Blast Radius

You’ve seen the video. You probably saw it years and years ago, but it’s been reissued in high definition and gone a little bit viral. I saw it as a child, though I couldn’t tell you when. I’ve seen it many times since, and I’ve seen others like it. What you see in the opening frame is an older bus, like a school bus but painted in a darker shade. The film is in black and white but I assume that the bus was probably some kind of military olive green. It’s parked in the sun on a featureless bit of desert sand, and the camera opens on a static shot: just the bus, sitting there. There isn’t any sound. I don’t know for sure if the shot seems ominous only because I already know what’s about to happen, or if it would seem ominous anyway. I suspect that it would. Just the framing, the stark light. You know something’s about to happen. And if you didn’t already know what it was, I think you’d still assume that it wasn’t going to be be anything good.

And then of course it does happen. The blast, when it comes, arrives in two waves. The first is heat, and the bus seems to go fluid as its paint job transforms instantly into smoke. The bus itself ignites, the tires rupture. A couple of seconds later a second, concussive blast wave flips the bus over and tears it apart, the whole thing disappearing into a cloud of dust. The camera, which faces away from the blast and must, I assume, have been heavily shielded, survives. But there’s nothing else to see. And that specific blast sequence, since first saw the footage decades ago, always struck me as something I sort of wished that I didn’t know about. I mean that the heat comes first. The concussion looks like it could kill you but not before you’ve had a couple really bad seconds to think about it.

Like I said, I don’t know when I saw it first, but I was very young. It was the kind of thing they showed us at school. As I recall they showed us that sort of thing often. It was part of social studies, sometimes, but being the 80s and living where we did, there were also occasional speakers, anti-nuclear activists who would come through to educate us on the perils of nuclear war. I remember in particular one individual who put up a slideshow illustrating the fact that even if we hid in the mountains, the air-blast nature of most modern thermonuclear weapons would ensure our destruction anyway. He was missing the point. None of us cared about that. We had all talked about it, and none of us wanted to survive an attack. The kids were all in agreement about that. As far as we were concerned, the whole post-apocalyptic scenario held no appeal. If it was going to happen, we wanted to be squarely in the blast radius. We even discussed the lucky fact of our proximity to a nuclear weapons plant, reasoning that this probably had us on a soviet target list. We’d get vaporized, and that would be that. Seemed like the best option all around. Did I mention that we were about eleven years old at this point?

The activists, I suppose, were trying to motivate us to get involved, somehow, in the disarmament movement. They weren’t just being sadists, or at any rate not entirely. The scare tactic was supposed to get us up and moving, which was a pretty common idea in the 80s as I recall. But it missed the most basic thing about us: we were kids, and kids understand their own basic powerlessness very clearly. Giving eleven-year-old kids in the 80s detailed information on their own pending incineration was really just doubling down on what we already knew. We knew we were doomed, and we knew that we couldn’t do anything about it. We felt incrementally shittier after assemblies like that, and locked in our shared fatalism a little more. But that was about it.

I have kids that age myself now, and I sense some parallels. Now, before we go further let me be clear: none of this is intended as a polemic in favor of keeping kids in the dark. I don’t know that we needed quite as much repetition on the nuclear threat as we were getting back in 1983 or 84, but it’s not like anyone could have concealed it. It was an existential threat to the planet, and people were going to talk about it. There wasn’t any real way for us not to know what the doomsday clock was set to. When the world is in grave danger, it’s not really something you can sweep under the rug. At a certain point kids may as well know, uncomfortable as that is. But I notice is that the apocalyptic news is coming hot and heavy once again, and I wonder what the kids are doing about it internally. They’re not going to tell me, even if prompted. Death-pondering is inner kid-world stuff, at some level. But I notice that they do seem awfully scared, and fear pops up in strange places. I suspect that it all connects.

My little guy, for example, has been frightened lately, and that’s actually a little odd. Normally he’s a profoundly morbid child, fond of horror games and the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. The darker side of experience has a happy sort of pull for him, which I tend to get. I was pretty similar at his age, reading Lovecraft in the corner and delighting in all the ookie bits. But he gets genuinely scared now too, right at the margins of what he enjoys.

