Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Are Zoos Better than Circuses?

I just finished reading an article in the latest New Yorker.  It concerned Marius, a young giraffe killed, or "culled" several months ago at a Denmark zoo.  Regrettably born a male similar in genetic material to other males in the zoos's collection, at 18 months of age the young giraffe was offered a piece of rye bread by a keeper and upon leaning over to accept it, shot in the head by the zoo's veterinarian. His genes were not needed to keep up a healthy breeding group of giraffes for the zoo's collection

This however, wasn't what caused animal lovers around the world to have a hissy fit.  That was caused by the zoo's scientists dragging the dead animal into a public space and dissecting it in front of several classes of school children.  Later, behind the scenes fortunately, they fed it to the big cats. The whole event was staged to make a splash, the Denmark zoo proclaiming, "we're a scientific institution, not a Disney movie. Sentiment has no place here."

Hold the bus right fucking there.

Zoos and oceanaria like to think of themselves as scientific institutions and not entertainment venues. To a zoo's way of thinking, it provides a public service by displaying, housing, and sometimes intentionally breeding, endangered and rare animals.  Its "good" is twofold.  Part one, so the theory goes, is that by educating the public about animals, patrons/citizens are bound to appreciate them more in the wild, (there is little statistical evidence to support this), and part two, as guardians of endangered species DNA, they are preserving animals destined for extinction in the wild.

"Culling" is an interesting term.  It means killing animals judged surplus.  This act is carried out routinely by Fish and Game officers throughout the world when local wild animal populations are judged too large.  This happens most often with deer.  When big predators are gone natural population control vanishes and the deer invade suburban gardens, causing great discomfort to homeowners, then dying of starvation come winter.  Sometimes, when islands are devoid of natural predators but flush with populations of boars or goats, riflemen are brought in to shoot the surplus from helicopters

But the killing of Marius, the young giraffe, did not take place on an offshore island or even behind the scenes.  It was not something that the Scandinavian zoo sought to hide from the press; indeed, it did not evince any feeling of embarrassment or guilt in ending the life of this animal.  It was business as usual and the zoo took pride, overmuch as it turned out, in its decision to represent the event as a fun lesson for school children.

There had been several offers by other organizations to take the animal, including one of several million dollars from an entertainment executive in Los Angeles.  All offers were rejected.

Yesterday, the news was agog.  After 150 years The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus is being shut down once and for all.  The large animals, elephants particularly, will be relocated to sanctuaries where they will live out their lives in habitats more suited to their roaming nature and social needs.  The movement to stop keeping large, intelligent, "charismatic" animals in captivity has been around for awhile but really got off the blocks with the release in 2013 of the documentary "Blackfish." Blackfish made a compelling case that keeping free ranging orca whales in small cement tanks and requiring them to "dance for their bread" 4 or 5 times a day, is cruel.  People who previously wouldn't have known an anchovy on a pizza from a killer whale, were suddenly up in arms about orcas in captivity.  Sea World in San Diego agreed to end it's Shamu Shows.  The hue and cry went out. Ringling Brothers demise was only a matter of time.

It's interesting to note that roadside circuses are still perfectly legal and can be found in any rural county fair.  It's also a fact that many discarded zoo and circus animals wind up in attractions where people pay large sums of money to shoot them.  So maybe PETA shouldn't be cheering and tossing its babies in the aisle just yet.

But back to Barnum and Bailey.  Clearly, riding in trains and performing under the big top for a living is not a natural way for an elephant to live.  And just as clearly, most circuses at some time have used cruel methods to tame and subdue elephants, but I got to thinking yesterday, having just come off the Marius article, about what I would choose, if push came to shove, were I an elephant tasked with choosing whether to live in a zoo or the Barnum and Bailey Circus.  I think I'd choose the circus.

