Making a New Impression

There’s a lot that’s wrong with this country.

We have the highest medical costs combined with some of the worst outcomes; one of the highest rates of infant mortality among the industrialized world, and also one of the highest rates of death in childbirth for women.

We have the largest and most expensive military in the world, and by any estimate, we are one of the most war-mad nations on Earth. We currently have active duty military personnel stationed in 150 countries around the world.

Our education system is inefficient where it is not simply ineffective. As a country, we don’t read. (So really, I’m not sure why I’m writing this.) We have a biased and often irrational media, run by a steadily shrinking number of corporations and consumed by a shrinking minority of the people.

Wealth and income disparity have been increasing, and our rates of poverty, childhood poverty, and especially food insecurity have been increasing steadily for decades. We also, not coincidentally, have the largest and most expensive prison system, with the greatest number of prisoners of any country on Earth – over 2.2 million adults incarcerated, with another 5 million on parole or probation.

And even fifty years after the civil rights movement, every one of these problems is worse for minority populations than it is for white citizens.

There’s a lot that’s wrong. But despite all of that, there is one thing, at least, that we do right, and it’s more important than all of these: this country is still a democracy, where the votes of the citizenry select our leaders; where we have the power to elect, and to remove, essentially anyone in power over us. If and when the people of this country develop the political will to tackle any or all of these problems, we are the ones who have the power to do so: we set the agenda, we determine the government’s size and shape, and we choose its priorities. The only thing stopping us from at least trying to deal with these issues is ourselves.

And that means that perhaps the worst problem this country faces is this: only about 50% of eligible voters actually cast their ballots in an election. In Presidential election years, it’s around 60%; in midterm elections it’s about 40%; the rate is lower for local and special elections. The primary happened here in Arizona this past Tuesday, and we seem to have set a record for primaries: we cracked a million votes cast. Of course, there are more than three and a half million registered voters in the state, so our record is less than 30% of the potential total. Exciting.

Even though we have the ultimate power to determine our nation’s path, we don’t do it. Not that we can’t, we just don’t. The best thing about this country, and we don’t take advantage of it.

So why don’t we? Honestly, there are a lot of reasons: the biggest is that people don’t think that their individual vote will matter, so they don’t cast it; that’s a tough one to overcome, too, because logically, it’s true. There has never been a serious election won by a single citizen’s vote. Small elections can build momentum for large elections, and so there might be a snowball effect started by a single person’s vote; but even an argument like this one I’m making here, trying to convince people it’s important to vote, has to rely on large aggregates of voters: if all of the citizens who didn’t vote in the last election voted in the next one, they could almost outvote the entire election, in which only 58.1% of eligible voters cast a ballot. Certainly that group of voters would have been larger than either of the groups who voted for the two major candidates. But that fact, while disturbing in the extreme, is still about millions of voters – tens of millions of voters. Nobody can argue that one single person’s vote would have turned the tide.

Then there are the institutional obstacles to voting: the fact that U.S. elections happen on a workday, that polling places are limited and sometimes hard to get to, especially in rural areas; in many cases there are factors that cause voter suppression, sometimes even deliberately, such as pre-emptive removal of voters from registration rolls, or the frequent imposition of ID requirements for voting. The 2.2 million prisoners I mentioned above, along with a large number of the 5 million parolees, have had their civil rights suspended or stripped because of their crimes, often including their right to vote. I myself was disenfranchised by my state, Arizona, in the 2016 primary because even though independent voters, which is how I registered in Arizona in 2014, can vote in primary elections, they cannot vote in presidential preference elections, which is what that primary was called, when we were offered the chance to choose between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. I didn’t get to do it because of that rule and the way the state defined that particular election.

Of course there are circumstantial reasons why people don’t vote: they’re busy, they’re sick, they couldn’t find a babysitter, there were unforeseen complications. When we’re talking about 100 million uncast ballots, the number of people who didn’t vote because they had food poisoning that day is probably in the hundreds of thousands. And I don’t really have a solution to offer there, other than to stay away from the clams; they seem a little sketchy. Also, gross.