The other day (and he’s a very private guy) he actually went so far as divulge this to me. He explained that a girl in his class and been saying scary things, indicating that everyone who knew her was in danger, and telling a scary tale about some voice in the night that force you to stay up until dawn or else. It got to him, where other stuff doesn’t, and he was having trouble getting to sleep. I was glad that he told me, and for the most part we handled it together. The first thing I pointed out was that the girl needed some fresh material, as nearly all of this was old internet creepypasta from years ago. Since he didn’t want to share the kid’s name, I told him that “Creepypasta” would henceforth be her nickname, which made him giggle. What followed was a good, long conversation about the nature of scary things. And woven into that conversation was the fact that there are certain kinds of scary things that are fun, precisely because they’re outside of what’s real. And that’s important, because there are plenty of real things to be scared of, and feeling scared about those things is okay. But we talked about the idea that it’s useful to keep those things straight. Real life offers enough real fear. But it doesn’t include ookie ghosts and accursed third graders.

Like I said, I was glad that he actually talked to me, because there’s nothing easy about keeping those things straight, especially in a developing brain. And especially not when the real scariness is so pervasive, and so urgent. Just like my friends and I understood that we were more or less certain to be randomly immolated some day, my kids are more or less certain that if they’re not the last generation to inhabit this world, they’ll probably know the kids that are. If they don’t see the endgame themselves, they’ll see the beginning of the end, and they’re not jazzed about it. They shouldn’t be. And I’m not really big on trying to convince them that it’s all going to be okay. My talk track, when we discuss those things, is that the next few decades are going to be pretty challenging, but that millions of people are trying to make things better, and they can choose to be part of that when they’re big. But I also like to tell them what they already know. I like to tell them that there’s not a whole lot that little kids can do in the meantime, and there’s only so much worry that they can afford to pour into it now. Unlike those well-meaning anti-nuke activists, I’m not about to shoulder them with the task of saving a world that won’t actually let them do anything at all. If they grow up conscious of the urgency in front of them as adults, I’ve done at least some kind of job. Until then, I prefer to give them hugs, and try to keep their nightmares in the correct categories. Getting away from the nightmares isn’t really something you can do. I learned that from a slideshow, a long time ago.


Twilight Zone

I found the brittle edge at around five in the afternoon – something I had not anticipated. I had thought for sure I would find it in the wee hours, maybe on the highway outside of Nashville, or descending into San Francisco. But it wasn’t in those places. It was at home. But I found it just the same. As often before, I’d been out looking for it.

Wow, that was a theatrical opener. I kind of like it though. I’ll leave it.

And theatrical or no, it’s accurate. If I go searching for limit experiences even in the midst of the most banal business travel, if I go so far as construct that business travel with that desire in mind, it’s only fitting that I accept a certain characterization as a drama queen. It’s not wrong. But it begs some interesting questions. Let me back up a bit.

When last I posted I was holed up in the airport, trying to get to Florida for a speaking engagement. I made it, very late, and was obliged to drive an hour up the coast in a rented Dodge Ram 1500, a vehicle I never wanted to drive and, having driven one, never particularly want to drive again. It was titanic, smelly in the wet-dog way of all southern vehicles with fabric seats, and had the turn radius of an aircraft carrier. Exactly what you want when you’re exhausted and bleary at 1am. The next day I did my little song and dance, trundled back to the airport in my monster truck, and flew home, arriving late once more. The next day was one of rest, and I had the boys so I deliberately shut off everything but them for twenty four hours. By Sunday, I was back on the road, taking a red-eye to Nashville. Another late landing, another rental car, another hour-long drive, a day of presentations, then a haul-ass dash back to the airport for another consecutive red-eye, this time to San Francisco. The next day was a six-hour sales pitch and product demo performed in one of the most fucktangular vortexes of corporate dysfunction that its ever been my privilege to witness (and friend, I’ve seen a few). Then a third red-eye home. No real rest yet though; my calendar for the next day was already slammed, so though I made it to my own bed, I still had to keep things to about four hours of sleep.

But I didn’t find the edge. I looked. I kept my eyes open, so to speak, but I didn’t hit it. Between adrenaline and performative muscle memory it all went reasonably well (excepting the unreconstructed dickfire of the final presentation, which was no fault of mine). I was tired, I suppose, but I didn’t really feel it. I wondered if I’d really done enough.

