned their backs on the whole idea of ownership. They’re renting rather than owning, subscribing rather than buying and, when they must own, they’re owning less. Ride shares, scooter rentals, tiny houses – all symptoms of a generational failure to embrace consumer culture, and a rejection of the long-held idea that he or she who dies with the most toys wins. Millennial writers like to complain about the alleged presence of indignant, older commentators who accuse millennial cohorts of “killing” traditional industries and institutions, though I’ve rarely seen an example of this critique in the wild. Nonetheless, the standard, equally indignant millennial response is that these changes aren’t necessarily being undertaken by choice. Broke, burdened by unsustainable debt, they simply can’t buy all the things that previous generations did, and are seeking value in more ephemeral experiences simply because it’s all they’ve got.

I don’t think this is entirely wrong, but both arguments – those of the apocryphal curmudgeons and of the affronted young – miss an important dynamic. Which is to say, this is actually all just business. Moreover, it’s good business, at least on paper. But it’s also a tidy illustration of unintended consequences at work, particularly when it comes to the macroeconomic impacts of microeconomic strategies.

I’ll put it like this. In business generally, recurring revenue streams are better than one-time revenue streams. There are a lot of reasons for this, but Scott Galloway compares the dynamic, I think very effectively, to that of relationships. Dating, as he puts it, is expensive. You buy cars, watches and clothes that you don’t need. You spend money on restaurants and shows. You overextend yourself in order to impress. Monogamy, by contrast, builds financial stability. You lose the extraneous costs, and you and your partner get to maximize financial benefit together.

The analogy works well for business. New customer acquisition is hard, costly, and resource intensive. Dating and seducing new customers is a long, painful process that cuts into margins and burns dollars like a furnace. Repeat business, of any kind, is better. And best of all are recurring revenue models in which you build a long-term, predictable relationship with customers that can grow over time. These are fairly basic principles, and if you start a company, don’t expect your investor community to let you hear the end of them. Nor should they: the market valuations of companies with recurring revenue businesses nearly always outstrip the valuations of companies who specialize in one-time sales. If you hold equity, you’ll soon be thinking along the same lines. Right up and down the chain, motivations to move toward a recurring revenue model are everywhere. Annoying, dangerous, electric scooters have been around for a long time, but for as long as the only question was whether or not to buy one, they remained a niche product (there’s always someone willing to shell out several hundred dollars to look like an asshole, but a few mobile assholes does not a market make). No, electric scooters only became a global crisis when some genius (I’m not even bothering to look up who, because it will only stoke my resentment further to have an actual human to blame for the condition of downtown) figured out that you can extract far more revenue (or at least, far more venture capital funding) from the scooter business by repositioning the wretched things as “micro-transport” and renting them out than you ever could by trying to sell them one at a time.

This whole phenomenon is basic, well-documented and a big part of contemporary capitalism. And full disclosure: I’m basically a capitalist at heart. While I still harbor plenty of Keynesian sympathies, my actual Marxist puberty has decidedly passed (Remember that whole discussion about least bad options)? One thing capitalism can be relied on not to deliver is stasis, and the bigger and more pervasive the economic idea, the more disruption you can expect to see. So while Millennials aren’t exactly wrong about being broke and hobbled by debt, I’m not sure that we’re actually witnessing a purely generational phenomenon here. What we’re looking at, I’d argue, are the bitter fruits of the recurring revenue model itself.

Put another way, everyone is learning, and continues to learn, how not to own. I’m no different. I can state with certainty that I currently possess five CDs, well-curated gifts from my father which live in the glove box of my car (which in turn houses my only CD player). I still technically own, in some digital sense, a good portion of my iTunes library, but couldn’t actually tell you the last time I added to it. Like everyone, I overwhelmingly stream music from subscription services. I wasn’t an early adopter to this by any means, and at first it made me nervous. But at a certain point I had to admit that almost none of the hundreds of CDs I used to own had seen the light of day in years. After I finally did donate them (giving, I like to think, some aging fan of obscure music the best thrift store shopping day of his life), I never missed them. But none of this has anything to do with my generation, and I’m well past millennial. It’s just a pervasive buying model that works well, and I’ve gone with it. I also, as a result, spend a fraction of what I once did on music overall. My total monthly outlay is a very predictable $15 or so – the cost of a single CD in the old days. Music sales don’t make anybody money anymore. The models became predictable and recurring, but they also died.