But avoiding bad seafood is not going to solve this problem. Of course not. However: the argument that one single voter does not change elections, while true, vanishes in the face of another truth: that the 100 million votes, which are more than enough to swing the last election in any direction at all, are made up of individual, insignificant votes. There is little significance in a single vote, but there is nation-shattering significance in the 100 million votes – and that means that each of those votes contains a small amount of that earth-shaking power. Getting people to stay away from shellfish wouldn’t change a national election; but it would change (I’m assuming) some number of potential non-votes into votes: and in conjunction with everything else we might do, it might just change enough non-votes into votes to actually change the election, change the government, change the country: change the world.

So seriously: stay away from the clams, for at least a couple of days before the election.

In thinking about all of this, particularly while reading the President’s Twitter account, where he stumps for every Republican candidate he can think of, and also in my disappointment over the blue wave here in Arizona in the primary this week (The turnout may have been record-setting, but there were still only about 400,000 Democrats who voted, compared to over 500,000 Republicans. That’s not a blue wave, that’s a red splash with a blue ripple.), I thought of one small factor that, by itself, may not amount to much, but I think does have an impact on election turnout. Maybe even as much as the clams do. And if it isn’t directly causative of non-votes, it does, I think, have some influence: and it’s one of those things that would be easy as well as beneficial to change, in ways other than the effect on voter turnout. Also like avoiding clams, which is good for health and also because they’re gross.

The factor is this: our first impression of elections.

We all know that first impressions can make a difference. They don’t always, and even in the cases where they do, subsequent interactions can entirely overwhelm that first impression: my wife’s first impression of me was that I was cute but dumb; then she thought I was an arrogant jerk; and then she realized that I was cute but socially awkward. It’s the third impression that found the truth – though there’s a pretty strong argument for that first impression, I’ll admit. (And probably for the second.) I almost lost my chance at my favorite college job, my position as a custodian at the Civic Auditorium, because my initial interview gave my boss the impression that I could not work with managers – my application said that my previous two jobs had ended because of personal conflicts with management. Fortunately, they listened to my explanations of those personal problems (In one case, the management was badly mishandling the clientele, and I couldn’t abide it; and in the other case, the manager had a crush on the very beautiful woman who is now my wife, and resented that she made it all the way to that third impression of me and the dates that came afterward) and gave me a chance, which led to my five years of work for the Civic.

But those first impressions mattered. I have two examples where a bad first impression was overcome, but that’s because I don’t remember most of the situations where I made a really bad first impression: because those first impressions led to – nothing. Those are the dates I never went on, the jobs that never even called me back. There are more of those than the other kind, for me as for all of us; and first impressions have a lot to do with that.

And what are our first impressions of elections, of voting? In the most informal sense, it’s the mock-democracy – the deMOCKracy, if you will (I’m sorry about that. But not sorry enough to take it out.) – of voting to decide where to go for a night out, or what to do with a group of friends. In essentially every case where we vote for something like that, the outcome is a foregone conclusion, the vote is a sham, and the only point is to make the loudest dissident shut up so we can all just go to Olive Garden. The person who calls for a vote is the one who realizes that they have the majority on their side, and if they can get everyone to abide by “Majority Rules,” then the argument is over and they win, without all the bother of having to convince everyone. In some cases the vote is even shadier, because these are the kind of elections where parents decide that their votes count twice. We’ve all done this, and we do this still, and while it isn’t good governance, it’s also not very easily connected to national elections; as young people we may realize these elections are fixed, but we also realize that it’s probably okay if we just go ahead and go to Olive Garden, and that while it’s unfair that Mom and Dad get two votes each, we also realize that we kids have the power of the Whine Veto. (The Whine Veto is when a child overrides parents’ votes through whining: “Mooooooooooommm, Iiiiii dooooonnnnnn’t WWAAAAAAAANNNNNNNNAAAAAAAAAA go to Olive Garden!” “FINE! We’ll go to McDonald’s!” If Mr. Trump could do the same thing, he’d be the most effective president in history, in the sense that he’d get a lot of things done. Would they be the right things? How much do you like eating at McDonald’s? Or, more realistically, eating Trump brand steaks at Mar a Lago?)

