Y Marks the Spot: What Robin Williams Helped Me Learn

Robin Williams

Appropriately, I found out about Robin Williams’ death because of someone in a hole, six feet deep.  I was on my porch, wasting my life on the internet, tuning out the neighbor across the street as he toiled in said pit and tried to fix a broken sewage pipe.  Eventually, his roommate came out to the cratered boulevard and, in a voice loud enough for me to hear, announced that Robin Williams had died.  My instincts to internet fact-check kicked in, confirmation was acquired, and I found myself staring at the pit and thinking holy shit.  Even when in shock, my brain has an inane tendency toward wordplay.

            My second thought was that World’s Greatest Dad, a movie in which Williams plays a father coping with his son’s accidental suicide, had just gained an evil sense of foreshadowing.

            I’ll get back to that thought, but first: a disclaimer.  My traditional position on the topic of public tragedy is that of a skeptic at best, an asshole at worst.  As I’ve gotten older I’ve gained nuance and empathy, and I’ve lost a lot of my bullshit urges to posture as a cool and unaffected prick, but I’ve never stopped being paranoid over the whitewashing and exploitation of the dead.  History is littered with religious, political, and philosophical figures who have been abused in this way, but there are also many current examples of people who in death were transformed into something other than who they were.

            When Princess Diana and Mother Theresa both died in 1997, the nonstop public breast beating, calls for the instant canonization of both women, coupled with Elton John pillaging his back catalogue to provide the ubiquitous soundtrack, struck me as phoniness on a massive scale, ritual attention seeking that had little to do with either woman.  When Columbine happened, all I took away from it at the time was that weird, trenchcoated kids like me were a public menace and, therefore, acceptable scapegoats.  But my all time favorite whitewashing of the dead has to be Michael Jackson’s, a man who in the eyes of many was a creepy alleged pedophile the day before his death and an untouchable musical genius in the next.  That dime turn in public perception and complete trade in of the flawed version of Jackson for the flawless has always disturbed me.  It makes me dread what cinematic auteur and convicted kidfucker Roman Polanski’s image will look like once he belongs to the ages.

            The public’s reaction to the death of Robin Williams, one day after the fact, feels different.  Of course, the feeds are all overflowing with personal stories about how warm and brilliant he was, both as a person and a performer.  I think that speaks volumes about his character, but I also kind of think that part of this very welcome change in tone between today’s tragedy and those of the somewhat recent past is due to where we are with technology.  In 1997, the media pretty much controlled the mourning industry outright, running scripted, edited in memoriam pieces that felt like advertisements for the developing historical version of the deceased.  If you wanted an off script eulogy, you had to know where to look or who to talk to.

            Yesterday and today, I’ve been able to see a multitude of very real takes on Williams from my friends, from random people, and from public figures who were impacted by his death.  The mourning didn’t feel external, induced or dictated by the press, but a conversation.  People were able to share all the individual, personal reasons why his death was such a horrible thing, all of the performances they’ve loved of his, all the weird stories they had of him just showing up somewhere and being amazing.

            And what I think has affected me most, the thing that I feel is most different, is that people aren’t shying away from his faults, either.  His substance abuse problems are getting a fair place in the conversation without feeling like tabloid fodder that I always mentally connect with John Belushi and Chris Farley’s deaths.  More importantly, the depression that likely ended his life is actually being talked about without much of the usual macho hyperindividualist delusions about how people can just force themselves to be sane which usually accompany conversations about mental illness and suicide (conservative pundits, as always, being the exception to this outpouring of empathy).

            People are still talking about Robin Williams like a person. 

            Which brings me back to World’s Greatest Dad.

            In this movie, Williams plays a frustrated writer who teaches at the same high school that his son attends.  Everybody hates the kid, who is an asshole to everyone, but he soon accidentally hangs himself and dies. The moment when Williams discovers the son’s body, when his eyes focus and there’s no real change in his expression at first but he knows that his son is dead, is one of the purest distillations of real horror ‒ that moment before all the blood and guts and reaction when you see the monster and the monster sees you ‒ that I’ve ever seen in film.

            What follows throws all that terrible reality away, and we see a complete whitewashing of the kid’s life, both by the dad and by everyone else in the school.  The dad writes up a fake suicide note which changes his son’s status in school from living pariah to dead saint.  People get tattoos of the kid, write poems about him, fight over oldies albums he reportedly listened to.  Seizing the advantage, dad rides his son’s revisionist history to fame and fortune before Robin Williams gets naked and dives into a pool.

            With hindsight, this movie may become the most haunting thing that Williams has ever done.