Now in fairness, all this happened (more or less literally) over the dead body of the music industry. But that’s the unintended part of unintended consequences. As you start to develop models that make good business sense for sellers in some contexts, nothing guarantees that those models won’t quickly be picked up in other areas that make much more sense for buyers (and perhaps a few disruptive early entrants). And when those models become standards, lots of things can change. I once needed almost an entire room to house my music collection. It’s now in my pocket (give or take my glove box). That’s an impact on future housing decisions. Now take that limited scope of impact and expand it to the lifestyle of an already financially-distressed generational cohort, and you have what appears from the outside to be a distinctly generational phenomenon. But I’m not sure that it is. I think it’s just what markets have decided to reward, and as a result, it’s what a business-driven culture has decided to do.

I realize I’ve traced a bit of a winding road through this post, but I’m interested in the  binding thread between what you choose to own and your relationship to your past. There’s more to explore here, but I’m intrigued by these questions: when material ownership starts to fade from a culture, do those physical anchors to past experience start to fade too? And is it necessarily a bad thing if they do? Were we giving those sagging boxes of totems too much power all along? I’m inclined toward the latter idea. The fixed nature of the past is an important existential idea about which I’ll have more to say as we go. What really changes, in the actionable, present moment, when you touch it? And what really changes when you throw it out?

Our deeply imperfect and malleable memories themselves, would be one potential answer. But that’s a discussion for another day.

Eden at the Airport

I was wrong, completely, about the TSA experience at the airport this week. It was actually astonishing. Trump and team have, at least for a moment (and I can’t imagine this moment lasting very long), done the impossible. They appear to have actually created a momentary bond of sympathetic understanding between TSA agents and business people. I know everyone’s supposed to be acting like assholes – that’s the baseline expectation that I shared as well. But I didn’t see it. The security lines were all staffed and moving quickly, and the people going through them were, broadly speaking, being quiet and kind. People were thanking the agents, if you can imagine that.

Look, if you’re not familiar, the relationship between the common business traveler and the average TSA agent isn’t just fraught. I honestly think it represents class relations in the US in microcosm. A travelling corporate sales executive can pull more in one good commission check than the guy in the blue polyester uniform shirt is going to make all year (even when he’s actually paid, which as of this writing he’s not), and they both know it. Their views of one other are traditionally uncharitable, their relationship frosty at best. And this has been going on for a long, long time.

Broadly speaking, it works something like this. The agent sees the traveler as a rolling, bloated gasbag of commingled entitlement and idiocy. The agent knows that the traveler has been through the security line a hundred times before, yet somehow the guy’s still going to put his jacket on top of his laptop in the tray. He’s not supposed to, and there’s no way he doesn’t know this, but he’s going to do it anyway. Which means that the agent’s going to have to get him to move it, which means that the guy’s going to give the agent attitude about it. This interaction, however minor, is going to take a painful little nibble out of the agent’s well being. Not a big deal in itself, but those nibbles are going to go on all day. And days like this are how the agent feeds his or her family.

As far as the agent is concerned, only two explanations for the traveling salesman’s behavior are possible. One is that the salesman is truly, desolately dumb, a grown-ass man unable to navigate the simplest conceivable tasks. That’s possible, but if true it’s infuriating to the agent. It’s infuriating because with the money that guy paid for the blazer that’s now sitting on top of the computer in the tray, the agent could have put food on the table for a couple of weeks at least, and if we’re in any kind of large urban airport, putting food on the table is not a trivial concern for somebody getting by on a TSA income.

The other possibility, of course, is that the salesman is just fucking with the agent, and if we really break it down this is exactly what the agent suspects. Nobody can actually be that dumb. Deep down, the agent still believes in some concept of meritocracy, or at any rate wants to, so it’s hard to believe that an obviously well-to-do guy could seriously be walking around with his head that far up his ass. No, this is malice. Petty malice, even – the worst kind. The guy’s just casually throwing a wrench in the works because he can. It’s a power play. Sure, he’ll move the jacket when the agent makes a fuss, but he’ll roll his eyes when he does it and do this whole canned performance thing around it, and everybody in line knows that the whole production is just to get under the agent’s skin. That’s got to be what’s happening.