At least animals in the circus have something to do.  Their lives are varied.  They go from city to city, receive great veterinary care, are constantly learning new things and are, within their admittedly limited world, loved.  Many even seem to enjoy performing.  Having worked with captive animals I can honestly state that the majority of persons I've met who spend their lives ministering to them, to the point of  living along side them in RV's, forsaking family, relationships, and any other "normal" human activity for the sake of their charges, genuinely care for their animals.  As for the tricks or "behaviors" they're trained to do, sophisticated persons may be upset by the perceived degradation of having an elephant sit up and beg like a puppy, but the elephants don't know they're being degraded. All they know is that everybody's excited and happy when the tent goes up and the bright lights go on and that they get a loaf of cinnamon bread chucked into their mouths if they do a particularly good job.  Animals in zoos just pace all day, or sleep, or hide, or masturbate.  Anything to relieve the relentless boredom of their meaningless lives.  In zoos, hunters to not hunt, grazers do not graze, birds have very little room, if any, to fly. One of the Denmark zoo's points was that Marius's birth was due to the fact that they don't neuter or keep their animals on birth control.  They are allowed sex and reproduction.

The Denmark zoos's point in being open about the practice of culling, which whether they'll admit it or not is done by almost all zoos worldwide, is a very Scandinavian pragmatism.  This is how it works, folks.  We are the keepers of the Ark and sometimes it gets too crowded.  These beasts are expensive to house and feed.  You should thank us. Without us, you'd never get to see these animals at all, alive or dead.

Which brings up an important question.  Why should we have the privilege of seeing these marvelous animals at all? Whether discussing circuses or zoos, why is it that we imagine we have the right to stare through bars or slabs of plexiglass at captive wild animals?  Worldwide habitat destruction is the single reason that populations of elephants, giraffes, big cats and countless animal species are disappearing.  Animals need range.  African elephants travel between 19 and 37 miles a day, giraffes dozens of miles.  Big cats like leopards require up to 30 square miles of territory, tigers, 23 to 39 square miles.  There were 7 billion human beings on earth in 2012.  That number has increased by half a billion in the last 5 years.  With 7.5 billion people on planet Earth and at the current rate of exponential human population growth, in 50 years there will be no undisturbed animal habitat anywhere.  The logic is straightforward.  Where humans are, wild animals can't be.  If you put a farm or factory in rangeland formerly used by elephants, the elephants, by definition, become a "menace" and are shot.  Same thing with big cats and giraffes.  In the last 15 years giraffe populations have dropped from 150,000 to 80,000 world wide.  Giraffes are a seriously endangered species; Marius was just a drop in the bucket.  In 50 years it's entirely feasible that giraffes, both African and Indian elephants, tigers, leopards, pandas and hundreds of other less "charismatic" species will be extinct in the wild.  Living examples will exist only in zoos.  If you call that living.

If zoos are in fact, genetic repositories for the DNA of animals destined for extinction, neither Marius's existence nor his death make any sense.  DNA can be preserved in labs without feeding or housing it, indefinately.  The so-called scientific argument propounded by giraffe dissectors and their ilk, that zoos provide a vital function in maintaining genetic diversity, is entirely specious.  Unless human populations drop dramatically-- as the result of a pandemic, natural or human caused disaster-- there will never be places these genetically diverse animal populations can thrive.

So we keep them locked up, and justify ourselves with self-serving arguments so that little kids can press their grubby faces against thick glass windows, laughing at gorillas as they masturbate and the polar bears swimming round and round its pond in circles, its suffering having caused it to go stark raving mad.  In the wild polar bears have evolved over millions of year to range over hundreds of miles.  Climate change not withstanding, we are in the way now.

Zoos are no better than circuses and both have outlived their time.  We are the dominant animal on the planet.  We won.  This is what it looks like.  Those "scientists" who shot Marius?  They'd have done the world a much greater service by shooting or at least neutering themselves.  That would make for a revised human population of seven billion four hundred ninety-nine million nine hundred ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-eight.

At least that's got things going in the right direction.  

Friday, January 13, 2017

Why “God” is Very Meaningful in my Life.

A kid I know told me a story one day.  When she was 7 years old a horse fell on her and shattered her pelvis.  Rushed to the emergency room a nurse asked, “on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the worst pain you can imagine, what is your level of pain?”  The kid thought for a minute and answered, 1.  She may have been broken like a ceramic doll thrown out a train window but 7 year olds have pretty powerful imaginations.  “I could imagine way worse pain that what I was in,” she said.  “What if the horse had fallen on me and then somebody had set me on fire?  What if someone tore my fingernails out one by one then ran me over with a car?  That would be way more painful.  What if an elephant instead of a horse had fallen on me?”  All those things would have been much more painful than what I was feeling.” 