Back in the office at last on Wednesday, I touched base with the guys on my team. I have an outstanding team – I’m lucky to work with these gentlemen. And we know each other well. Well enough that when I gave a rundown to my boy Drew, he simply said, “Why do you do this to yourself?”

Now I have canned answers for that. The canned answers are even true, to an extent. “Maximizing time with the kids,” I’ll say, or, “Just trying to get as much into one trip as I can.” All true, on both fronts. Also basically horseshit, which Drew is sharp enough to know. If I’d wanted to push back on those trips, establish a protective boundary around how much I would have to push to get them done, I could have. No one would have had a problem with that. I absolutely did want to make sure I had time with the boys, and I did want to be at all these things. I did believe, and do believe, that my being there made a difference. But I could have eased off the gas if I’d wanted to. I just didn’t want to.

Nobody who knows me has ever accused me of living an unexamined life. Whether it’s been examined with any particular competence is a separate question. But I try, legitimately, to achieve a certain self-awareness. Which I think is what makes it so very interesting, for someone like me, to find the points in my life where I don’t really have a great handle on what I do, or precisely why I do it. And with this one in particular, it’s all the more interesting because so far as I can remember, it’s always been there. I’ve always had a fascination with pushing things a little too far, seeing how far it’s possible to take a given experience, and finding out what happens when you go past that.

Back in 1982 the Dutch band Golden Earring released a song called Twilight Zone. Most people don’t know that it’s called Twilight Zone. It seems to be better known as the “bullet hits the bone song.” Or you can sing the famous bass line (dum-dum-DA-Dah, dum, da-DA-da) and anybody’ll know it. I’m not going to make a case for it being a particularly great song or anything. I like it, but I have a broad fondness for the un-ironic hot cheese of the era. I can’t justify this on any sort of cultural or aesthetic ground, and I won’t try. But I remember clearly when the song came out, for two reasons. One was that my mom found the bullet/bone reference distasteful, which I suppose it is.  The other was a lyric at the end of the chorus, which stuck in my brain and never left: Where am I to go now that I’ve gone too far? 

I mean, I was nine. The age my youngest son is now. And yet I’ve been trying to answer that question my entire life.

This isn’t the time for a catalogue of my excesses over the years, and I’d prefer not to lay one out. But it’s one of the things I understand least about myself. Certainly it’s never been tied into any utilitarian calculus of benefit. It predates all that anyway. I’m not even sure it’s the kind of thing that wants to be explained, and not just for me. A little while back I started getting interested in Michel Foucault, digging fairly deeply into his work as well as the excellent biography by James Miller. Relatively early on, Foucault had a lot to say about what he termed the limit-experience. He described this as an experience at the edge of what’s possible to endure, even to survive. Something of sufficient intensity to separate the subject, as it were, from itself. Something enabling, under certain circumstances, a kind of transformative change. Certainly, he spent a great deal of his own life involved in the genuine, deeply personal pursuit of precisely those experiences.

Yet by the time you get to his later works, particularly his History of Sexuality, the limit-experience is generally absent. Which one might just find a little odd, considering that it was on the field of sexuality that Foucault chose to play out his own, committed search for the limit-experience itself. I’m not a qualified Foucault scholar, by any means, but I wonder if at some point he wound up absorbing the search for the limit-experience back into whatever was personal to him, leaving its greater context aside. I don’t know.

Now I’m not about to compare a few days of grueling business travel and sales presentation to the extravagant rigors of Foucault’s extreme, gay sexual sadomasochism. The parallels are certainly there, but this post is long enough. I’m not sure why I went looking for that edge this week, only that I did. And I found it. Not on the road, however – I was apparently (to my detriment) too tough for that. I found it at the end of my first full day home. Still drastically behind on sleep, it came as I was finally headed back to my house, suddenly feeling the world swim and go a bit glassy. Which meant that I was finding that certain ragged edge of feeling right at the point when I needed to pull things together and invest a good four more hours in being a dad.

And I did it. I did that, and it was okay. The boys didn’t mind me snuggling them on the couch a little more than usual. I got everyone safely and appropriately to bed, lunches packed, homework sorted, outfits chosen, before passing out. But I did it all through a kind of shaky haze, and it made me think. The fact that I pulled it off doesn’t make it any way to parent. Sometimes you wind up parenting from that place anyway, and I know how, but why create that when you don’t have to? So I don’t think I get away with not examining all this a little more closely. I don’t think I can quite let myself off that hook.

