This Morning

This morning I am thinking about being positive.

I’ve been as critical as I can  be, the last few posts; I think I should try to come up with some positive solutions to the problems I’ve been describing. After all, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

Okay, actually, that’s the first thing. No more either/or thinking. No more win or lose, no more all or nothing. (Okay, maybe a little bit of all or nothing. I don’t want to be definitively black and white about this.) It is entirely possible to be both part of the solution AND part of the problem; I  think most of us are like that at least some of the time. It says something positive about you if you have enough self-awareness to recognize that you are part of the problem, and if it is a serious enough, complex enough, intransigent enough problem, then the effort, the incremental steps towards being part of the solution, are good enough. Working is enough. Trying is enough. There are also those who are only part of the solution, not part of the problem, and they will be the ones moving things forward; if those of us who are still stuck with one foot in the muck can just ooze out of their way, that will be enough.

Example? Sure. I do a lot of things right as a teacher. I focus on the actual material and the skills that students can gain from it. I am open and willing to take student input on what we will do in class, how long we will work on it, and so on, so I give them agency in their own education and also some ability to make their education more useful and appropriate. I care about them, but I do not mother them. I know and love my subject, and I model that love and that knowledge for them, as often as I can. So with the problem of, say, adults who don’t treat teenagers with respect but expect both respect and unending effort (and humility) from teenagers, I’m not part of the problem, only the solution. With the problem of education being detached from utility and from interest — the sort of education that stops at “The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell” — I am part of the solution and not part of the problem.

But when it comes to argument, I still tend to want to win, and to show myself as smarter and more right than my opponent, and I am all too willing to see my students as my opponents. I overwhelm them and cow them, and make them feel like they’ve been defeated, rather than like they’ve been taught. I do this in all of my arguments. I am aware of it; I am trying to fix it. I am trying to stop myself from taking up arguments in class; two years ago I inserted myself into a class assignment on writing argumentative essays, and I wrote essays in response to my students’ arguments; I don’t do that any more. So I’m learning. But it’s difficult, because I run a discussion-based class, and I want my students to offer attempts and theories, but I also want to challenge them to go further and explain better what their point is. Too often that challenging discussion can slip right into an argument.

So I’m working on it. Still not there yet. If someone else could come in and fix that for me, it would be great, thanks.

But that’s not the positive solution I wanted to offer today. (It’s part of it.) The issue I wanted to talk about today is the one from yesterday, the way that teenaged boys suck. I feel like I’ve got some connection to this problem, though not as much as someone who is actually raising a boy, so I can at least offer some suggestions.

The first one is the most obvious: toxic masculinity has to end. Not the competitive indoctrination, which is a separate issue; but the idea that men must be manly, must be strong and especially silent, must enjoy and appreciate only manly things: all that has to stop. The training in violence that comes with this also has to stop, for more reasons than just for the sake of the boys who our society makes into brutes. So if we can continue to work on the problems of bullying and emotional isolation and gender specific activities and traits and strengths, that would help enormously; I think those things would help all of us be less douchey, not just teenaged boys.

But yes: the thing that I believe will make the most difference with teenaged boys is the constant shouting in their faces that they must be competitive, and they must always strive to win. Sports is the first and most obvious issue here. Sports, especially little league sports, have to be changed entirely and immediately. We need to stop keeping score. We need to stop talking about winning and losing, and about doing whatever it takes to be the one on top.

That probably has to start with how adults consume sports. I was listening to NPR yesterday, and the news host was  talking about the Tampa Bay Lightning, a hockey team who just got eliminated from the playoffs in the first round by a team they were supposed to beat. And though part of me questions whether that is even news outside of Tampa Bay (or Columbus, the team that beat them), the larger issue was the tone of the story: the host actually asked a Tampa sports reporter if the people of Tampa felt angry and betrayed by the loss, in addition to being shocked and disappointed. And the Tampa reporter said: Yes.

Look: if your year, or even your day, is ruined by a game lost by a team that happens to share a zip code with you, you have bad priorities. I will die on this hill.

I am fully aware of the arguments for team spirit, how it brings people together and gives them something to cheer for and to bond over; but there is too much evidence that losing hurts more than winning, and that our time and money would be better spent on almost any other activity rather than watching professional sports (Just look at how “winning” a professional franchise affects a city) to sustain that argument. We’d be better off treating sports as something fun to watch sometimes, and more fun to play, if we’re not too hardcore about winning. That’s how sports should be treated with young boys.

That’s how everything should be treated with young boys. And with grown men. There are serious things that need to be taken seriously: the problems with the world, and the causes of suffering. That’s where we should be aggressive, and take no prisoners and never retreat and never surrender: getting clean water into Flint, Michigan. Ending the spread of AIDS. Peace in the Middle East. You want to teach your kids to fight? Teach them to fight those things. Fight to make this world a better place.

Otherwise, maybe we should teach our kids to just have fun. And we should mean it.

(To be continued.)

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This Morning

This morning, I am thinking about teenaged boys. I am thinking about why teenaged boys suck.

Why do I say they suck? Because teenaged boys are, almost without exception, annoying, obnoxious, lazy, cruel, abusive, self-centered, vicious, snide, concupiscent fools (Sorry, but I love that word and never get to use it;  means “horny.”) who would be better off locked in a box for about ten years and only let out when they stop being bastards.