            I’d have loved World’s Greatest Dad satire of professional grief in any event, but what makes this movie into one of my favorite Robin Williams flicks is that I first watched it the same week as my cousin died.  My cousin was an asshole and a scumbag.  The last time I saw him, he offered me coke, then started yelling at me for not staying in contact, then punched out one of my friends who was trying to rescue me from this trash vortex.  After that, I made the conscious decision that I was never going to speak with him again.  And I didn’t.

            Five years later, he was dead.  I still don’t know the cause, but I assume it was drug related and, if not overtly suicide, caused by enough amassed damage and depressed apathy to make little difference.  When I found out, I felt almost nothing.  No shock.  No sadness.  Maybe even a little bit of relief that he wouldn’t show up somewhere down the line and suck me into the quagmire of his ruined life.

            I remember my cousin’s death entirely through the reference of World’s Greatest Dad. When I watched how Robin Williams’ character worked through the death of a similarly unsympathetic relative, it gave me a little nudge of solidarity.  It made me feel a little less alienated or sociopathic because I didn’t feel all the expected death feelings and instead viewed my dead cousin as a person.  Not an admirable person, not a particularly monstrous one, but simply someone who was there, and who didn’t mean that much to me.  It wasn’t an overwhelming epiphany, the lesson I picked up from this movie, but it was something small and kind.

            It’s okay to feel nothing.  It’s okay to feel something.  It’s okay to feel everything.

            And now the shoe is on the other foot, and a person who helped me work out my feelings about real life death is dead, and now I feel some things completely different from indifference.  I’m not overwhelmed or destroyed, but I do feel much the same way I felt when George Carlin and Rik Mayall died: kind of pissed, kind of sad for the people close to him, but largely grateful that this brilliant, imperfect person was able to make me laugh and help me figure out some of my shit ‒ sometimes at the same time, like when Rainbow Randolph screamed about his dick: “It’s small, but it’s fierce!”

            And I’ll take one flawed genius over a hundred whitewashed saints.

            Thank you, sir.

Y Marks the Spot: The Worst Nation In the World…

…is hibernation.

I’m not sure when the exact moment the rage which recently smashed around inside me like an uneven spin cycle dropped out.  I do know that it was replaced by one of the most complete bouts of apathy I’ve ever felt.  Perhaps this extreme polar switch makes sense.  During the fall I was on a hair trigger: working a job in which every second was a brand new source of inept hatred, hallucinating through my grandmother’s death in a hometown that was no longer home, punching out a comrade while blacked out, getting ready to brawl with liquor store employees who gave me shit over my peeling ID, trembling with rage at any real or perceived judgments, growing terrified that the budding pain in my chest was going to bloom into a heart attack.  And then, perhaps with the onset of the always rainy, gloomy Washington winter, I shorted out.

This isn’t to say that I stopped getting pissed and became an android.  I was just as paranoid about being judged by other people as before, but the urge toward violence vanished.  The problem was that all my urges toward greatness had been swept alongside.  I stopped doing anything, and furthermore, I stopped caring.

Not doing anything isn’t that much of a stretch for me, but this was different.  Usually when I’m not living up to my potential, potential which usually involves translating all my big thoughts into writing, there’s a scathing voice in my head which points out my shortcomings.  In the last few months, that voice has been silent.  I’d get through an increasingly judgmental day of work, come home, and be a bland, mediocre receptor for entertainment for the rest of the day without a shred of guilt.  In a tribute to my mind’s keen ability to subvert and sabotage anything, my psyche became a hall of mirrors in which I felt guilty for not feeling guilty.

The mantra I ended up hanging onto during this dead winter was a piece of advice given to me in my preceding anger, something which has haunted me ever since.  I was in the midst of a series of improv classes when my grandma died and I went back to Wisconsin to have my brainbreak.  When I returned to class, I was pretty much done as a person.  My improv work was shit, not simply from a lack of experience and refinement but because I had run out of joy.

After one particularly wooden and defensive scene, my instructor addressed me as I fidgeted about on stage.  You don’t play characters who allow themselves to be affected, he said.  You don’t play characters who can change, he said.

And he was absolutely right.

The problem is that, had this bit of criticism merely been limited to my ability to carry a scene, it wouldn’t have been so damning.  But to me improv is therapy, an evolution of all the guidance counselors and psychiatry of my youth.  As such, it’s almost always true that my flaws in improv are my flaws everywhere else.  So I took this advice and kind of broke myself applying it to the rest of my life.  I didn’t feel guilty about doing nothing, but I sure as hell put myself into a coma wondering where my ability to change and to grow and to care and to be affected went.  Seems pretty self-fulfilling.