They triaged her at the bottom of the list and she spent most of the day, un-medicated, on a gurney in the hall.

Seven year olds have incredible imaginations.

This is something that is hard for grownups to remember.  Compared to a kid most grownups hardly have any imagination at all.  Even an artist, someone who spends her entire day in creative activities, does not have anything close to the imagination of a child.  On the one hand this is cool.  Kids have an easy time believing in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, ghosts and goblins at Halloween. 

On the other hand, not so much.

I was raised in a seriously Roman Catholic household.  We had to go to church every Sunday.  It never made much sense to me.  In those days most of the liturgy was in Latin, which I couldn’t understand, nor could I make out a single word the red-faced and the furious Irish priest blasted at the congregation as if it held collective responsibility for murdering his entire family.  After time, I figured out he was talking about a horrible thing done to one poor guy 2000 years ago, but I couldn’t figure out what it had to do with me.  Even as a kid I could understand basic arithmetic.  Two thousand years was a long time.  I knew I was no saint, but there was no way I could have been responsible for that.

Saturday catechism however, was a whole different story.  Three hours long, the format was the same as regular school with 20 or 30 kids sitting at desks, the teacher in the front of the room talking, occasionally illustrating things on the chalkboard.  But unlike Sunday mass, catechism taught the mechanics of our religion.  It’s where the rubber hit the road.  We were taught to pray every day, to avoid even the occasion of sin.  Sins where things that made God either angry or disappointed.  You could get out from under them by going to confession.

Going to confession was like a “get out of jail free” card, which is why so many gangsters embrace Catholicism.  You can do just about anything but if you make a good confession you’re forgiven.  Of course the tough part is “making a good confession.”  Both gangsters and little kids fall short in this area.  If you keep murdering people and stealing stuff, then at the end of each week recounting your bad deeds in the presence of some poor unsuspecting priest in the hope of walking out with a clean slate, only to start work again in earnest on Monday morning, that’s not a very good confession.  To make a good confession you have to be genuinely sorry for what you did and sincerely resolve not to do it again.

Gangsters aren’t the only ones who have trouble with this.  I remember the day before I was supposed to make my first confession.  A big deal in the Holy Roman Catholic church, it happens at about the age of 7 and that day I was in an absolutely panic.  Not only did the thought of being alone in a dark chamber with a priest on the other side of a screen scare the crap out of me—they were God’s representatives on earth and by definition, terrifying—I couldn’t think of any sins.  I was a pretty good kid.  Yeah, I’d hit my brother a time or two, but only because he’d hit me first.  Okay, maybe I’d stolen a cookie here and there but only because if I didn’t, my siblings would swipe every damn one of them before I even knew they were in the house.  When you have multiple siblings it’s a dog eat dog world.

My sister who’d gone through the thing a year earlier told me, “Just make up stuff.  Say you stole twice, lied 3 times.  You’ll have to say ten Hail Marys and an Our Father and then you can get out of there.”  I was thrilled with this elegant solution, but I was also a fairly serious kid and realized that in following my sister’s advice, I would be lying to a priest thereby compounding whatever sins I was not fessing up to in the first place.  Doing this, I realized, would have severe consequences for my immortal soul.

But in the end I took the easy way out and did as advised.  My penance was 10 Hail Marys and an Our Father.

I was pretty sure I was damned from an early age; and if not damned, destined to spend a long fucking time in Purgatory.

Some religions have Purgatory, others do not.  The Holy Roman Catholic Church definitely does and in those days it was one of 4 places you could go after you died.  The first and most highly prized was of course, Heaven.  Heaven was all clouds and holy songs and whatever you wanted as long as it was consistent with pictures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Also, you got to sit at the right hand of God.  This sounded boring as hell to me— there’s nothing little kids hate more than having to sit still for more than 5 minutes-- but Heaven was certainly the best of the alternatives.  Another was Limbo, which is where unbaptized babies went.  I spent many an hour wondering if there was any way I could become un-baptized and get into Limbo.  Sure, it sounded boring but if they sent little babies there how bad could it be?  They weren’t going to put thumbscrews to little babies, were they?  Limbo was so ill-defined that the Church eventually cancelled it.  