Who am I to say these terrible things  about teenaged boys? Easy. I was one. And I was as much a bastard as any of them, and worse than most, because in addition to being a savage amoral wastrel, I was smart, and so my cruelty was particularly biting, and my foolishness was particularly poignant, because I could have been so much better than I was.

Fortunately, I survived it; too many teenaged boys don’t, because they team up with other spear-wielding thugs to kill the pig,  and end up being the pig. Once I got out of being a teenager, and realized just how terrible I had been for all that time, I mellowed: I got better. Most of us do. But I don’t think that all of us gain much from our experience other than regret; I’d like to use my knowledge of teenaged boys — knowledge that has since been reinforced by observation in my years working with teenaged boys — to try to make the situation better. See, I don’t think teenaged boys have to be this way. I think they are put into a position where being this way seems the best option, if not the only one. Left to their own devices, teenaged boys would still be obnoxious — all teenagers are — but not a tenth as bad as they are now.

First let me deal with that last dig at all teenagers. No, actually, first let me say that I genuinely like most of my students. There are a few who are really pretty rotten, but even those grow out of it in time. Most of them I get along with quite well. But that’s because I am a teacher, and I can get them in trouble; they are on their best behavior with me. But then I watch them interact with each other, and I remember how nasty we all are at that age. It’s that contrast, between how they treat me respectfully and kindly, and how they treat each other, with the basest and most flippant brutality, that makes me want to try to make them better, all the time, particularly to each other. Okay? This blog, regardless of the apparent bitter hyperbole (Bitter, it is; hyperbolic, it ain’t. If you think it is, watch a group of teenaged boys going to lunch together. Watch them pick out the weakest of the pack, and pick on him, relentlessly, mercilessly. Even if — especially if– all of them are friends. Friends make the best victims. I can attest to that.) is not born out of hate. I don’t hate teenaged boys, and I don’t hate my students. I know how much better they could be, and I am maddened and saddened that they aren’t like that.

Next thing: why do I say that all teenagers are obnoxious? Two reasons: one, because the teenaged years are hell internally, with the ravages of adolescence and the psychic pummeling of hormones. Everything sucks when you’re a teenager, and so you suck, too, because when in Rome… The second reason why all teenagers suck is because they are all in this impossible position where we start expecting them to act like adults, but we give them literally none of the pleasures and privileges that make adulting worth the effort it takes. Seriously: what makes it worthwhile for me to act like a grownup? I get respect; I get independence; I get freedom. I can have my own family, my own job, my own property. I can be in charge of my own life. And teenagers get none of that. The closest they come is being able to choose romantic partners — but often those choices get  refused by parents, or mocked by peers, or rejected by the would-be romantic partners themselves — and cars. Teenagers get cars. In exchange for having to drive everywhere their parents don’t want to, which at this point is everywhere. (Don’t even talk to me about how they don’t have to work and pay bills: many of them do work, and that work is in addition to their actual full-time job, which is being a student, and as one of the people who make that job hard because I make them do work, believe me when I say BEING A HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT IS NOT EASIER THAN HAVING A JOB.) And while we put all the responsibility we can onto teenagers, we don’t ever talk about that weight, that stress they have to carry; instead we talk about how lucky they are that they don’t have to deal with all the terrible things that adults  deal with. How is that supposed to make teenagers feel? They’re already suffering, and we run them this, “Just wait until you’re older, when things will REALLY suck!” Wow, thanks, Dad, now I’m motivated to try even harder and suffer more now. Because then I’ll get to keep on suffering my way through the rest of my life. Super!

But this isn’t about all teenagers; this is about the boys and the special ways that they suck. And the special reason for the extra suckitude of male adolescent humans is this: it’s competition. That’s right: I’m still on the same topic, just homing in on one particular aspect now. The rise of toxic masculinity. Also known as: Boys Will Be Boys.

We very carefully and meticulously teach all boys that competition is the only way they are allowed to find happiness. Sports, video games, playing Army with their friends; it doesn’t matter what era, what environment a boy grows up in: he is taught to fight, and to revel in victory. Even me, as non-competitive and anti-sports as I was, I was taught to take great pride in the fact that I was smarter than most other people. I was pulled out of class for advanced reading and advanced math; I remember in first grade I wasn’t even pulled out, I was just given access to the more interesting books to read, sitting in the classroom with all of my peers who were struggling with the Dick and Jane style readers while I got to read on my own; and my math workbook had some kind of banner on it reading “ADVANCED” in some large font that could be read all the way across the room, by the kids in the remedial section of the class. Spelling bees, gold stars, student of the month, honor roll; all of these things separate us into winners and losers as readily as do sports. And where girls are taught, at least some of the time, to play cooperatively, using their imagination,  playing dress-up and baking cookies for each other, boys are sent outside to wrestle and break stuff, especially each other.

(*Note: I recognize I’m being grossly stereotypical in this depiction of children’s upbringing, and of course there are exceptions; I had massive quantities of stuffed animals and was encouraged to use my imagination. Lots of girls play sports and are as competitive as any boy could ever be. I’m speaking in generalities. Bear with me.)