Because for better or for worse this is the one answer that I’ve found, more than once, to the question “Where am I to go now that I’ve gone too far?” Home, is the answer. Home, to everything that’s waiting for you there.




Home, Satanic Home

I’ve enjoyed the rare pleasure, today (and weirdly, I’m only being half sardonic in saying this) of spending my entire working day in my beloved Denver International Airport. I arrived at 7:30am this morning for a flight to Newark, connecting to West Palm Beach, but that fell through. The East coast as a whole is a disaster today, for reasons unknown, resulting in our flight being pushed back by air traffic control. This went on long enough that the aircraft, which had been sitting at the gate since about 6am in sub-zero temperatures, began to have certain issues. Specifically, the poop pipes serving the cabin restrooms froze, putting the plane out of service.

The upshot of all this was a semi-panicked series of calls back to the home office, because I’m supposed to speaking at a conference tomorrow in the aforementioned West Palm. After much stress and considerable acrobatics on the part of the home team, another flight was found, plans were rearranged, and the day was saved. But the result of all of this is that I’m now flying into Ft. Lauderdale, arriving late, renting a car and driving an hour plus back up to whatever godawful resort is hosting this thing, there to weave my magic spell about the willing heads of 20 or 30 attendees tomorrow, only to turn around and haul ass back as quick as my little legs will carry me. All that so that I can hop on another plane Sunday for a bizarre hybrid trip that will see me doing a C-suite presentation in Nashville Monday, before braving a hardcore, 6-hour, Shark Tank-style sales pitch to a noted beauty retailer in San Francisco on Tuesday.

And you don’t care. Nor should you. Bravo. Please don’t. These are the quotidian travails of the traveling businessman. It’s my choice and I’m well paid to do it. If we close these deals I get paid even better. No bleating here; this is what I do. When it sucks, as it does today, it’s a suckage I’ve chosen of my own free will. So be it. Which is why, in the end, this isn’t really a terrible day. I’ve caught up on some email and, in my odd way, actually found a bit of relaxation.

See, you’ve got to understand about me and this airport. Me and her, we’ve got a certain thing going on. Have for a long time.

Denver International Airport, in all her ambiguity and mystery, opened for business in 1995, immediately rising to prominence as one of the physically largest airports on earth. Strange, architecturally odd, miles and miles from the city she was designed to serve, she was instantly the subject of perplexity and fascination. The old city airport, Stapleton, was just fine – a grungy little metro terminal parked, as airports tend to be, in the middle of the city’s only extensive African American neighborhood. The new airport was, in its way, ahead of its time. It was a weird testament to everything the city wasn’t yet, but intended to become, filtered through a kind of hallucinatory fever dream. I mean, it was just so fucking big. Decorated internally with strange and sometimes disturbing murals, floored with huge slabs of natural stone in which faux-fossils made of brass were embedded. And all of it connected, underground, by a vast system of subterranean tunnels and tracks, the extent of which has always been rumored but never really understood.  But most of all, it was absolutely nowhere.  The city has grown toward it in the years since, but at its inception it seemed to be in Wyoming. There was nothing there – a howling waste on every side, one ultramodern freeway connecting it to the city, everything else dirt roads and sagging, creepy farmhouses, rudely awakened from decades of slumber. None of it made any sense. I need hardly mention that the conspiracy theorists love it. Still do, which delights me to no end.

But for me? I was 22 years old when DIA sprung into being, and its opening coincided with the advent of my travels, which have never ended. DIA, in all its strangeness, became my gateway, literally, to the entire world. I never flew out of Stapleton alone. I’ve rarely flown out of DIA with anyone else. The fluid rhythms of my movements over the earth all originated here, resonating with the occult frequencies that this place is alleged to harbor. And my God, say what you want, but in the early days? She was magnificent. Huge! Complicated! New and shiny, elegant, constantly overwhelming one’s every sense of perspective. I loved her at once, and set out to learn her every secret. I never have, but I know a few. Even today, tired, I retired to a little-known overlook in a certain concourse, a place usually haunted only by airport workers, where you can look down the hundreds and hundreds of yards of perfectly straight hallway, populated by the little birds that have lived in here for (by now) generations. Remarkable, that kind of man-made view. What you see, when you look at it, are not the perfect and well-aligned proportions. Those are everywhere, and the mind quickly catalogs them as unimportant background. Instead, the eye goes quickly to any tiny deviation: four seats out of four hundred pushed awkwardly out of true. And it goes to the people, of course: an endless stream of endlessly varied people, going God knows where, for God knows what reason. Half of them are like me, but the other half? I don’t know what the other half does.