I’ve continued with improv, but during this winter it began to feel like an obligation I analyzed to death.  My big stupid energy had been replaced by methodical paranoia which I used to dissect my work into meaninglessness.  I coldly resolved to coldly improve my technique, attempting to impress my fellow chaos seekers with my logical, sensible stagework.  I doubt I impressed anyone.  While logical and sensible aren’t bad tools to have as a performer, they mean nothing if a person doesn’t give a shit ‒ and I was all out of shit.

I became envious of people who cared about anything.

March was perhaps the worst and best month of my hibernation.  It began with me attempting to dredge up some semblance of joy to unleash for my improv theatre’s auditions to join its mainstage group.  It didn’t really work.  I don’t think I was horrible, but my audition was a rambling mess surrounded by people who were clearly more invested than I was.  I can’t say I wasn’t very bummed out when I found out that I hadn’t made the cut, but what was worse was that I knew, without a shred of forced humility or self-abasement, that I hadn’t done my best.  I certainly wouldn’t have voted for me, and that’s much worse than whether everyone else thought I was terrible.

I wallowed in that failure for a bit, but thankfully March is always my best time of the year, and this time around it didn’t disappoint.  The easy reasons were all there: I spent my birthday getting ridiculous among friends, my parents loaded me up with birthday cash, and my tax returns rolled in.  More importantly, spring finally came, and few things in life make me feel as calm as the warming of winter.

On the day after April Fool’s, I started a new round of improv classes with the same teacher who sent me down my ruthless path of self-examination.  This time around, I feel brilliant.  And, as this serves as evidence of, I’m starting to write again.

I’m starting to care again.  Feels like I’m waking up.

Y Marks the Spot: The Old Man

 

Appropriately enough, the first time I wondered if I had gotten old happened because of MTV, an institution that is barely younger than I am.  On the night and early morning in question, I entered the scene feeling drunk and joyful, connected with the world from the backseat of my roommate’s truck as it wound into the sticks and to an acquaintance’s place.

I followed two of my roommates through a blacked out garage and into a living room that was only blacked out mentally.  While some cool mom hovered around them, a spatter of clearly underage kids splayed on a couch, blankly watching some Jackass-aping prank show on MTV2 featuring hosts who were trying waaaay too hard to act coked out and cool for the camera.  The surge of loathing I felt for the show and its audience was about equal in strength to the frightening question that popped into my head shortly afterwards.  Was I into such stupid crap when I was that age?  The answer is, of course, yes ‒ though I’ve since discovered and loved the MTV self-satire that permeates my beloved Beavis and Butt-head.

Unfortunately, that first question led to another uncomfortable one: had I been a stupid teenager?

This moment in the cool mom’s living room was the first time I remember feeling smarter than another person for no other reason than age, which likely makes it the first time I remember identifying with the people who thought I was an idiot when I was a programmed teen rebel consumer.  That’s kind of a scary moment.  It can lead to zealous, born again past-disowning and delusions of present-tense brilliance.  Gee, I was such a moron back then, but I’m a goddamn Socrates now!

We say these disclaimers in ignorance of the possibility that the versions of us ten years from now could look back and laugh about the so-called stupid people we are right now.

There’s a weird contradiction in this, being that people tend to venerate the past and anticipate the future at the expense of their present tenses.  Man, being sixteen years old was awesome!  Holy crap, I can’t wait until the new Frank Sinatra album comes out and I’m old enough to buy beer!  And yet when the future becomes the now, the anticipation tends not to yield equal parts fulfillment.  If time travel were possible, we’d probably be just as disappointed with a tangible past.  We tend to like living theoretically, but don’t we like to bitch about the actual process of existing.

Back to the cool kids and my old man dilemma.  I reacted to that moment of elderly paranoia well, deciding that the question of me being a stupid teenager was one of degrees, not absolutes.  Sure, I wasn’t as wise as I am now, but it’s not as though I’m complacently fully formed today.  In any event, my age fears became irrelevant when a group of us left the couch kids and cool mom to wander into the neighboring rock quarry and hurl ourselves from the tops of pebble mountains.  Very childish.  Very fun.

Still, this lingering worry that I had in fact gotten old stayed with me for months afterwards, further inflamed due to my living in the dining room of a house without a scrap of privacy and five roommates in their mid-20s.  Half of those people were in a band which practiced often and took the rest of us along whether we wanted to go or not.  Also, most of my roommates’ musical tastes weren’t like mine.  Again, I didn’t have an enclosed room of my own to filter that out.