Obviously, the sales guy sees things a little differently. Of course he knows he’s not supposed to put anything on top of his computer, but he left the house yesterday at three in the morning to get an early flight out, then had to be out with prospects last night, even though he and they both know this deal isn’t going anywhere. Even though he badly needs it to, because he’s on thin ice if he can’t make some magic happen this quarter and right now nothing in the hopper is coming together the way it needs to. Because yeah, he did pull down a big commission check early in the year, and that was great, that helped, but he’s been riding on the fading afterglow of that deal for a while now, and the guys upstairs need to know that he can do it again. And he gets that, he understands. He chose a success-based role and you pay to play, so to speak, but the dial on his sales quota resets at zero every quarter just like it does for everybody. Even if they do keep him around, his base salary without that commission check isn’t going to cover him. It’s an okay base but with two kids, childcare, summer camps, orthodontics, not to mention his first wife bleeding him dry and a that credit card balance that just seems to edge up and up no matter what he does? No chance. And speaking of credit cards he’s got to go back now and try to get his VP to sign off on a $400 bar tab for a deal that everybody knows is on life support, and he’s got a quarterly plan due next week, which means he’ll be trying to work pull out his computer while wedged in a middle seat, which itself might be easier if he could get to the gym once in awhile, but he’d love to know exactly how the hell he’s supposed to find time to do that. All of which is to say that keeping everything on point for the goddamn TSA just isn’t the foremost thing on his mind right now, which seems to be some kind of big surprise to the scruffy kid in the blue uniform shirt who’s getting all over him about his goddamn jacket.

Anyway, you get the idea. It just hasn’t been a good relationship for a long time. Which why I was kind of taken aback to see something different going down. Because it’s true – at least right now the scruffy kid is getting paid exactly nothing. And my guess is that nearly everybody going through line is perfectly capable of doing a little though exercise around what missing a couple of paychecks would do to them. This is America in 2019, guys. Whatever it says on your W2, thin ice is an almost universal norm. Mine might be a little thicker than yours, but I’m not standing at the pole right now either. Most of us aren’t. And for a minute there, in the security line, everybody seemed to be getting that. For a strange moment, the South security checkpoint at Denver International Airport was a garden of peace and human understanding – a thing I never thought I would see.

Of course, none of this will last. Ironically enough, we’ll all be back to glaring at one another again the minute everyone’s getting paid again. Nor do I necessarily think that we’ve stumbled on some kind of formula for national reconciliation. Class isn’t our only issue; hell, I wish class was our only issue. That said, I also wish that the secret to bringing people together wasn’t kicking half of them in the nuts while the other half watches, but there you go. Still, it was a nicer travel night than I expected, and in airport ever, I take what I can get.

Harpooning the Whale

I travel. A lot. Starting tomorrow I kick off my first real round of business trips for the year, which right now has me on the road nearly every week until sometime in March. And this is basically fine. I’m not crazy about it, but it’s a part of my life that I’ve come to terms with. I’m approached frequently at work by colleagues who want to pull me into some trip or other, and they’ll usually say something along the lines of, “Hey, do you want to go with me to pitch so-and-so? It’s in Assholesville and there’s a 4am flight…” My standard, admittedly canned response at this point is to remind them that I don’t want to go anywhere, ever. But I’ve got a leadership role around here, I have equity in the company, and when it makes sense for me to be there I’ll pack up my troubles in my old kit bag and go. And honestly, once I’m out there it’s usually not that bad. The leaving and getting back can be jarring, but the travel itself falls into a rhythm. There’s often a kind of somnambulant fluidity to it. Peter Murphy captured it in a song lyric long ago:

Gliding like a whale, in and out of hotels…

So it’s okay. I’ve posted my current travel schedule on the door of my office, my next few trips are more or less planned out, and I’m ready to go. No biggie. Or rather, it wouldn’t be a biggie, except that we happen to be, as of this writing, in the middle of a Federal government shutdown. That means that our beloved Transportation Safety Agency is only partially funded, meaning that airport security lines nationwide are hideously understaffed, and the people who are working them aren’t getting paid. And that means that my travel over the next two days is going to be like Dante, re-imagined by Kafka, and filtered through 800 pages of late-period David Foster Wallace.