Breaking stuff, then, is really all we know how to do. So we get very good at it. We find each other’s vulnerabilities, and we stab at them, again and again. And the rest of society? They laugh, or at most, they say, “Take it outside,” with a strong intimation of “Come back with your shield or on it.” I was taught that story, that ethic, when I was a child. What the hell was I supposed to do with Spartan battle training when I was in elementary school? How was I supposed to think about it? How was I supposed to deal with that moral fable about the Spartan boy stealing food, keeping an animal concealed under his tunic while he is being interrogated by the farmer he is stealing from, until the boy drops dead because the animal has disemboweled him under his tunic, and the Spartan boy showed no sign of the pain. What the hell do I do with that? Do I admire it? Do I try to emulate  it? I do: because my friends will, and so will my enemies, and if I say, “Jesus Christ, that’s insane, that kid should have given up and admitted the thing was under his shirt,” my only reward for that honesty would be a contemptuous sniff and the old standby insult, “Pussy.”  Or something along those lines. I was taught that Spartan story in elementary school, while we were learning about the ancient Greeks. I did not learn how they admired close male bonds, both Platonic and romantic: I learned how Achilles savaged Hector, not that he did it as revenge, because Achilles was maddened with grief over the loss of his lover and companion Patroclus at Hector’s hands. No no, I can’t hear about that love; that’s gay, bro. Tell me more about how Achilles dragged Hector’s body around Troy through the dust of the battlefield. That’s manly as fuck. That’s the guy I want to be.

Did you know that in the Odyssey, Odysseus meets Achilles in Hades? And Achilles says that he regrets his famous choice, to die young and be remembered gloriously? The greatest of all Greek warrior-heroes, and he wishes he had lived a quiet life as a farmer, surrounded by loved ones.

Yeah, they didn’t teach you that story, did they? Or if they did, it wasn’t when you were young and impressionable? Or they didn’t emphasize that story, focusing instead on the slaughter of the Trojans by the Greeks in the wooden horse? Or the slaughter of the suitors when Odysseus finally returns home after twenty years away –and his first act is not to embrace his son or his wife, but rather to kill and kill and kill?

That’s what we teach boys. We teach them to fight and to win. No wonder that they act like everyone is their enemy, and they have to hurt them all, as much as possible: that’s what we want them to do. Teenaged boys suck because we do, and we pass that torch straight into their eager hands. Burning end first.

This Morning

This morning I am thinking about competition’s price.

Competition pushes us forward, motivates us to work harder and to seek that competitive edge, that special something that separates the winners from the losers. The will to win is what makes Olympic athletes, and Fortune 500 CEOs, and America — particularly Donald Trump’s America. And as long as you are one of the people born with the opportunity to be a winner — someone with the physical gifts that an athlete needs, or with the background and connections to network your way to the top of a major corporation, or you happened to control half a continent with an embarrassment of natural riches, which was conveniently emptied of 95% of its population by disease just before you arrived to take over, well! Then competition can help you strive to achieve all of your potential, can create a situation where you can be dominant and reward you for that dominance. Competition can make you great.

But there’s a price. There’s always a price. Capitalism should have taught us that: there is no such thing as a free lunch. Somebody always has to pay. We think that the price we pay for winning is the hard work we put in to be the best, but that’s not it: that’s the labor that produces the end result, but it isn’t the cost of the raw materials, and it isn’t the waste that is left behind. Before I lose you with this oh-so-clever industrial metaphor (Which, I confess, is essayed with only the dimmest understanding of economics and industry, at least half garnered from civilization-simulator video games) let me make my point: the cost of competition is twofold. It consumes the soul of the winner, and the life of the loser.

Competition requires an environment where competition can thrive. That means it needs a contest, an opportunity for too many people to struggle for too few resources (Or, in the modern sportsing era where athletes “earn” the GDP of a small nation every year, it is too many people struggling for too many resources which are all consumed by one enormous glutton rather than being distributed to all in need) and for the possession of those resources to be claimed by the winner of the contest. This quite obviously hearkens back to natural selection, the struggle for survival, which also produces winners and losers — or, more appropriately, those who live and those who die. Competition takes that same instinct and channels it into a situation that is not life or death, with essentially the same result: all else being equal, those with greater determination win — the early bird gets the worm — but inevitably, those with the greatest adaptive advantages are selected. You can see it in sports, where athletes are bigger and stronger and faster than ever before.

But even more than that, for our strongest to survive in competitions, we have to train them, essentially from birth, to compete. Tiger Woods is a perfect example of this: he was raised, quite literally, to win. And so he won, and now he is back to winning, and I suppose that gives his life meaning and makes all his effort worthwhile. But look at the cost: look at the rest of his life. The man has destroyed his own family life; he has ravaged his standing and reputation in society in every way other than what standing he gets from the fact that he can hit tiny white rocks really, really far with a metal stick; he has damaged his body nearly to the point of crippling himself; he has struggled with substance abuse.

That’s what it looks like when you’re the best.