Those votes, in this argument as in life, don’t really count. No: the first place we encounter actual voting for actual elections, on a smaller than national scale, is in school. When we elect student council officers. That, I would argue, is our first impression of the democratic process in this country: and not only does it give us a bad first impression, but it’s also an accurate bad impression, because the things that are wrong with student body elections are also what’s wrong with our national elections.

First of all, there are the candidates. For every serious student body candidate, for every student who wants to do a good job and help out the school and the student body, there is a goofball who runs because they think it’s funny, and at least two candidates who run because they want the attention, they want to win for the sake of winning, they want to put “Student Body President” on their resume. And so it is in our national elections: for every Barack Obama, John McCain or Mitt Romney, there’s a Vermin Supreme, a Deez Nuts, or a Donald Trump. (Note: I don’t mean to ride Mr. Trump in this piece; but I maintain that there was nobody in this country who was as surprised by his election win as he was himself. Actually, his wife might have been more surprised.) And though Harambe, who was at the time of the 2016 election not only a gorilla, but also dead, only got a small number of write-in votes for president, sometimes, the joke candidate wins.

My high school elected two very capable young men to the position of President and Vice President for three years, alternating positions between them. They were good guys; they did a good job. Then our senior year, another guy ran as a joke. He was a nice guy, but not really presidential; he wasn’t involved in student body activities, didn’t have any leadership experience, didn’t really care about school politics; he just thought it would be funny to run. And as students do around the country, the rest of us thought it would be funny as hell to vote for him, instead of the two guys we actually wanted to have as student body president.  And of course, I don’t have to tell my fellow American citizens, he won. And I will say he took it on, tried hard, and did a decent job; but the lesson to be learned is – well, it’s one we clearly haven’t learned as a country, because people wrote in Harambe.

I would argue that it’s student body elections that teach us to vote based on humor and irony, rather than considered and rational opinions.

Speaking of Harambe, one of the student body elections at the school where I now teach featured a poster that made a joke about Harambe, and who he would have voted for had he not been killed. There’s another aspect of elections where student body campaigns echo, or foreshadow, national elections to the detriment of our democracy: because student body election campaigns, even more than the candidates, are a joke. The kids slap up some homemade posters, heavy on the glitter; they make a single speech, usually during lunchtime; and then people vote. That’s not a campaign, that’s a plug for a would-be You-Tuber: Click like and subscribe if you enjoyed this poster, if you laughed at this speech. There aren’t any discussions of issues or causes, no proposals made other than the most basic; student elections are pure identity politics, nothing but a popularity contest. If people don’t vote for their bestie, then they vote with their sense of humor (if they’re not voting for the cutest candidate, that is.).

How does that prepare us for a substantive debate of the issues, for an election that will help set the course of our entire country for some number of years? It doesn’t. It does help to prepare us for elections that run entirely on attack ads, negative campaigning, gotcha media strikes, manufactured scandals, and of course, partisan politics, where people vote for their team and not for the other team for no other reason than that. And look: that’s exactly what we have.

Again, I’m not trying to argue that student body elections are the cause of our current madhouse of a democracy; but first impressions do matter. We see trends in student body elections that recur in national elections, and unless those flaws are inherent in the system, inborn in us and therefore inescapable, then what this repetition shows us is that we vote as adults in the same way and for the same reasons that we vote as children.

So the question is, why do we vote that way as children?

I think it’s mostly cynicism and despair, honestly. As students in school, we are all too aware that we don’t control things. That the student body president, even if we elect one that is after more than a bullet point on a resume, is really not much more than a bullet point on a resume. That the aspects of school life that are controlled by the elected student officers are not the important aspects; that they are ceremonial, maybe even just distractions. Like a president who gives speeches, who hold press conferences, who streams out comments on Twitter, but who doesn’t really do much of substance to change the lives of ordinary citizens, certainly not on his own. We know it as students, and we suspect it as adult citizens, and so the natural response is to either vote as a joke, or to not vote at all: because to participate sincerely is to get played for a sucker. “You thought this mattered?” our fellow says, and rolls his eyes at our naivete; rather than face that, we write in Harambe. We go to work, or stay home, rather than drive to the polling place on the second Tuesday in November. Just like we did in high school. I said “we” elected a pair of nice young men as our student body president and vice president for three years, but that was a lie; I never voted in those elections. I never cared.