But here’s the thing. I’m upset, as you’d imagine, and I’m not even one millionth as upset today as I’m sure I will be by tomorrow. But as a political pessimist, I’m actually feeling weirdly reassured. In a strange and non-intuitive way, something is actually working right.

I promised I’d get into politics a little bit on this blog, which I’ve usually avoided for fear of alienating basically everyone I know on one side or the other. But the moment is such that I can’t really get away with not commenting, so let me sketch out a perspective. My essential political hypothesis is this: all human relationships, of any conceivable kind, are dysfunctional disasters. Individual humans are dysfunctional disasters, for reasons that we’ll have ample time to explore together as we go. So it only follows that any encounter between two or more people can only have a multiplicative effect on the total baseline level of dysfunction. For proof, consider any relationship of any kind that you actually have. Two people, in isolation, will in all cases find a way to drive each other mad. This doesn’t preclude love, or caring, or deep commitment; all of these are possible. But essentially none of us can truly claim to be in command of the inchoate and ever-shifting mess of our own desires, ambitions and will. Matrixed against the equally inchoate morass of another, the result can only be a sort of sustained disaster. And the best relationships are precisely this: sustained yet fruitful disasters in which the ongoing handling of perpetual disappointment, paranoia and crisis translates, through long effort and careful, intentional cultivation, into a structure that solves nothing, but instead offers a manageable set of problems, a few points of useful logistical support, and some sex.

The same principle applies to human beings in any sort of larger grouping, from a family to a corporation to a society. There are no harmonious communities of humankind. There are only managed disasters. And the worst thing you can do in this context, in fact the worst thing that humans have ever done, is to try and replace managed disaster with utopic perfection. Somebody ends up dead. In some cases, tens of millions of people end up dead.

As a political pessimist, I therefore reject any attempt at perfecting the human endeavor, and embrace instead a policy of seeking, and cherishing, the least bad option among any available. The least bad option, in general, will be one which accomplishes two things: it will enable and embrace productive friction, and it will act as a check on the worst impulses of its human participants.

Consider the wall. All of this is happening, as everyone now knows, because the President of the United States will not sign any budget, or budgetary continuation, that does not include some $5.7 billion in funding for an imaginary wall along our nation’s southern border with Mexico. I say imaginary, because no serious person believes that it will be ever be built, even if the money were provided. Nor does the president, I imagine (and we can only imagine, as the president’s mind us somehow both radically available and deeply impenetrable in a way that only truly damaged minds can be). Moreover, even if he imagines that it can be built, I’m sure that in material terms he doesn’t actually care. The wall (and I’m surprised that this isn’t being said more often) is a symbolic act of racial hatred. To fund it is to put a sizable chunk of tax dollars toward the act of despising and fearing our non-white neighbors. Little matter that those dollars represent a fraction of the real cost of building such a thing, or that any attempt to do so would be tied up in court for years, or that no real political will to physically manifest it even exists. “Funding” the wall is simply a shitty thing to do. It’s a miserable act, pandering to that which is worst in a shrinking, angry, desperate part of our society, without even the partial dignity of a physical result. It’s trolling on a national scale.

Now the shutdown is also a miserable act. Real people are hurting. My own brother, a federal legal professional, is driving an Uber. He has a toddler daughter and a pregnant wife. It’s a scandal, egregious, shameful. But it is not, for better or for worse, an unmitigated shame. It’s not that, because it’s actually stopping something truly awful from being done. The system is delivering a ridiculous and very poor result, but it’s not quite right to say that the system is broken. This is actually the system functioning, by creating enough internal friction to stop itself from doing something dreadful. The system is actually supposed to do this. Not because it’s a good system, per se. This isn’t a good outcome. But it’s a least-bad system producing a least-bad result in a time of crisis, and checking the grosser intentions of a sublimely bad actor. This is, however disgusting, the appropriate response, in rather the same way that projectile vomiting is the appropriate response to food poisoning. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the body’s imperfect way of dealing with an ingested toxin. If we can’t exactly applaud it, we can at least lie on the bathroom floor, face pressed to the cool porcelain base of the toilet, wishing we’d cleaned it more recently, and recognizing that this all has it’s place.