What ended up happening was that I spent that year flat broke and doing little more than lying around that dining room, getting pissed at the noise of the band and the songs played ad nauseum in between those live practices.  And I began to feel very old.  It felt as though I’d have been more okay with loud noise and contrasting tastes if I was younger.  The phrase “If it’s too loud, you’re too old” swam through my head like a sanctimonious goldfish that year.

Those thoughts, of course, were bullshit.  Since moving into a place of my own and building up my own little sanctuary, I’ve been able to put everything into its proper theoretical, past-tense perspective.  The answer I’ve come up with to that second, uncomfortable question is this: if I am truly old, then I’ve always been old.  I’ve always needed privacy and space like a sanctimonious goldfish needs purified water.  I’ve always needed the ability to filter other people out.  And I’ve never liked the styles of music that my roommates were into, and it’s not as though they didn’t exist when I was a teenager.  Hell, I’ve always been annoyed by teenagers, even ‒ especially! ‒ when I was one.

In contrast, I’m pretty okay with getting older.  Aging has to me been a process of getting over unimportant shit and getting better at being myself.  I used to idealize the irresponsible life I had when I was sixteen; now I’d be hard pressed to take that life back for anything.  Worrying about fitting in?  Being horribly damaged by real and desired romance?  Waking up at 6:30 in the morning, five days a week?  The hell with that.

When I actually do become an old man, I’m going to be amazing.  Unless I’m not.

Two additional points bear mentioning.  The first is that last weekend I went back to my old place, hung out with my old roommates, and enjoyed a night full of loud music and drunken frivolity.  I had a great time.  The ability to leave and not have to clean up, combined with the ability to afford to drink, both helped immensely.

The second thing is this: every time I tell somebody that I’m in my early thirties, they act incredibly surprised.  Apparently people think that I’m five.  Which I am.

Growing up and growing old are two different things.

Y Marks the Spot: It’s Not Always that Simple

 

So here’s a story from my life which has ultimately determined everything else.  It’s a good example of my view that absolute morality does not exist.  The cores of this story are childbirth and abortion, which at their mildest are divisive issues.  I have strong opinions on both; I’m very pro-choice, though my rationale is more based on population issues over women’s rights.  There are now seven billion humans on Earth.  There are now seven billion creatures which devour and shit all over everything in their paths.  My species is an intelligent plague.

My attitude is that if we don’t get control over birth, we’ll soon lose control over how we live and how we die.  We’ll simply drown in each other.  I think birth control should not only be encouraged but mandatory from adolescence until sometime in one’s twenties.  Though I don’t have much good to say about the Chinese government in general, I’m very behind its One Child Policy, especially in the context of a country with over a billion citizens.  Unfortunately, humans think they’re exempt from Bob Barker-style reproductive responsibility, and even in the most civilized, technologically advanced places where manpower is obsolete, people still baby-crap out units with the greatest of autopilot.  In such a world, I view abortion as a very necessary evil.

Still, there’s a problem I’ve come across as an occasional nihilist.  One has to exist in order to believe in the possibilities of nothing.  In that same contradictory vein it’s kind of illogical and self-centered for living people to actively deny a real future person the sort of existence that they enjoy (or at least get to experience).

But in the end, being pro-choice is about ‒ or at least it damn well should be about ‒ subjectivity.  Beyond its immediate social issue, the position should be an acknowledgement that existence is not one size fits all.  That’s why it’s not called pro-abortion.

In that vein, allow me to share my own conflicted, one in a million slice of existential subjectivity that led to me being alive today.

 

I’ve always known, even when I was a baby, that I’m incredibly lucky to be alive.  One of my earliest memories involves the knowledge that my mom was at the hospital getting a big deal doctor’s appointment as a result of my birth.  I may have been around two or so at the time, and for some reason I had the notion that she had always been in that hospital and never left it since I was born.

As a general rule ‒ though there are several huge exceptions that I’d learn about later in life, one of which serves as the focal point of this story ‒ my family has never concealed any knowledge from me.  Some of that, I’m sure, has to do with one of my sisters being ten years older than me and eager to teach me about all the world’s profane secrets.  Thanks to her, I could proficiently swear when I was three years old, and I’m probably one of the few humans who can say that they were a party to car theft while strapped into a car seat.

But it goes further than having a rebellious older sibling.  For example, my parents made sure I knew, very matter-of-fact, that I had another older sister who lived somewhere else with her mother.  I didn’t meet her until I was eighteen ‒ on an Oktoberfest day which ended in a car crash ‒ but I’ve always known she existed.  In fact, I knew about her before she knew about me.