When it comes to national elections, that indifference, that desire to avoid looking a fool, is wrong. Elections do matter, now; votes do matter. In high school, they probably don’t: and therein lies the solution I’d like to suggest. Because just like fighting the influence of bad clams, I think it is at least possible that student body elections help to suppress at least some votes, because people who go through elections that don’t matter may not care enough to vote in the very next election available to them, which may be a national election the November after they graduate high school – or even while they are still in high school, if they are 18 their senior year – and if they don’t vote in that one, they may not vote in the next one. I think that probably happens, and when we’re talking about 100 million non-voters, it may happen hundreds of thousands of times.

Here’s what I propose. I say we make student body elections matter. Doing so would be simple, and would actually have a number of benefits: all we have to do is make student leadership positions matter. We have to allow student council members to have real power. They should win a place on the school board. They should have a seat in administrative meetings, at least ones that don’t relate to confidential matters. They should actually be able to speak for the student body, in some way that genuinely matters at the school.

If the position was more than a ceremonial sash, then the elections would become more serious, almost instantly. The students would care who was representing them if that representative could actually make a difference in their lives; and in a high school, that is not only possible, but preferable. There are a large number of aspects of daily high school life that don’t matter much to the adults in the room, but matter quite a lot to students. Like the dress code. Like the tardy policy. Like off-campus privileges. If a student body president could actually fight for and win those privileges, then students would elect a president who could do those things, and they wouldn’t vote for Harambe.

Doing this wouldn’t just change the votes and the elections. It would also change the leaders: it would prepare those students for positions of larger responsibility. It would show all of the students that elected leaders can and should make a difference in the lives of their constituents. It would show all of us that democratically elected leaders can have some impact, despite the Powers That Be looming above and behind them. It would also make public schools more responsive to the will of the student body, which, I would argue, is sorely needed all on its own merits. I’ve watched my school grow more and more autocratic and dictatorial, for no reason other than they can and because they don’t care how the students feel about it; I’ve watched my students grow more angry, and also more cynical and hopeless about it; and then I see my fellow Americans. I see 30% voter turnout. I see candidates like Joe Arpaio, the 86-year-old convicted felon who ran for Senate in Arizona, and pulled in over 100,000 votes – ten percent of the total, almost 20% of his party’s total votes. I see that, and I wish those people had written in Harambe.

But really, I wish to find a way to change these trends, to make our elections and our democracy into what they should be. And though I don’t think I can stop people from eating clams, I think I might be able to get them to make a change in high schools. We can, and we should, for all kinds of reasons. There’s a lot that’s wrong with this country: let’s make this one right.

Take Your Time

If I could pick the time I would live in, I would go back a hundred years, and live then. I would be born in 1874, and would now be in 1916. That would be my time.

I decided this a while ago, when I realized that all of my professional aspirations would have served me just as well in the early 20th century, if not better than now. As a schoolteacher then, I wouldn’t have been paid much better than now; but I would have gotten more respect, I think. And I could have paddled my students when they made me mad. More importantly, being a professional writer was, I think, easier then, as there were more people who read, and thus more room for people who wrote. I would be happy continuing on with teaching if I could also have my work published and purchased and read, and I think that would have been simpler back then. There’s also nothing that would have stopped me from owning a shop that sold books and coffee in 1916.

But there are other factors that keep adding to this. I’m healthy, so I don’t care much about the loss of modern medicine; I hate driving fast and I’m not a fan of flying – but I love trains and I would love to take a ship to Europe or the Caribbean. I actually like wearing suits, especially with vests, and hats; though I admit the nonexistence of air conditioning would be tough. I don’t use the telephone very much; I prefer letters. I’ve actually tried to get people to join a written correspondence with me, but nobody keeps it up.

Nobody has time.

I would like to have time.