Then came Purgatory.  Purgatory was exactly like Hell, only it didn’t last for all eternity.  Eventually you could work off your unconfessed sins and ascend into Heaven.  It was all a very complicated business because God’s time isn’t like Earth time.  When you’re dead you’re not on Earth anymore; and since there’s no planet going around the Sun regulating the days, months, and years, time spent in Purgatory could be weeks, months, or millions of years.  The good news was you could and would get out at some point.  And it was LOTS better than going to Hell.

Hell was the worst.  Supposedly run by The Devil, but clearly an extension of God’s agenda since He’s all knowing and all powerful, Hell was eternal suffering.  In Hell, you could be thrown into a pit of hot lava, burned to death, re-made whole all over again, the process repeating and this could go on forever.  This was one of the better scenarios.  Demons might peel your skin off strip by strip then throw you into a volcano of hot lava and acid, or you might be chopped up into tiny pieces, reassembled then chopped up all over again and roasted on spits; all of this after having had your eyes gouged out with a hot poker.  (In Hell, obviously, most things have to do with heat.)

These torments, as described by various part-time catechism teachers in astoundingly graphic detail, were all part of teaching little children to walk the straight and narrow.

I’m a big girl now, have been for many years and while I read scholarly books by enlightened Jesuits along with various modernists trying to explain that God is Love, or all-encompassing compassion, He is neither to me.  I’ve come to understand that within myself, the word “God” defines a terrifying and angry entity worse than any Halloween goblin could ever be, with a book full of arbitrary rules penned in almost indecipherable English that I was supposed to memorize and follow under threat of eternal damnation.

I guess this is why I embrace Tibetan Buddhism now.  Buddhism requires no God and of course having no God, it’s not really a religion but a way of life.  When asked about his beliefs once, the Dalai Lama said, “my religion is kindness.”

Kindness I can get with.

Goddamnit.



Wednesday, December 28, 2016

How to Build an Office Building

I've been walking my dogs by a construction site and have watched with great interest as they build a suite of offices.  Here's how it's done.

The early parts seem like the hardest.  They take for fucking ever and involve digging trenches, piling up dirt, digging up more trenches, filling in the ones you already dug because they're in the wrong place, and marking them with pink-beribboned stakes.  This goes on for many months and during this period there is hardly anybody there.  Dogs enjoy this part of the process because they like to run in the trenches.  The problem starts when you remember, "oh, no!  Valley fever, construction sites, 18 inches!"  and the next time your dog gets a cough (because he ate part of your library book and unbeknownst to you, has bits of cardboard stuck in the back of his throat), you rush him to the vet and spend 300 dollars on completely unnessary tests.

Then, it get interesting, comparatively.  A bunch of rough looking guys with big bellies and no asses, start measuring stuff and eventually nailing it together with 2 by 4's and 4 by 6's, and all those other pieces of wood construction guys like to holler about to prove they learned some of their numbers in elementary school.  This is the point where they bring in the portable chainlink fences, ducts, pipes, etc.  It gets a lot noisier at this juncture and there's one guy, but only one and he's just that kind of person, who gets a little miffed when one of your dogs lifts his leg on a piece of pipe.  This is not so much to do with the pipe, but the fact that said dog has breached the fenceline thereby pointing out its inadequacy.  After this they put down cement slabs, which takes a long time and at some point calls for a jackhammer.  The guy who made the mistake in the first place either gets fired or has to do the jackhammering, which appears every bit as unpleasant as its representation in Yosemite Sam cartoons.

It's only a matter of time before the skateboarders show up.  These young ruffians give you dirty looks when you go by until you remind them that you don't really give a fuck, and by the way there's a bigger hole in the fencing just 10 yards down.  After that they mostly ignore you, but occasionally smile as they stack every piece of wood and broken block they can get hold of to build ramps, banks, and obstacles. The skateboarders have a great time, especially because the construction workers, having taken several days off and imagining their concrete safe, sound and setting up nicely, have completely forgotten the big holes they neglected to fix, along with the fact that said holes can be squeezed through by any skateboarder worth his salt no matter how many "no trespassing" signs they put up.