If I had a question about anything, no matter how uncomfortable or gross or weird, my mom would do her best to give me a straightforward answer.  Thus, my family was always pretty up front about the fact that my birth wasn’t something that should have happened.

Without going into the gory details, certain cancerous complications led to the removal of some of my mom’s parts, and the only thing that kept me strapped in and carried to term was a tumor blocking the exit.  I am a tumor baby, the barely born son of a professional gambler.  Both of these facts are pretty goddamn appropriate.

The medical improbability of my birth was better explained to me later on, but even as a little kid I knew that I’d be the last child my mother would have.  After I emerged onto the scene they scraped her out, which ultimately led to an awesome scene in a crowded Christmas movie theater where I loudly asked my mom if Santa was going to bring her a new uterus.

Most times during my crappy adolescence and twenties, times when I was knuckle-deep in terrible jobs, creative frustration, romantic devastation, and many different forms of self-violence, I’d think about the sheer unlikelihood of my existence and wonder why they even bothered.  Like most things, life tends to be least valued by those who have the most of it, even if that person was a miracle baby.  Thankfully, I survived the terrible shit and have become a reasonably functional human being, glad to be alive.

People like to romanticize about living in the past or some sanitized era of predetermined life, but the stone cold fact is that I wouldn’t have even made it to childhood were it not for the medical technology of the 20th century.  Even better, I was born deformed.  My ribs curve inward, giving me the great ability to eat cereal out of my chest.  It’s a generally benign defect, but I can’t help thinking that in any other era ‒ especially in that manly Spartan age so balls-cuppingly praised by noir-redneck Frank Miller in 300 ‒ I’d have been deemed retarded at birth and thrown onto the mountain of baby skulls.  I suppose I owe my life to the fact that I live here and now, in a society which questions the disposal of unwanted babies.

Of course, this isn’t the only side to the story.  As I recently found out, my existence also owes a debt to someone else’s death.

 

My mom and I can talk for hours, and in these rambling, philosophical conversations secrets come out.  The last time this happened was last spring, back when I was still putting my life here in Washington together.  Having no job and nothing better to do, I’d call my mom and kill time lurking on the staircase and ranting about asshole Wisconsin Republicans.

I think the information I’m about to discuss came out because one of my cousins had just gotten pregnant.  (Appropriate to this story of life and death, she ended up giving birth to her son days before my grandma died.)  The talk of new babies led to talk of old babies and my birth, and by the way, says mom, you knew that I had an abortion before I had you, right?

If the fleas in my old run down house were shaped like giant question marks, one of those itchy sons of bitches would have jumped onto my head at exactly that moment.

My parents were married five years before I was born, and I’ve had the vaguest of overviews of their lives in the 70s.  The first thing my single realtor mom saw of my single realtor dad was his crotch in whatever tight disco pants he had on at the time.  Apparently those pants were a hit.  I was recently treated to my tipsy dad bragging that he banged my mom a lot in those early days, one part of a weird conversation in which he also pondered what life would have been like as a gay man.  Good to know, dad.

Mom already had a kid.  Dad had a kid whom he didn’t meet until I graduated college, yet he began to view my mom’s kid as his own.  (This has led to some awkwardness among us neglected biologicals.)  Dad really liked playing poker, so much so that he’d go pro around the time of my birth, and mom accepted it.  So things were going okay, I guess.

After being together for a while, mom and dad discovered that they were going to have a kid together.  The problem was that the same cancerous complications which made my birth so unlikely were entrenched well before I was the gleam.  The pregnancy of my older brother ‒ and when I think about this potential sibling, he’s always my brother, mostly because I’ve never had one ‒ was so malignant that there was a very real chance that my mom would have died if she tried to carry him to term.  So she didn’t.

My dad can’t deal with real problems.  His reaction to my mom’s trauma was to awkwardly joke that at least she wouldn’t lose her figure.  They broke up.  They got back together, obviously, but there was a point where their genetic swords were unlikely to cross again, leaving the potential me out in the void.  That’s another part of the story I like to creep myself out with.

I don’t know what made my fetushood any different.  I haven’t heard that part of the story yet.  Yet somehow I made it out, and I made it up, and I’ve made it to now.  I have no idea why that is.  Fuck it.  It doesn’t matter.  I’m here, and I’m not leaving.

 

As a result of these revelations I’ve developed a weird complex, not quite guilt, but an acknowledgement that someone actively had to die so that I could be born.  I suppose that this is true for anyone who has ever eaten a hamburger, but it feels different than that.  It’s just another case of a human pretending that humanity and one’s own circle are exempt and special, I suppose.  But still.