But it’s like any romance. 24 years now, me and her. She’s very comfortable. I can roll in here at four in the morning and navigate her with my eyes half closed. I can sleep anywhere in here. It’s been remarked that airports are the last truly lawless places. You want a drink at seven in the morning? Be my guest! Tired? Sleep on the floor! It’s not just the duty free shops – much is suspended here. Much is permitted.

But time affects us all. She’s not new anymore, though I still see her that way. She shows her age. Her great hall, the main terminal, is gutted as I write this. The whole second floor torn out, stripped to bare concrete. It hurts me to see, though I know she’ll rise anew. It’s just that we’ve aged together. They’ve come to feel that she needs a facelift, and I suppose they’re right. The slabs of stone floor are chipped, the little brass fossils are often gone. There are ragged metal edges on things. Everything was white when they built her, and it’s sort of cream now. I have to admit all this. All the same things have happened to me.

But they’ll fix those things. That’s the difference. They don’t get fixed for you and I. She’ll be here for a long time to come, and they won’t really let her fade. Who they are, of course, is subject to some debate. It’s rumored that in the event of an apocalypse, the global elite will gather here. It’s said that beneath this place there are miles of tunnels, halls to dwarf the ones above ground – a new Jerusalem for the illuminati. Which is cool. Simple math dictates that I’ll probably be here when it happens.

I usually am.

A Few Too Many Words About Evil

I had broad ambitions to post last week, which were broadly defeated by a demanding and deeply unpleasant travel and presentation schedule that left little time for anything but itself. I’m trying to catch up today, but I’m hobbled by my new computer. They’ve made me switch to a mac, you see, and it’s awful. I’ve used windows PCs for twenty five years, and I know them intimately. Everything on this sleek and hideous little beast is foreign and counterintuitive.

No honestly, I really hate it. Furthermore I’m surrounded by Apple acolytes who continually pop their heads into my office throughout the day, hoping against hope to find that I’ve finally come to love it. I have not. One earnest young man said, “you’ll just have to learn to think more simply. That’s its beauty.” Nonsense. There’s nothing simple about it. I know what he means: there is one, obscure way to do everything, rather than the flexible selection of ways that I’m used to choosing from. But there’s rarely anything in the interface design to tell you what that way is. You simply have to know. Somebody has to tell you. In other words, you have to be initiated into the cult by an existing member, and then, gradually, the machine becomes useful. It is, in other words, a perfect design implementation of the insular, exclusive and cult-like culture of silicon valley itself. I am not learning to love it. I’m learning to hate it in ever more nuanced and textured ways. But it’s my destiny, apparently, and I endure.

There’s been a lot of endurance the last few days, if I’m honest. My trip involved a journey to a certain midwestern city which I’ll keep anonymous for now, as I may have a thing or two to say about the trip itself later. It also involved a connecting flight through Chicago. All this against the backdrop of a calamitous cold spell which actually managed to kill quite a few people. It’s not that the trip was bad, at all. It was remarkably successful, much more so than I’d anticipated. It was just miserable. Grueling flights, shit weather, poor food, hours spent on final meeting prep in a dismal hotel lobby, a stressful pitch, then all the same again to get home. I didn’t think it was going to be any fun, and it wasn’t any fun. But it was necessary, and it’s what I do. So I did it.

By Friday afternoon, back in the office and rounding out a very busy day in the office, I was actually managing to feel okay about things. After the stress and strain of the preceding week I had achieved an almost post-coital state of faintly giddy exhaustion. Having nothing planned for the rest of the evening, blessedly, I hung about the office a bit, making my way to the small, ersatz bar that hides in an easily concealable cabinet in the sales area. I got a drink, which went right to my head as it does when you’re feeling like that, and fell into discussion with the team. I found myself explaining that, consistent with my general view of things, the success of our week had owed much to the fact that none of us on the travel team had really believed we were going to succeed. Because of that, we had prepared in greater depth than usual, working out plans B and C against the various possible failures of our A plan. I found myself paraphrasing Seneca, mangling the quote but getting the idea across. The actual quotation, from his Letters, is the following:

If an evil has been pondered beforehand, the blow is gentle when it comes. To the fool, however, and to him who trusts in fortune, each event as it arrives “comes in a new and sudden form,” and a large part of evil, to the inexperienced, consists in its novelty.