I mean, it makes sense. If you are raised and bred to compete, then you would be likely to compete in everything. Having just one wife wouldn’t be enough: you have to have the best wife, the hottest wife; and then you need more wives. Getting high isn’t enough, you have to be the highest in the history of highness: you have to beat out such luminaries as Snoop Dogg and Bob Marley, and when you try to hang with those guys, it’s gonna cost you. And when you aren’t gifted with a freakishly impossible advantage (That would be Shaquille O’Neal, who didn’t have to work hard to be successful, simply because nobody else in the basketball world was that big. Andre the Giant, as well.), then the cost of beating out other people with the same gifts you have is — well, whatever it takes. Sacrificing every other part of your life so you can get in more training is only the first step: after that comes cheating, and doping, and Lance Armstrong, who was gifted with natural ability (His lungs are preternaturally efficient, allowing him to move more oxygen and therefore put out greater physical effort for longer — like, say, when you’re riding a bike uphill) and a drive to win, and who still used performance enhancing drugs. And also ruined his otherwise successful life thereby. Of course, he wouldn’t have had that successful life if he hadn’t won, but it’s hardly his fault that our culture rewards only the first person across the finish line; I don’t doubt that Armstrong could have been top ten in every Tour he won, even without the walrus testosterone or whatever the hell he stuck in his veins.

And that’s the final cost. Competition may make winners: but it also therefore makes losers. And everything that winners gain, losers — well, lose. And the very nature of competition requires that loss to hurt, because otherwise the losers won’t strive to become winners. So at best, with only two people competing, competition creates as much overall suffering as it does overall reward. But of course there’s never only two competitors: which means that inevitably, in all cases, competition makes more suffering than reward. Competition hurts us. Always. Even, I would argue, those who do win, because at some point, no matter who you are, you stop winning. Athletes retire, companies get eclipsed by new up-and-comers or by simple shifts in the economy or the culture, and nations — no matter how great — fade and fall. Competition makes losers of all of us. That’s the price.

 

This Morning

This morning I’m thinking, Well! That’s quite a line you’re following, there, Dusty! First you rail against science, and then you complain about the foundation of American exceptionalism, capitalism and the profit motive? Why don’t you go for the trifecta?

This morning, I say to my sardonic self (Who uses sarcasm to conceal the quiver in his lip): all righty then.

Capitalism and the profit motive have helped make this country the absolute powerhouse that it is militarily, culturally, and especially economically. The drive to succeed, to win, to gain the maximum benefit for one’s self from one’s labor, have been a powerful motivator for as long as this country has told us we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps; though profit and competition haven’t made that particular impossible feat possible, they have allowed us to turn a thousand other impossible things into realities: they helped us get to the moon (because we had to beat the Commies there) and they helped us invent the first atomic bomb (because we had to beat the Nazis) and they helped us lead the way in the information revolution of the 1980’s (because Apple had to beat Microsoft, and Microsoft had to beat Apple). Our continuous growth, our continuous progress, have been driven largely by exactly this: by money, by profit, by competition for limited resources, whether those resources are time or money or fame or love or just food.

I can’t argue with that. I hate competition, hate the very idea of fighting other people in order to gain greater profit; but I can’t deny the results. America is an exceptional place, and our incredible speed forward has been increased again, and again, and again, by this essential underlying system: the one in front, the one on top, gets what he wants, and other people have to make do with what’s left over, with what’s left behind. Our system of government, our great and wonderful freedoms —  and they are great, and they are wonderful — are predicated on that idea, with this addition: anyone, in theory, can be the one on top, the one who gets all the stuff first. In practice it can’t be anyone, and it’s almost  always been the same type of people — mostly white Christian men — but in theory, it could be anyone, and our ability to pretend that that is true, and our desire to push for greater rights for other people mainly because we think those opportunities will reflect some benefit back on us, are what has allowed us as a society to spread those freedoms to more people, in more situations.

Just as long as we can pretend the people gaining the freedoms are like us. When they’re not like us, when they live on the other side of the world and speak a different language and live a different way, well. Then it’s probably all right if they have less freedom. Particularly if we profit thereby, with, say, cheap consumer goods.

Am I being too cynical? Look: the slaves were freed because it served the purpose of the white men who freed them. Woodrow Wilson changed his stance on women’s suffrage from opposition to support because he needed women to continue supporting the American effort in World War I. At least part of Lyndon Johnson’s intention in signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was to ensure the Democratic party would not fracture along racial lines — and that all of them would support his bid for election in November. And so on, so on. I do agree with Dr. Martin Luther King that those in power do not give up their power voluntarily, only when there is sufficient pressure on them to do so; I know that some of the progress we have made towards greater freedom has been because of grass roots movements and political and social pressure. The will of the people does sometimes prevail. Maybe even often.

But far more often, money talks, and people bend and crawl. And that’s capitalism.

Technology, meanwhile, has often been touted as a means of making life easier for the common man; but all too often, it has in fact made life harder. We have more technology, and we work longer hours and suffer more stress. We have longer life spans, now, that much is certainly true; but more of our lives is spent in misery, and often in ill health. We’ve gotten more quantity of life, but not more quality. And even more true is this: when progress has been made, it pushes us forward  —  off of another cliff. The Green Revolution of the mid-20th century, led by Norman Borlaug, saved at least a billion people from starving to death in Asia. A magnificent success, and a great leap forward.

How many billions are going to die now because of climate change? How much of that climate change was driven by the increase in human population made possible by the Green Revolution?