So yeah.  The moral.  The morality.  The subjectivity.  I owe my unlikely life to one abortion happening and to another one not happening.  But you know what?  I’d rather err on the side of choice.

As an adult I’ve helped an ex-girlfriend who found herself pregnant and unready through the process of abortion, and I’ve supported someone else whom I loved intensely for years through a pregnancy with someone else’s child.  Even now, life offers no easy, consistent, universal answers.

Then again, how many easy answers are worth knowing?

 

Y Marks the Spot: Occupy the Bottom

Viva la Revolucion!

I want to preface this rambling piece by saying that, in over three decades of my existence, this is the first and only year that I’ve been genuinely interested in where America is going.  Sure, seeing Obama get elected was great, but it was still the usual game of token democracy trotted out with Leap Year regularity, and I don’t get involved in that (and I didn’t).  This year, I suddenly found myself bearing an overabundance of newfound pride in Wisconsin as hundreds of thousands of my fellow Midwesterners rose up to tell their tin pot dictator to go to hell.  And then, I’d say almost as a direct consequence, the Occupy Movement turned the greedhate nationwide.  It is simply breathtaking to see Americans get so pissed off that they’re willing to inconvenience themselves to pay more than the usual lip service to our ideals of freedom – and no, joining the Tea Party and trolling the rest of the country doesn’t count as this.

I hope we’re seeing the dawn of the next economic civil rights movement, but I have one pretty big problem with all the uprisings I’ve seen this year.  Okay, two; the coordinated police brutality of recent times has been pretty upsetting.  And while we’re on that subject: who the hell gave bike cops the authority to pepper spray protesters?  Has the world suddenly become a mad version of Pacific Blue?  Is Mario Lopez the new face of the modern police state?

Deep breath.  Back on topic.  Just about every time I hear otherwise wonderful economic insurgents discuss the menace of the current climate of unchecked corporate greed where damn near everything under the sun has been made for-profit, the fears and worries usually end up in one place.  The problem, they usually say, is that the middle class is in danger of disappearing.

I don’t know about you, but my heart doesn’t exactly bleed for the middle class.  It’s a nice enough concept, a subtle endorsement of share the wealth that we peasants could use a lot more of.  It’s also a pretty meaningless term.  In a parallel reversal of the truism that none of the insufferable hipsters think that they are insufferable hipsters, a whole lot of Americans seem to regard themselves as middle class when they aren’t even close.  I’d say that middle class ranges between affording a house and a quarter million dollars, but I think the popular definition has become being able to sleep in your own room, no matter how large or small that room may be.  I disagree.

More importantly, when I think of the victims of capitalism, my first thoughts aren’t of people who can (or who used to be able to) afford a house.  It’s of people who everyday are starving to the brink of death, who can’t afford even the most basic of health care, who live in Third World conditions in a First World country.  It’s the people who live under bridges because the government refuses to divert a cent of defense spending toward feeding and housing the people supposedly defended.  You’ll forgive me if my sympathy for the so-called middle class comes a bit late.

As one of these broke-ass people who live one disaster away from financial collapse, I can say that when I see these well-meaning people wringing their hands and loudly wailing about the gloomy future of the middle class, I get a little pissed and I feel a whole lot left out.  This is, of course, unless we’re fighting to expand the cushy middle class to encompass everybody, which would be a very comfortable brand of communism.  (We are the 100%!)

I know – and yet, still, I hope – that the American protests of 2011 are based on community and kindness and wanting to help out one’s fellow man.  Yet every time I hear the term “middle class,” my certainty fades a bit.  I wonder if these aren’t movements based on social justice but on envy.  I wonder if the suburbanites are just using the proles to skim more off the top of the pyramid.  I wonder whether the poor will once again be the dupes.  In the same vein, imagine bitching about the cost of your rent in front of a person who hasn’t lived indoors for years.  Could the homeless become the dupes of the minimum wage slaves?

One of the genius rhetorical moves of the Occupy movement has been moving past this potential class infighting to paint the conflict as everyone against the super-rich.  “We are the 99%” is a much more inclusive catchphrase than “Save the middle class.”  And as much as people think they’re unwavering bastions of conviction, well, they aren’t.  We’re usually stupid, malleable sheep in public, and as such words and tone matter big time in a mass movement.

Side note: As much as I love the idea of a horde of people shouting down public displays of aristocracy, I still cringe every time I watch a repeat-after-me Mic Check, even as I cheer.  I suppose synchronized disruption is better than blind obedience, but still.