Now it gets interesting.  After the construction workers repair the cement and sweep up the ball bearings they've strewn about to foil the skateboarders, the walls go up.  Any reasonable person might think that "walls" have something to do with wood or brick, and they do with the former, sort of.  The boards they nail up are made of particle board composed of random sized bits of wood glued together with something.  What the "something" is, is anybodies' guess, but I have a feeling it's probably some nasty shit that in the future will give a high percentage of the unfortunate future office-dwellers, cancer and a multitude of exotic undiagnosable neurological diseases, but by then this construction company will have long dissolved, its workers dropped off at various tent cities, and anyway you haven't got a case; the stuff was perfectly legal at the time.  And if the particle board doesn't get them the next part of the construction surely will.  Because now comes the styrofoam.  Big sheets of the shit, no denser that the stuff the last coffee grinder you bought was packed in.  This part promps the friendliest of the builders to remark, "it's a good thing they don't have tornados in this part of the country."  The styrofoam is covered in chicken wire and that's plastered.  So are some of the builders at the end of the day having pounded several six packs all the while assuring themselves that at least they've got it better than the old man, and don't have mesothelioma from continually breathing asbestos back in the day.

That's as far as they've gotten at this point.  My neighbor complains bitterly about the constant sound of pounded nails.  The skateboarders are long gone.  There's a plastic plaque outside one of the structures.  It says, "Future Office of Doctor Pratt."

Monday, December 12, 2016

Trump and China

I'm trying to figure out a strategy for psychological survival.  I'd like to go cold turkey on social media, but don't know if I can.  I am addicted.  Not to the phone, in fact I often shun my smart phone-- it's so damn intrusive-- but this laptop is pretty much my portal to the outside world.

Today, after going to the gym, where a bunch of old ladies were being taught by another old lady to have better posture, then going and doing the elliptical until I got tired or my right leg fell asleep, whichever came first, I came back home, ate lunch outside, then read a book for awhile.  Bruce Springsteen's biography.  I never realized he used to be a surfer.  I never knew they had surfers in New Jersey.

But as predictably as day follows night, when I come back inside, I not only look on Facebook but check the news headlines.  This Trump nightmare is still here.  Every day he does something that makes me feel less safe, and every day I have to battle falling into despair.  Since the election it hasn't been easy. I no longer wake up wondering what the day is going to bring.  I wake up wondering how many days we have left if this lunacy continues.  The latest lunacy is offering Carly Fiorina the job of Intelligence Director.  Carly Fiorina is an incompetent dumbass who bankrupted Hewlitt-Packard, but that's not the real problem.  They problem is she and Trump agreed that "China is our adversary." Last time I checked, China wasn't our adversary.  I hasn't been since Tricky Dick went over there and made nice nice in 1972.  Part of that making nice nice was agreeing that China is the boss, we go through them, and don't have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Donald Trump wants to build hotels in Taiwan, has been in negotiations for months, maybe years. Part of that process is schmoozing Taiwanese politicians.  However, as president he's not allowed to do that.  He has to go through Beijing.

China is not happy with Donald Trump and by extension, Americans.  There's some proverb about not awakening sleeping dragons.  Not that China has been sleeping, but the message is the same. Don't fuck with China.  Today, American newspapers are reporting that a week before Trump's call with the president of Taiwan, China flew a nuclear-bomber outside its borders. According to the pentagon, this act was designed specifically to warn Trump off.  He didn't notice it, but then it was probably in one of 5 out of 6 weekly intelligence briefings he missed.

Now I know, I know, all my laid back hippie friends chastise me for my information intake; and I too, understand that if I just unplugged and went about my business in the real world, feet on the earth, face in the sunshine, that I'd probably be happier.  But as I get older, I find this more difficult to do. When I was in my twenties, full of plans, not to mention piss and vinegar, Washington D.C., the federal government, world relations, they all seemed very far away and quite frankly, nothing to do with me.  But with observations over time I've come to understand exactly how profoundly and severly decisions made by ideological, or just plain stupid old white men, affect me, the people I love, and even the dopes walking around that I don't.