In other words, the bad outcomes that we consider and take seriously don’t hit as as hard as the ones we refuse to think about. To me this seems intuitive, even obvious. But I found myself drawn into an odd argument. I have a good friend who qualifies as a proper philosopher. He’s a talented salesman, but he also has a genuine PhD in philosophy, and is something of a theologian. He’s also an evangelical Christian and a Pentecostal minister, so while I like and admire this man very much, the field of our disagreements is wide, rich and varied. He had seized on Seneca’s use (at least as it comes to us through this translation – I have no knowledge of the original latin) of the term “evil.” Now it’s never been my understanding that Seneca’s ideas here rest on a moral evil, per se. I’ve always taken his use of the term simply to refer to suffering and misfortune. But my friend laid out a view that suffering is evil, in the moral sense. Has to be, in fact, because otherwise there’s no basis for imagining that the infliction of suffering on another to be an evil act.

I’d love to tell you about how I at once issued a crisply argued takedown of this idea, and bested the professor at his own game. This did not happen. I was tired, faintly tipsy, and while I knew this wasn’t right my brain, asked to summon up a counterargument, simply gave me finger, rolled over and went back to sleep. I grumbled something about picking this all up another time and changed the subject, which my friend, with customary grace, managed to be only very slightly smug about. We chatted a bit more about topics I now can’t recall, and in time I went home, watched something or other on Netflix and went to sleep. Only to wake up yesterday morning unable to think of anything else.

So in the spirit of all the great comebacks that we fail to think of in the moment, let me sketch the argument I would have liked to have made. First off, I can’t buy into the idea that suffering is in any a form of evil. This just doesn’t work for several reasons, but the simplest of these is the fact that so much of the suffering that we experience is necessary and good. In the 55th minute of an hour long conditioning workout, the eighth hour of a marathon study session, or in the three a.m. comforting of a sick child, we are absolutely suffering. But we’re suffering the betterment of ourselves and the care of others. Nothing would be easier than to sit here and toss of a dozen examples of noble and beneficent suffering, freely chosen and joyfully, if uncomfortably, received.

But, you may argue, this is to miss the point. My friend’s argument was focused on the suffering one inflicts on another. Surely this is evil, and surely the suffering involved is what makes it so, isn’t it?

Not at all. This might seem an odd argument, but stay with me for a minute. The infliction of suffering, in itself, is not the evil thing. When a violent criminal hurts another, the locus of the evil isn’t in the violent act itself. The evil lies in the fact that the crime is being done to people who do not want it done to them. In other words, in inflicting suffering, an evil man commits his evil through depriving his victims of their freedom not to choose suffering.

You’d be perfectly reasonable to find this a little radical. Surely violence is evil? Are we going to start splitting hairs about weird people in BDSM dungeons here? I’d say no, actually, let’s steer clear of the dungeon. I’ll give you something a little easier to work with, and it starts with a couple of my own, poorly healed broken ribs.

See, for many years I was very involved in boxing, jiu jitsu and other violent, combat sports. I trained very hard in these, and have done a fair amount of coaching in traditional boxing as well. In learning these arts, I’ve been punched, very hard, by people who know how. I’ve been kicked, kneed, choked unconscious, had my joints hyperextended. I’ve been choked with parts of people’s anatomy that we normally don’t associate with that kind of thing at all. I’ve been made to bleed in various ways, from various parts of myself, some of which have genuinely surprised me. And all of this, all of it, has hurt. Most of it has hurt badly. This is suffering, no doubt about it, violently and deliberately inflicted. But here’s the catch: I wanted all of this. In fact, I worked very hard to get to it. None of those sessions were things you could walk in off the street and participate in. I had to suffer just to earn the right to suffer at the next level, and I did. This was my choice.