Deep breath.  Back on topic. Summation: If you say you’re going to stand up for (almost) everybody, then stand up for (almost) everybody, even the middle class.  In America alone, that includes the millions of people that you don’t know, have very little in common with, and may in fact dislike intensely.  It’s damn near impossible to maintain that level of idealism.  If you want to get anything done, attempt it anyway.

Y Marks the Spot: Leaving the Cult

WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

 

 

There are a few of my codes of conduct that come into play during this tale of liberation from greasy, incompetent drudgery.  The first: never stick your foot in a bear trap.  There are a lot of bad situations which can be avoided if one simply shuts the hell up and refuses to be masochistically polite.  The second: fight like a pussy.  When faced with a blustering moron with delusions of power, just smile, nod your head, and proceed about your day as though that person didn’t exist.  Or sharpen your knives.

Bravery has its time and place, but subverting and manipulating the stage from behind the scenes works in ways that loudly standing up to the assholes doesn’t.  For one, assholes are chronically unable to realize that they’re the problem, not everyone else.  For two, by standing up for yourself, you become the asshole because you’re the one rocking the boat.  Don’t believe me?  Ask an Occupy cop’s can of pepper spray.

I say all of this because very few people who work at my now former shitty burger job had any clue that I hated that job with every ounce of my being from day one.  Almost no one at Burger World knew that the place was the source for a lot of my recent rage and exhaustion, that the place wore both my mental and physical well-being down to the bone.

All my moronic and micromanaging bosses saw was my blank face.  All they heard was my monotone work voice, and in those rare moments when I didn’t want to flip over my work table and walk out, a few jokes.  Of course, they mistook my silence for assent, as tends to happen.  The kings of Burger World thought I was a real laid-back dude, and thus they attempted to wring out every drop of sweat from me while paying me as little as possible for my trouble.

If working at Burger World felt more like honest work and less like a pyramid scheme, I may not be so hateful toward the place.  But it was a hellhole.  As a person, my immediate boss is a pretty good guy, and we got along pretty well.  The problem was that his bosses are the sorts of tightasses who swallow coal in hopes of shitting diamonds.  I feel bad for what my boss has to go through, because every moment of his job entails cutting every expendable second of labor, which wears him out and turns him scummy.  My favorite example is when he paid me twenty bucks to not clock in for my prep shift because he was so piss scared about labor costs.  He’s going to have a nervous breakdown at some point, or a heart attack.

Yet sympathy does not equal acceptance.  There was a long stretch of time in which I came home every day from work, boiling with a new tale of infuriating managerial stupidity.  I should have been more irritated about repeatedly being scheduled eight hour shifts and working only five – while simultaneously not being allowed to go home.  By that point, however, I was so burnt out on the job that I limply accepted the cuts in hours and sat in the corner, reading and playing video games.

I know there are worse jobs out there, but all that knowledge does is make me feel super smart for not working at those places.

I also feel good about never forgetting the plan to leave.  Having just moved into a place of my own, I needed the job, and I’m grateful for the money.  But I was never complacent.  I always watched for the way out.  Appropriately enough, it was on the day when I dodged out of the first step towards becoming a Burger World supervisor – a promotion that would have surely spelled my end as a freethinking, sentient creature – when I was offered a new job on the ground floor of a far superior food place in town.  I’m much, much happier there.

However, there were two problems.  The first was that the new job didn’t start me with enough hours to allow me to quit Burger World outright.  The second is that Burger World is kind of run like a cult, and my victimized boss has thus become a sad panda who perpetuates the weasely web-spinning that traps people there.  What this meant for me was that I didn’t feel like I could tell him that I was working at another food job.  He’d have just said that I already work at a food job, so I should just tell them thanks but no thanks.  (In fact, he did try to edge out the other job anyway, but I shut that down.)

I had to invent a lie, and using my magical powers of improv I created a pretty convincing alternate reality that I’ve continued to stick to.  It wasn’t all false; I did apply to work at my local library, though I didn’t get the job.  But my story to Sad Panda was that I was now a librarian, that it was my main field of work, and that Burger World had officially become secondary.  He whined and bitched and played Stockholm Syndrome on me, but he finally got the hint and backed off.  Still, the scarce days I continued working at Burger World remained the asshole of my week.  It wouldn’t do to reduce its hold on me; the burger cult had to be completely eradicated from my life.

But the end has finally come.  On Black Friday, my bosses at my new job gave me the news that my hours were going to be increased.  I could finally quit Burger World.  I sent my old boss a text saying that the library had monopolized my holiday availability.  I have no intention of returning.  It was far more farewell than Burger World deserved.