So with China raising the hair on its back, saying in its official paper just this morning that Trump is as ignorant as a child (he is.), I just don't feel as care free with my feet on the earth or my face in the sun, as I did just a month or two ago.  

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Some Things Change. Most Don't.

So this morning I'm doing what I do, checking the news headlines and drinking coffee.  The first part of this ritual is probably ver bad for my health.  The Guardian, which I like a lot, is sporting an ad for something called "The Barefoot Writer."  With extreme trepidation, I click on the link.

I sit through an audio pitch from a woman sitting on a beach.  She used to have 120k worth of debt and an office job that was so bad she didn't have time to stop and have children. Now, since finding The Barefoot Writer she gets fancy pedicures and goes on vacation all the time.

Listening to this, I am instantly thrust back through the years to "The Amway Horror."

Amway was one of the original and biggest pyramid schemes of all time.  I discovered it while working a job in the early 80's.  I had two bosses, a good one and a creepy one.  The good one was always touting particular soap products, but not in an overly heavy way.  Just whenever some soap-requiring problem happened, whether it was motor oil or chocolate on somebodies clothing, he'd grab some stuff, pronounce its name several times and after touting its wonderful properties, slop it on the stain.  Even when it didn't work, which seemed like most of the time, he'd praise its stainpower removing prowess.  Being an underling, I always held back from saying things like "but the stain's still there!"  Instead agreeing enthusiastically and changing the subject.

I was only 19 or 20 and really looking for a promotion.  I'd been working there a couple of years and even though I was doing my best to show what a go-getter I was, working overtime, pitching in on projects I wasn't responsible for just to show the old team spirit, bla bla bla, I got passed over again and again. Always, oddly enough, by whatever female my other, creepy boss, happened to be sleeping with.  This was a long time ago and nobody every talked about that sort of thing back then.

But I digress, as I am wont to do these days.  Younger, cockier writers point their fingers and make fun of people like me.  They never digress.  But do you know why?  They don't have anyplace to digress to.  When you're older, every boulevard leads to endless streets crisscrossed by multiple avenues and alleys with twists and turns, filth and cast-offs, empty wine bottles and the occasional dead body.  Do any of you whippersnappers know how much monumental effort it takes under such circumstances, not to digress?  The shut up.

Okay, back to it.  One day I'm sitting in a kennel.  I've just finished feeding a bunch of elephant seal pups, which is a really hard job because elephant seals are as dumb as mud and if you don't stick a fish in their mouths at the right time they'll bite you.  I get up to leave and as I'm closing the gate behind me, my creepy boss comes along and says, "Catherine, there's something I want to talk to you about."  My heart fills with joy and so much anticipation I can hardly stand it.  Finally, I'm going to get that promotion.  I'll be in the union, full health benefits, making 11 dollars an hour (good money back then).  I might even be able to buy a new car, one that has a reverse gear (my 1968 Saab did not).  Life will be beautiful and all my problems will be solved!  "I know your pay isn't much and it's probably hard sometimes..." Oh boy, oh boy here it comes.  When do I start?  Do I get new shirts, wellington boots?  My picture on the union card?

 "My girlfriend and I have gotten involved with something that is really amazing and we are raking in the cash.  This product is so good it practically sells itself.  Have you ever heard of Amway?

I felt like 9 bowling pins all knocked over at the same time.

Not that The Barefoot Writer works exactly like Amway.  Amway was the classic pyramid scheme where the people at the top make money from getting others to sell the shit.  The Barefoot Writer sucks the last bit of marrow out of desperate writers' bones by selling them interminable classes so that when they finally and ultimately fail, which statistically 99% of them do, it must be their fault for not utilizing the information sold to them via podcasts and seminars, correctly.

Well, it's time to get going.  This is only a blog so I don't have to come up with any unifying or profound conclusion.  I just have to get out of my jammies, probably call my mother, then go to the pool and swim off the ennui just caused by reminding myself of that story.  I was real skinny back then, and my faded brown work pants covered with herring scales.  The sun by the seaside is gentle, the air cool.  Funny the things you remember.



Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Why I Mostly Like Facebook



It's very trendy, especially amongst the youngsters, to desdain Facebook.  I get it.  Just like anything else it's bad if you overindulge in it.  Back in the day, we got addicted to normal things like cocaine, heroin, PCP, alcohol and sex.  Nowadays, kids get addicted to electronic devices and get so strung out they can't stop looking at them even if it means forsaking important things, like learning math or how to read.  Sometimes, they can't put social media down when their very lives depend on it.  The other day I made a perfectly legal and safe left turn and some I-phone entranced chicky stepped right off the curb against the light.  I nearly killed her.

Some people might argue that, well, "it's better than being addicted to heroin."  Is it really?  If that girl had been on herion I don't think she would have stepped off the curb in front of anyone's car, let alone mine.  I don't think she would have stepped anywhere except perhaps in the pool of her own vomit when she finally came off the nod.

The point is-- God, it's so unprofessional and tacky when a writer has to say "the point is," having been so caught up in her own clever narrative she forgot what she was talking about-- that just because overuse of social media is most certainly soul-destroying and as destructive as any other addiction, casual use fills some needs that don't otherwise get filled these days.

Gone are tight communities in which we're nurtured by regular and habitual social contacts.  In a way, this is good-- no one gossiping about the number of empty wine bottles in your garbage can every week, except in my case in which it can hardly be missed-- or about how shabby and greying the underpants hanging on your clothesline are.  But in another way it is very bad.  Humans, like all primates are extremely social creatures whether they like to admit it or not, and we need affirmation that we're not all alone.

I don't imaging this affirmation is hard to come by if you're Jane or Joe Regular.  If your sense of wonder is limited to where you last left your cigarettes, what time Fox News comes on TV, or whose going to play in the Superbowl, There are probably millions of like-mindeds you can hob nob with each and every day, feeling entirely socially and spiritually fulfilled.  But if you're not this kind of person, it's easy to feel a little marginalized in this world.

With Facebook, I occasionally have conversations with people who think in ways similar to mine.  Sometimes, rarely, but with a few individuals, I can have intelligent conversations. Yeah, yeah, the "echo chamber" thing is there.  But I'm 59 years old now and while there was a time in my twenties, maybe even into my thirties that I genuinely entertained conversations with people who think trickle down economics is a good idea, that Ayn Rand was a good writer, or that if I don't accept Jesus as my own personal saviour then I'm going to burn in Hell forever, I don't anymore.  Most of my friends are kind, loving, somewhat thoughtful people with values if not exactly like mine, similar.  I've arranged my cyber world in the same way I've arranged my regular world, only with fewer dogs.  The friends I have on Facebook are mostly like the friends I have or would in real life.  It's just that time and distance precludes us from seeing each other as often as we'd like to.

Some people have zillions of Facebook friends.  But if you let that many people into your world for the sake of accruing numbers, then ultimately you're faced with two choices.  You either never say anything of substance or consequence, in which case you're down to posting pictures of your meals and kittens,or you wind up with a bunch of bothersome weirdos you'll eventually have to "unfriend." The whole "I hate Facebook" thing, while legitimately earned-- people in cyberspace can become way more creepy than they can in real life-- comes from relying on it too much.

And then stepping in a pool of your own vomit when you finally get off the couch.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Frankenstein's Monster or How we Monetized Ourselves into the Shitcan

A few years ago I went back to college to get my MA.  One of the classes I had to take was called "Monetization and the New Media." One of the first questions one of the teachers asked was, "Who wants to start their own business?"  Three out of 17 students raised their hands.  These were liberal arts majors trying to figure out how to get paid for the arts they already knew, or budding journalists looking for a paycheck.  Everybody knew that traditional journalism was, if not totally dead, coughing up blood like mad. One day we took a field trip to the L.A. Times newsroom and it was like a mausoleum.  Bats flying out of it, cobwebs everywhere.  No, seriously, there was nobody in there, just a bunch of deserted desks, devoid of personal items, no reporters, no collegial banter between hotshots chasing down big stories.  There were a couple of computer screens lit up to monitor stuff going on in cyberspace but that was it.

In the Monetization class the teacher wanted us all to become entrepreneurs, to learn to market our own stuff.  Smart lad that he was, he was going gangbusters.  One of his favorite approaches was getting off the freeway at accident sites then walking back up the offramp in hope of the big scoop. Mostly he got yelled at for crossing the police lines, but I guess once in a while he sold some video.