I don’t mean to say it was a bad thing. Lives were saved, and I am in favor of humans, and of living humans over dead humans. The same thing is true of our longer life spans: what I said about quantity but not quality is true, but also, the rise of lingering and terrible diseases that afflict us as we age has come at least partly because we are now still alive to age. We die of cancer now because we don’t die of sepsis like we used to. We have Alzheimer’s now because we’re not all dead at 65-70 from heart disease. Do you realize how many of the world’s greatest authors, along with millions of others, literally drank themselves to death before they were 50? Do you realize how much of that is attributable to a lack of understanding of and treatment for alcoholism? How much was, quite simply, due to the inability of medical science to perform a liver transplant? Medical advancements just mean we die in different ways, and after longer lives — and as a person who would like to live a good, long time before he dies, I see that as entirely positive.

But the problem is, the problem with all of this is, that we think of our temporary fixes, our incremental advances  — our progress– as a solution to the problem. But it never is. All we’ve been doing since the Industrial Revolution if not before, is treating the symptoms and not the real underlying problem. We are better at waging war: but we haven’t figured out how to stop fighting. We live longer lives: but not better ones. We make more profits: but we don’t get greater rewards. We live in a magnificent country: but it survives by exploiting and destroying other countries, other people, and it always has.

Progress is not our salvation. Progress is our drug. We’re not making real progress in our real problems — not much, and not quickly, and too often the real progress is swallowed up by backsliding; we have actually gotten more empathetic and more aware, and the backlash from that is the alt-right and Donald Trump. Which is making us less empathetic and less aware, as we draw deeper into our shells to avoid looking at the shit that is piling up outside. And I am entirely guilty of this, don’t think I’m not: I have stopped listening to or reading the news because I feel powerless to do anything about it. I’m not: I have as much power as any person, and more than most because I am a white Christian man, to help make the world a better place, and instead, I’ve done — well, nothing useful. I’ve probably made some progress. But I haven’t solved anything.

 

I don’t think I’ve been clear enough in this blog. I’ve been having trouble lately making my point clear; and this one is a tough one to get across. Let me boil it down and then I will see if I can explain it at greater length in future posts.

What we call progress, in technology, in the growth of our economy, in the expansion of this nation’s military and political power, are rarely if ever actual progress towards a useful goal, a valuable purpose. Almost always the goal is — motion. Like football: you try to get the first down, you try to move the chains. You hunker down and focus on the immediate task, convincing yourself that that one task, that one all-consuming goal, is a good thing. And in the immediate sense, in a single, narrow context, it is good: football players are successful when they get first downs. Soldiers are successful when they carry out assigned missions. Workers are successful when they bring home a paycheck. Scientists are successful when they complete an experiment as it was intended  — say, by injecting human brain DNA into macaques. We see immediate success as progress, especially when it is followed by another success. We’ve taken another step along the path.

But we rarely, if ever, think about where the path is leading. And too often, the successes right now cause even greater problems down the line.

That doesn’t mean we should ignore the problems, nor that we should try not to solve them; winning World War II was the right thing to do, even if it did start the Cold War and the nuclear arms race and so on. Norman Borlaug absolutely should have saved billions from starving, and Alexander Fleming absolutely should have deciphered penicillin, and Dr. King absolutely should have fought for civil rights.

But we need to stop thinking that progress, movement forward, is the answer, is the solution, is the goal. Movement for the sake of movement will not ever get you to where you need to go, to where you should be. Only purposeful, intentional movement can do that. A plan. Understanding.

So maybe, instead of bulling ahead ever farther, ever faster, ever harder, we should– slow down. And think. Even if it means we don’t solve the problems we’re dealing with right now. Maybe it will help us find a real solution, instead of a solution right now that leads to another problem tomorrow.

This Night

This night I am thinking about why I forgot to write this morning.

It’s because we’re looking for a place to live. It’s complicated, because there are several factors to consider and more than one possible way this could all shake out; but regardless, we will be moving out of our current rental within a few months. And that means we’re looking for a new place to live.

I hate looking for a place to live.

I hate renting.

I know this is not new: plantation owners in the South used rents to create a new slave class, even after Emancipation, which we call sharecroppers; I have not doubt that many people are still stuck in that impossible cycle. Before that, the English landowners drained all of the wealth in Ireland through exorbitant rents; they also got the IRA, a centuries-long guerrilla war, and the very first eponymous boycott, named for Captain Charles Boycott, the land agent of an absentee English landlord.

Caricature of Capt. Boycott by Leslie Ward, published in Vanity Fair.

Plus, y’know, every colony that’s ever been taxed, and every serf who has fed his lord instead of himself, and, well, pretty much all of us who aren’t at the top of the capitalist feudal food chain, have dealt with this same issue.

Don’t you think it’s time we just cut the crap?

Look: I don’t own a house. It’s not by choice, it’s because I’m a public school teacher in the United States — and there’s another issue that I wish we would just figure out; the idea that the state where I currently live had been 49th in paying teachers, and then the teachers themselves walked out in order to bring attention to the issue, and now we’re like 47th, is just — it’s exhausting. Because I don’t own a house, I need to borrow someone else’s. I get that. I am perfectly willing to pay for the privilege of living in someone else’s house.

I am not willing, however, to make someone else rich by profiting off of my willingness to pay for the privilege of living in their house.