It was the best Black Friday ever.  Escape feels epic.

Y Marks the Spot: Drink to Win and the Ponderous Punches

 

I have this weird mental game that I’ve played since I was a little kid.  Odds are that if you’ve ever been around me, I may have played it with you.

It goes like this: while sitting around with someone, I sometimes wonder how my relationship with that person would change if I suddenly threw a punch.

Sounds like the musings of a psychopath, no?  Well, it was created during my childhood, a time in my life when I was swirling in a Lord of the Flies-like maelstrom of violence, locked in combat with my fellow child-savages.  The game certainly comes from a place of anger.  Still, the game which I’ve just now named The Ponderous Punches isn’t about running around and smacking people in the face.  It’s not about transferring my questions on the fragility of human relationships into any bruising reality.  In any event, I’ve never played it to that point.

But I may have recently come close.

The Friday before last, a group of my various friends congregated at a house in the mountains at the edge of town.  Our goals, beyond the basic one of being around each other for the first time in weeks, were to play board games and watch bad movies.  Along with the awesome He-Man movie, I came armed with an especially heavy screwdriver, and I proceeded upon the path to an additional, time-honored goal: to Drink to Win.

I woke up in my bed the next morning, feeling bright and vibrant and ready to go to work.  There was some confusion as I stumbled around, checking my things and making sure that everything taken to the gathering had returned with me.  Besides a jacket I’d later reclaim, everything had made it.  I remembered little beyond the point in the night when three of us had put on tutus and pranced about like idiots; the only flash of consciousness to follow happened as I sat in my backseat and had friends drive my car home and drop me off, after which I pranced through my doorway and grinned like a physicist.  But I’ve long known that, even while balls to the wall blacked out, I’m kind of brilliant.

Work was not the usual desperate hangover fare in which desperate guarantees of good behavior are made to distant deities in exchange for metaphysical aspirin.  It went fine.  I wasn’t thrilled about walking through the rain to my friends’ house to pick up my car, but I made the trip well enough.

After my friends handed me my keys, I asked them if I had done anything too embarrassing over the course of the evening.  Embarrassing, yes, they answered, but nothing too horrible.  It was good enough for me.  I drove home, wondering why I was such a joyful drunk.

It was a few days later when I logged onto the internet and found the first indications that this sense of joy might not have been entirely accurate.  Entering the Facebook group page of the film group which encompasses most of the people at Friday’s party, I saw a cryptic, rambling, freaked out message from one of the members.  It said that he wasn’t quitting, but that he didn’t want to hang out with us while we were drinking anymore.  He also invited us to shut the hell up if we had any questions.

Almost at the same time, I sent a text to the party’s hostess asking what had happened and posted a comment on the page hoping that the poster was okay.  Almost at the same time, I got responses from both targets.  The hostess said that the poster had accidentally been elbowed in the face.  In the five seconds between reading that answer and being instant messaged by the poster, I had a sinking certainty that I was responsible for whatever had happened.

The poster’s IM confirmed this.  It also said that the hit was a punch, and that it hadn’t been an accident.  My initial reaction was disbelief; the closest I’ve ever come to drunken violence before had been Three Stooges-style slapstick fighting with my friends.  But as the story was told to me, I had gotten pissed and laid the poster out.

Apparently the more sober people among us had made the mistake of playing Jenga in a house full of raving barbarian drunkards.  As I’ve heard it, my reaction to this architectural audacity was to rush over and knock them over at any opportunity.  The poster, who doesn’t drink, was assigned the dubious honor of keeping us savages away from the playing field.  After my last attempt at destroying the tower, he lured me away with false promises of seeing something amazing.

When he showed me a passed-out friend not doing anything amazing at all, my bullshit detector flashed on.  Yes, I have a bullshit detector, even while blacked out.

“You don’t have anything to show me,” I said.  The poster nodded.  Without another word, I punched him in the face.

Standing over him, I apparently said: “That’ll teach you to lie.”

Nobody else witnessed this bizarrely principled explosion.  When I asked about it, everyone – my victim included – said that the rest of the night was awesome, but nobody else saw me throwing a punch.  The recipient told me that he went into meltdown, refusing to leave his apartment for days, but we talked it out, I apologized, and we are back to normal, I think.

Oddly enough, I proposed a get-together last Friday night, an affair with the goal of Drink to Achieve a Modest Moral Victory.  The recipient of my blackout punch, who said he didn’t want to hang around us when we drank, showed up with a gigantic duffel bag full of liquor.  I’m not sure what that means.

I didn’t throw a Ponderous Punch, but maybe I played the game, all the same.