But that was years ago, like 2014, and things have changed a lot since then.  Liberal Arts students take the monetization shit to heart now and as the recent presidential election has shown us, they ain't fucking around.  Some bright monetizer finally figured out that the echo chambers of the Internet were just dying to be filled.

Until recently, like most people probably, I didn't realize what echo chambers sites like Facebook actually are.  People interact with like-minded people, reading and commenting on stuff they like and ignoring stuff they don't.  It's easy.  You just stop following someone who annoys your or if they really make you mad you can bring out the big guns and "unfriend" them.  I hardly ever unfriend anyone because I don't want to hurt feelings, but this election cycle I finally had to offload a guy. I knew him a million years ago and we became FB friends a few years back.  He kept posting things about how Hillary should be in jail, investigated by a grand jury, or tried and shot at dawn.  Finally I couldn't take it anymore.  Oh, I made perfunctory attempts, like asking why all this horrible shit should happen to Madam Secretary  But he told me I was naive, that he thought I was smarter than that, bla, bla, bla.  Unfriend.  Bam!

I'm fairly careful about the news I take in.  I realized long ago that  you have to triangulate the truth, which means going to different outlets and reading different takes on events.  I go to the Guardian, the New York Times, The Huffington Post, which okay, is highly skewed but anyway it's not a real paper, just a news aggragator and I like the baby animal videos.  I like The Washington Post. Sometimes I read The Daily Beast and even check out Buzzfeed.  There are journalists I respect and some not so much, but if somebody's making an honest effort to get at the truth I'll read what they have to say.

But what that plucky monetizing, no-paycheck-anywhere-on-the-horizon journalism graduate student figured out was that what all those crapped out, haggard, grey-haired, overweight, alcoholic journalism professors had told them on the QT was Wrong!  There was still plenty of money to be made in journalism.  All you have to do is make a bunch of shit up.

On NPR I heard about a guy just the other day.  I was stuck in a traffic jam going either into or out of L.A., I can't remember which.  This guy lives in Santa Monica, makes 30K a week and has 24 writers working for him.  What those writers produce is 100% bullshit, which is funneled onto the Facebook pages of people inclined to believe pretty much anything that reinforces the beliefs they already have.  Of course I didn't know what my ex-Facebook friend was talking about when he said Hillary should be in prison.  How was I to know she murdered an FBI agent, chopped up his body, then destroyed it with acid in a bathtub.   It wasn't in any of the newsfeeds I read.  But it was in "The Real Story" and "Atrocitities of Democrats Run Amok" and "Why the Left Wants to Cut up Your Babies." And it was there because it was manufactured for money.

It makes sense, in a uniquely American way.  We don't make much actual stuff in this country, I mean besides hamburgers and cheezy crust pizzas and giant sized lattes with 4500 calories each.  So this latest generation of entrepreneurs figured out that they could make a lot of money simply by making up the news.

It's really dangerous to teach young people things.  They're likely to go out and not just do them, but improve on the original idea.

Or how about Marco Chacon?  I read about him this morning in The Daily Beast.  At first he comes off all ironic-like, one of these to-clever-by-halfs millennial wankers who want to see how many undereducated rubes they can fool.  So he'd write fake news stories, create fake hash tags like #NeverEverHillary, the stuff would get passed around the echo chambers of social media, and all the sudden the guy's a success, probably for the first time since he first pooed in his little yellow potty chair.  Not only did people believe his fake news stories, they passed them around and his statistics started going through the roof.  He wrote stories about The Deep State, and Hillary Clinton not just fainting, but being terminally ill.  Like-minded Facebook users passed  this garbage around and believed it to to be true.

And voila.  We got Donald Trump for president.

I'm kind of torn in my feelings about this brave new world.  On the one hand, these guys just created products, sold 'em, and made loads of dough.  It's capitalism at it's best, right?  They correctly understood cyberspaces that needed filling and transformed things really.  They innovated, thought "outside the box."  We live in a "post fact" world now, or so I'm told.  For many people, this is convenient.  Facts are bothersome, hard to remember and sometimes challenge long held beliefs.   But they do have a tendency to raise their ugly heads bye the bye.  May the Lord have mercy on us all.