After all, I am asking nothing from my landlord but — well, land. I am a grown person: I am perfectly capable of carrying out minor repairs and performing general upkeep; if I cannot do a necessary thing, I am happy to call in a professional to do it for me, and if I didn’t have to fork over like 40% of my monthly income in rent, I would be happy to pay for said professional. Since I do need to fork over a ridiculous proportion of my income in rent, I am consequently not willing to wipe off the wall when I sneeze on it. (I’m exaggerating. I’d wipe off the wall. Or at least try not to sneeze in an obvious place.) And in exchange, because I am turned obstinate and intransigent by the extortionate rent, my landlord turns to the modern version of Capt. Boycott: the property management company. They, of course, require a certain percentage of my rent in order to manage me; and my landlord certainly isn’t going to sacrifice that amount from his profits: so the cost gets passed on to me.

So because I am charged too much, I have to be charged more; because I am resentful of how much I have to pay, everything gets done slowly, and poorly, because my landlord and the property managers look for the lowest bidder for any required repairs, and they are generally slow and incompetent as well as cheap. And the value and overall quality of the property goes down, and everyone suffers because of it. And all because my landlord can’t just rent out the property for enough to cover his costs for the property; he’s got to squeeze me dry. Just because he can.

From there we add the ridiculous application process, where I now have to hand over $55 or more per adult applying, and the obscene “security deposit” which is really just another wad of cash we hand over to the owners, because never have I ever gotten the full deposit back after moving out, regardless of how well I have kept the place up, and even added minor improvements; doesn’t matter, because the owners want to keep my money, so they find a way to charge me for the privilege of no longer living in their home.

 

I’m sorry this blog wasn’t funny. I’m sorry that I have nothing insightful or valuable to add to this whole issue. All I can ever think when I go out hunting a new rental is that I wish I could be a real estate tycoon, not so I could make billions, but just so I could go ahead and rent out my properties for a reasonable rate, based on a reasonable interview with a would-be renter, and the simple fact of trust between myself and my tenants. I just want to give people a chance to not hate everything about where they live. It would make everything so much nicer.

 

Too bad I’m not rich.

This Morning

This morning I  am thinking: what the fuck, China?

Scientists added human brain genes to monkeys. Yes, it’s as scary as it sounds.

Okay. Let’s be clear. I am in favor of science. Scientific advancements save lives and improve the quality of our lives. I am also of the opinion that our highest calling as human beings is to create beauty, and to discover truth.

But this? This is not beautiful.

Of the 11 transgenic macaque monkeys they generated, six died. The five survivors went through a series of tests, including MRI brain scans and memory tests. It turned out they didn’t have bigger brains than a control group of macaques, but they did perform better on short-term memory tasks. Their brains also developed over a longer period of time, which is typical of human brains.

I am, of course, generally not in favor of animal experimentation, nor human experimentation —  I say “Of course” not because I presume my audience knows that I am a humanist, a pacifist, a vegetarian and an animal lover, but because I am a thinking, feeling human, and thinking feeling humans should all generally oppose experimentation on sentient creatures. I understand that sometimes animal experimentation is necessary. Medical advancements, for instance: when those experiments move forward, lives are saved and lives are improved, and that is probably worth the cost. It is sometimes impossible to move a project forward without live subjects, and animals are probably better subjects than humans, ethically speaking.

But this is not a medical advancement. This does not help humans live longer, nor better. This was done entirely, completely, because they could.

Although the sample size was very small, the scientists excitedly described the study as “the first attempt to experimentally interrogate the genetic basis of human brain origin using a transgenic monkey model.” In other words, part of the point of the study was to help tackle a question about evolution: How did we humans develop our unique brand of intelligence, which has allowed us to innovate in ways other primates can’t?

They excitedly described the study as the first attempt to do BIG FANCY SCIENCE WORDS. The attempt to answer that question is nonsense: how a macaque is affected by people injecting weird DNA into its genome has nothing whatsoever to do with human evolution, and anyone with a high school education knows it. There’s no possible way to isolate the variables and find specific information. I’m sure this would give hints that could lead to new knowledge — but six dead animals and five fucked-up ones seems a very high price for hints.

And of course, though I do not like slippery slope arguments, there’s no need to speculate about this experiment leading to more like it, coming faster and going farther: that’s already happening.

The Chinese researchers suspect the MCPH1 gene is part of the answer. But they’re not stopping there. One of them, Bing Su, a geneticist at the Kunming Institute of Zoology, told MIT Technology Review that he’s already testing other genes involved in brain evolution:

One that he has his eye on is SRGAP2C, a DNA variant that arose about two million years ago, just when Australopithecus was ceding the African savannah to early humans. That gene has been dubbed the “humanity switch” and the “missing genetic link” for its likely role in the emergence of human intelligence. Su says he’s been adding it to monkeys, but that it’s too soon to say what the results are.

Su has also had his eye on another human gene, FOXP2, which is believed to have graced us with our language abilities. Pondering the possibility of adding that gene to monkeys, Su toldNature in 2016, “I don’t think the monkey will all of a sudden start speaking, but will have some behavioral change.” He would not be breaking any laws.

Ohhh, he would NOT be breaking any laws! Well, shit, I guess that’s fine, then.

The article goes on to make a fairly obscure point, which is that monkeys made to be more like humans will suffer even more in a constricted lab environment; it also points out that “normal” monkeys suffer enough as it is, that macaques have intricate and important social lives that they can’t experience in a lab. This is all true, and makes this experiment unethical — or it would, if there was any ethical argument to be made for this experiment.