Moreover, the men and women who made me suffer weren’t acting with any kind of malice. They were my friends, people I came to appreciate and even love, and none of that suffering was done with any intention of long-term harm. It was done to teach, or it was done in a spirit of mutually respectful competition. Evil was nowhere present.  

Now don’t get me wrong. The potential for evil was always there. The things I willingly endured in the name of learning and challenging myself were things which, done to another person under different circumstances, had a tremendous capacity to cause harm. But the evil was never embedded in the acts. The acts were acts of people, to be enacted upon other people, in ways that would be chosen freely or not chosen freely.

This notion of freedom is something I’ll probably be talking about a lot here. The importance of human freedom, and its role in an ethical structure, is one of the bits in existentialism that I find most compelling. My friend, of course, will be unimpressed. I know where he’ll go, which is to the horror inherent in a world of free beings. He’ll go to the dystopian view of a world ungoverned by God, full of nasty, brutish people doing nasty, brutish things to one another, because why not? But on this point I’m a little more prepared, because this line of thinking is the line that first engaged me in all of this stuff, many years ago.

My undergraduate degree is in Political science, and the first proper piece of philosophy I read was Hobbes’ Leviathan (at least the bits we were assigned). Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau – all of these guys helped construct the general notion of the Social Contract, and it was the first philosophical/political idea that really grabbed me. The idea in its simplest form is straightforward: humankind, ungoverned in any way, does indeed tend to make an ugly mess of things. This is fairly well documented through time. Humanity on its own exists in what Thomas Hobbes described as a “State of nature,” in which existence is, in his memorable phrase, is “nasty, brutish and short.” To solve this problem, humans band together in social groups, and negotiate essentially a contractual agreement with one another. The details may vary, but the outlines of the deal are always the same: we give up a few, specifically delineated freedoms, in return for which we receive a greater degree of security. Eventually, you wind up with a state apparatus, but if everything goes well this isn’t a bad thing. This notion of a contract, freely entered into, allows the idea of government by consent of the governed to come into being. The idea of a Liberal democracy, in this sense (and for God’s sake, that’s capital-L Liberal; if you don’t know the difference between that and liberal progressivism please leave my blog right now) is far more than a set of procedures. It’s a framework in which free beings can choose, deliberately, to become a little less free in exchange for things that they value highly enough for that sacrifice to be worthwhile.

I still get excited about this, after all these years, because I find a remarkable elegance in the way this all hangs together, including as a way to think about ethical action. It connects right back to the concept of suffering, and of evil. Here’s the sketch: to suffer, in itself, is not evil. Even the infliction of suffering on another isn’t necessarily evil (though of course it very often is). The evil act is one which deprives another of their freedom, and this matters deeply. Not simply because freedom is something that we’d all like to have (dourly mechanistic worldviews like mine don’t work well if the whole argument has to hang on compassion, after all), but because in a delightful little paradox, you can’t have order among humans if the humans involved don’t have the freedom to negotiate its structure.

There are other arguments for the importance of freedom within the existential canon, and this post has already gone on far too long, but the idea I still like is this much older one. Freedom and social order have a powerful, symbiotic relationship, anchored in a difficult irony. You can try having freedom without the order component, but you wind up driving around the Australian outback with a sawed-off shotgun, worried about angry leather fetishists trying to steal your gasoline. You gain the freedom to whack people with bolt cutters, but at the expense of your freedom to not eat dog food out of a can. And you can try having order without freedom, but that’s yet to have been done in any way more elegant than a state monopoly on repressive violence. You wind up in a set of far uglier paradoxes, trying to teach Christ’s gentleness at the stake. The most durable system of governance that we’ve yet cobbled together (unsurprisingly) is the one most comfortable with paradox, negotiation, and perpetual, managed crisis.

So no, I endured no evil as I froze my ass off outside a midwestern airport. I endured no evil as I wrestled with some unfamiliar technology and ducked and dodged through a marathon sales presentation. I endured no evil because I didn’t have to be there. I chose to, and it sucked, but some things need to suck. Lots of things do, if we’re honest, and the list changes all the time. But I’m fond of this. I’ve gained a lot from it. I always will.

It also occurs to me, speaking of suffering, that I’ve now made myself sound like another tedious Enlightenment fanboy. I feel Steven Pinker’s hot breath on my neck. More on this soon.  


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?