So back to my whale gliding. There won’t be any. I’ll be suffering tomorrow, heartily, and I will curse and I will rail. We’ll all be suffering, and everyone in the airport will be angry with everyone else. Nor will any of this necessarily be okay. We don’t know the denouement of all of this, and there’s really no precedent to draw on because no one’s ever fucked it up quite this badly. I’ll reach my hotel eventually, and I’ll probably order up a glass of wine and commiserate with whoever I find next to me, and perhaps we’ll experience some small sense of camaraderie in the trenches, but whatever. The whale, though harpooned, still has shit to do. He swims on. We’ll see about the rest.

You know what? There’s also a really clever Thomas Hobbes joke involved in the whole whale motif that I thought I’d actually get to in the text. I really didn’t, but I’m still tacking it on now because even though it’s something of a lost opportunity I’m sure you’ll recognized it’s potential.

Because Leviathan. Right?


So it has come to this…

Well. This isn’t going to go well.

Welcome to the blog. Believe it or not (and there’s no reason you should, based on this inauspicious beginning) this project has been a long time coming. As you’d probably imagine I’ve been sitting around for a while trying to think of a really elegant, literary way of kicking it off. Obviously I’ve given up. But I’ll at least try to sketch out, in broad terms, what the hell I’m doing and why. You’re here, after all.

About two years ago I found myself in sufficiently dire straits, personally, emotionally, and financially, that I found myself in a situation of almost comprehensive debasement. Wracked by guilt over a failed marriage, broke, wounded, immersed in doubt and self-recrimination, I did a terrible thing. In my weakness, my moment of greatest vulnerability, I pulled my hat down over my eyes and went, of my own choice, to a place of great shame. I’d never imagined myself there. I’d always feared it, even despised it, knowing that it was a place only for the broken and the weak. But being both of those, at least then, I went anyway. To the Self-Improvement section of Barnes and Noble. And there, like a Lou Reed character, hunched and afraid, I lay my wadded up money on the counter and slunk away with the goods.

Look, I’ve read a few good business books but the self-help section never offered me anything that I wanted. All I ever saw was weirdly-coiffed TED talkers on jacket covers, offering me eighteen minutes worth of canned and superficial wisdom padded out to 250 pages of ghost-written filler and illuminated by the “personal” stories of anonymous characters with ethnically ambiguous first names. In better times, I would rather have died. It’s just that at the point in time we’re talking about, that option wasn’t entirely off the table. So I went. I bought. I read. And something wonderful happened.

I got really angry.

Angry that I’d paid $25 for precisely the kind of dreck that I’d always known was there. Angry at the tired formulations, the absence of any real analysis. Angry at the condescension. Angry at the flaccid, facile pseudo-intellectual attempts at making sense of a universe that, in some much better part of myself, I knew could never make sense. Angry, above all, at the one-half-of-one-ass, carny mysticism lurking behind every invocation to visualize, be positive, manifest, or in any other ridiculous way leverage the “universe” to heal the fallout from what had been, in painfully obvious terms, my own very distinct and personal record of highly individuated fuck ups.

Anyway, to make a long story longer, I did the obvious thing. I drank a bunch of wine and railed against all this, and in the process I sketched out a table of contents for what I originally (and I now admit, very naively) envisioned as a sort of anti-self-help-self-help book of my own. It was, literally, a joke. But someone very important to me glanced at it and said eight very important words. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve been running on the strength of those eight words ever since. She said, very simply, “I would read the shit out of this.”

And so I decided to write it. And I have been.

So back to the blog. This is the necessary companion piece. A scratchpad for ideas, place to hash things out, document the ongoing process, vent, practice, and otherwise dump all the things that don’t belong anywhere else, or at least not yet. So welcome, thank you, and we’ll all figure it out from here. More to come.