Look, I understand that science does not always have clear connections to a practical use. My father, a nuclear physicist, spent his career working on multi-billion dollar projects that had no direct application in the world. But of course practical application was not the point: expanding knowledge leads to better understanding, which leads to both greater expansion of knowledge and, at some point, practical applications, which is where longer and better human lives come in. But we can’t just focus on the eventual positive outcome: we have to consider the cost right now, and the benefit right now, with the potential benefit considered only after that. And the cost of this experiment is much too high, while the benefit from it is — little more than bragging rights. This doesn’t change our understanding of human evolution, it confirms, slightly, something we already thought was true. It can’t confirm it too conclusively, because again, macaques infected with human DNA are not the same thing as  Australopithecines evolving under natural selection. Not even close.

Last two things I want to point out about this: one, Chinese geneticists have already altered human DNA, entirely against any standard of scientific ethics. (They may have arrested the scientist who did it, but really, what does that even mean in China?)

And two, China is not the only nation involved. Of course not.

When it comes to studying monkeys, a researcher gets much more bang for their buck in China, as the Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang reported last year:

A standard monkey in China costs about $1,500, compared to roughly $6,000 in the United States. The daily costs of food and care are an order of magnitude lower as well.

In the past few years, China has seen a miniature explosion of genetic engineering in monkeys. In Kunming, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, scientists have created monkeys engineered to show signs of Parkinson’s, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, autism, and more.

Because of the relative ease of conducting primate research there, some researchers regularly travel from the US to China for scientific work on monkeys. As Zhang pointed out, researchers at Emory University recently collaborated with scientists in China who work on genetically modified monkeys. And Su’s study involved University of North Carolina computer scientist Martin Styner. Styner, who told MIT Tech Review that his participation was minimal, said he considered pulling his name from the study and has come to believe such research is not “a good direction.”

Although the US is not green-lighting studies like Su’s, American universities that collaborate with Chinese scientists on such studies may still be complicit in any ethical harm they cause.

I hope we’re all ready for what comes next.

 

This Morning

This morning I am thinking about thieves.

My wife and I are looking for housing; we’re trying to downsize and save money, so we are in the market for a new rental — but we don’t want to move into a dump, nor a nice place in a dumpy area, nor something too small to hold our family. So we have to be fairly selective about our options, and we keep our eyes open for a stroke of luck. We’ve had them before: we found our best rental in our college town when my wife drove by and saw a For Rent sign in a second story window; we found a short-term rental, necessitated by a crappy landlord who sold the rental we were living in just two months before we moved out of state, when our realtor let us stay in a  rental she owned. Twice we have moved long distance and found a place to move into from several states away, and while neither place was great, both were sufficient for our needs, even sight unseen.

So we’re hoping for a good, cheap place that has everything we need and is also in the right area. And we’re scouring the internet looking for just that place. We look on Zillow, of course, because they have many listings and they are reliable; but the rental market in Tucson is not good, and there aren’t a lot of good options — and no lucky ones. Thus, in the name of scouring, we try Craig’s List. We know, we know; that’s where the murderers go to connect with victims, and all. But it’s worked out before: I found my current job through a Craig’s List listing. So it’s worth a shot, right?

Pretty quickly, we found two strokes of luck: two rental houses, large enough for our needs, in the right areas, with enclosed back yards for our dogs and our tortoise, and both VERY cheap. Both listings were new, and so we jumped on them: because we know being first in line can make all the difference with getting a rental. I contacted one through text message, as the listing requested; my wife sent an email to the other one.

And you know what? Both were bullshit. Both listings were scams. The one I contacted is a house for sale, and someone scooped the listing and put it up on Craig’s List for rent; the one my wife contacted is a real rental, but it is being managed by a small local realtor, who was only using a sign in front of the house, and who already had two applications in, as we discovered when we found the real For Rent listing when we found the actual house. (The local realtor was also pretty short and bitchy to us, but maybe that’s because she’s gotten many weird phone calls based on the scam listing in the internet.)

How did we know they were scams? Well! The text message I sent got this reply:

(I blacked out the name they used because it’s the real owner’s  name, but that phone number is not the real owner’s, so fuck ’em. I presume it was one of those online websites that imitate a phone number, like I saw on Catfish.)

So let’s count the red flags, shall we? First for me is bad grammar and spelling, like of course people make mistakes in their text messages, but this is obviously not a on-demand message, this is lengthy, and since the owner is apparently a deaf man (Red flag #2 — not impossible, of course, but awfully convenient in that it means we can’t actually talk to a person on the phone regarding this rental) I would expect he’d be able to type the message correctly, not say “he cheat on the tenant by getting higher rent from them” and “You do not need to contact any Agent when you get by the house cos if you do they will tell you sort of rubbish.” (Red flag #3 and #4: don’t contact the agent at all, and also the agent is not named. Also, turns out the agent is a woman, but anyhoo.) Now I am reading this in a foreign accent somewhere between Russian and Turkish.  So when I see that the rent, already too low for a house of this size in this area, includes all utilities; and the “owner” doesn’t mind not meeting us but we can’t see the inside, and we can send them the deposit and the rent either “monthly or upfront mode of payment,” and then we’ll discuss how to get the key sent to me from where they have it in OHIO(OH) — and I love that they decided to include the postal code in case I was more familiar with that than the name “Ohio” — well. Now I can’t even see the house for all the red flags.

The one my wife contacted sent her this:

Thanks for your time and response to our advert. Please it is important you read this carefully! Our available house is a lovely one for rent in Tucson, AZ. You can drive by to view it from the outside at PROBABLY DOESN’T MATTER BUT I’M CENSORING THIS JUST IN CASE. If you know you’re not serious please i beg you don’t bother replying, don’t waste your time and mine. We are looking for a God fearing and a neat family that can occupy it as you can see our home is more decent and well kept. Please note that your rent starts counting from move in date so we want you to be sincere to us and always remember to pay your rent when it is due. I am Bishop Douglas P. Campbell and First Lady Sue A. Campbell happens to be my wife. Due to my quick missionary movement as a parish Bishop, my family and I had to leave the house that was posted on Craigslist at Tucson AZ, to give it out for rent and now we are in Africa to spread the word of God and also to build a new parish, where people can worship. We’re currently in west Africa reaching out to the underprivileged ones here, it has become our lifestyle to see people happy. I had my number roamed so you can still reach me through my number REDACTED. We have been finding it difficult to rent it, due to the fact that we won’t be able to see the tenant in person until we come for check up, but we prayed about it and believed in our heart that we’ll find someone with a good heart and good intention. You should count yourself lucky to meet with this offer, because we decided to offer a price below standard of $800 per month(rent already include utilities) in order to make it affordable. An agent was to handle this for us at a high price, but due to the fact we are not originally from the area and also because of commission issues, we decided it is best to handle it ourselves and we would appreciate anyone who understands our situation and will be willing to work with us.
Note: We did not authorized any agent for our property anymore. The keys are with us but we have no problems as far as getting it to whoever we feel is potential to rent the house. Please understand my situation and consider me. I am married with three(3) kids. Am only trying to help someone here and in return I hope the person takes care of my property.
Property Basics; Rent
Bedroom: 4.
Bathroom: 2. (2 full Bathroom)
Sq footage: 1,50500sqft
Rent: $800
Security deposit: $300
Pets Allowed (hopefully trained ones)
Lease Term: A year or More.
Please if you are ready now to occupy the house kindly provide the information below for your paper work and i will be happy to give you a call, because it is best we speak over the phone.
LEASE APPLICATION FORM
FULL CONTACT NAME?
OCCUPATION?
RESIDENTIAL HOME ADDRESS?
YOUR CELLPHONE NUMBER?
YOUR HOME PHONE NUMBER?
YOUR WORKPLACE NUMBER?
BEST TIME TO REACH YOU?
AGE & MARITAL STATUS?
OWN A PET?
OWN A CAR?
HOW MANY PEOPLE SHALL RESIDE IN THE PREMISES?
HOW LONG DO YOU INTEND TO RENT?
ANTICIPATED MOVE IN DATE?
HOW SOON CAN YOU MAKE THE PAYMENT?
REFERENCE?
FAMILY PICTURES IF ANY?
Best of regards,
Bishop Douglas P. Campbell.

So again: bad grammar (I especially like the line “and First Lady Sue A. Campbell happens to be my wife”), owner is out of reach but has the key but has no problem getting it to us, owner has apparently no standards for tenants (there’s no discussion of credit checks, rental history,  or background checks, and even if the owner were in Africa —  and a Bishop? Seriously?  — surely His Grace would have friends or allies or parishioners or SOMEONE in this area, where he owns a home, who would manage the rental process for him. That “lease application form” at the end was just like that, all caps in the body of the email.), rent is far too low already and includes all utilities and a ridiculously low deposit in this era of first, last, and something extra for your pets, et cetera. I like that in both cases they do the old confidence-man trick of offering me their trust so that I will in return trust them, because after all, why would a deaf man lie? Why would a God-fearing Bishop, who only wants to make it his lifestyle to bring happiness, be a lying sack of crap who wants to steal your money?

Why do these goddamn people want to steal my money? I mean, I get it, stealing is easier than working; but I really don’t get how people can have so little empathy that they are so willing to fuck someone else over just so they themselves don’t have to work as hard. (I do have enough empathy to recognize that many people who do shit like this are truly desperate, and on some level, I feel bad for them. But also, fuck them.) It bothers me particularly in that this scam is not directed at people who can afford to lose money: this one hits people who are looking for housing, for cheap housing, and who are likely moving towards desperate, and so are willing to take a chance on someone who says they can help, even with all the red flags in the advert. (I like “advert,” too. Very British. Or perhaps an African bishop, hmmmmm??? By the way: why does an African bishop own a rental property in Tucson? I know, he’s not from Africa, he’s a missionary, but I have no idea where he [and I’m speaking of the character, here, not the scammer; that dude I still imagine as Russian or Turkish] is actually from, so I’m going with Africa.) I’ve thought about stealing stuff before, when I was a kid and reading comic books; you know who I planned to rob? The rich. Corporations. Drug dealers, once I had read The Punisher. Seemed like stealing from those people wouldn’t be as bad. Of course that’s a foolish rationalization of a crime, but also, it’s true that that crime would cause less harm.

Why are people okay with hurting others just so they can steal money? I honestly don’t understand.

I hope someone can understand my situation and consider me. I am married with four (4) pets. Am only wondering why people do fucked up things to other people.