That’s the main thing, actually. I mean, sure, I like writing on a computer. I like video games. I enjoy having reliable electric power, and recorded music, and broadcast television, and things made out of plastic. Knowing what I know about politics and history, I would not want to live through the World Wars or the Great Depression or the epidemics of influenza and typhoid and smallpox. Though I do wish that the wackiest political candidate now was Teddy Roosevelt, with all his crazy ideas about national parks and the value of exercise. I could not imagine my life without my wife, and if I were alive a century ago, she would not be; if she were, her life would be far more miserable, as a woman without equal rights, or the opportunity to get into art school and do what she loves (though knowing my wife, she would have found a way even back then to be an artist). And of course, she probably would have died in childbirth, as most women did, and I would give anything up to be sure that didn’t happen, including living today in this loud, fast, illiterate world.

But if we can step away from that reality – and since we are talking about traveling in time, we’d better – and just talk about the general shape of life, then yes, an argument could be made for the late 19th/ early 20th century over the 20th/21th. (A note: my word processing program didn’t recognize “21st” as a designation requiring the letters be turned into superscript; but “21th” was no problem. Technology.) And it’s largely because of time and speed. Here – I’ll try to keep it short, so it doesn’t take too much of your time.

I like to take my time. I like moving slowly, and being thorough. Even in the video games I enjoy, I prefer the ability to wander around and explore, the opportunity to re-do a task until I get it right, the power to decide when I go on to the next challenge; I prefer long strategy games and life simulation games because of that. I love puzzles. I like reading books more than short stories, though I enjoy reading an entire newspaper or magazine. I prefer walking or riding my bike over driving. I like the opportunity to think while I am doing other things, and so I like activities that I can pause to consider. It’s the biggest problem my students have with me as a teacher: we take forever to get through a piece of literature, because I’m constantly stopping them to talk about what we just read. They want to get through stuff, and I want to understand every little bit of it.

But that’s also what makes me a good teacher. And it’s what makes me a good writer, and a good reader/reviewer: I take my time. I think about things as I go. I don’t write a lot of drafts for most of my work, but it’s because I think about everything I’m going to say before I say it, and then while I’m writing it. I’ve been thinking about the general shape of this piece for a couple of weeks now, though it has morphed from a screed about Harambe memes, to a rant about Twitter, to this. Which I have started, stopped, and restarted once already.

I can go fast. And I can see the appeal of it. I’ve mowed a lawn using both a push mower and a motorized one, and the push mower is far more annoying; I was only able to do it because I could have music piped directly into my ears through an MP3 player or a radio with headphones. I love being able to write these pieces and then put them instantly in front of a potentially world-wide audience. I do like microwaves and hot water heaters and instant coffee machines.

But generally speaking, the appeal of going fast is to have more time for other things; and if those things are made to go fast as well, then life becomes one frantic screaming headlong tumbling rush. We turn into Alice falling down the rabbit hole: out of control, no idea which way is up or how much time is actually passing, and we never touch the sides, nor reach bottom. We get lost in the chaos, without anything to hold onto. There has to be something that we take slowly, something that we enjoy spending as much time as possible doing; then there is a reason to get through the rest of the day quickly, in order to spend more time doing that one slow thing. The problem with our modern world is that we seem to not have that slow thing, most of us: most of my students, children of their time, simply spend many many hours doing quick things: they scroll through Facebook and Twitter and Instagram; they text and chat and IM constantly; they play videogames all day long, frequently hopping between two or three different games at the same time, playing simultaneously on the computer and on the phone; they spend hours watching videos, everything from full-length movies to six-second Vines. While they are scrolling and chatting and playing games. They spend so much time doing things quickly that everything feels rushed, everything feels late, everything is done at the last minute and under high pressure. They don’t even take the time to sleep.

I would rather sleep. I would rather wait for things – give me a book, or a piece of paper and a pen, and I can wait forever. And in terms of doing things quickly to get to other things, I’d rather not do those things at all. My goal in life is not to accomplish everything when I am young so that I may have a long quiet time at the end of my life; my goal is to avoid or eliminate all of the things I don’t want to do, so I can spend all of my life doing things I want. I haven’t been able to do that yet. But I’m still working on it. I think I’m making progress. Slowly.

I’m not very good at going fast. So I do have a Twitter account, and I do Twit (If it was Tweeter, then the verb would be Tweet; but it’s Twitter. Hence.), and I enjoy it; but not enough. I only Twit once a day or so, most days, and so I don’t get a lot of followers. The same goes for this blog: I can’t find a subject worth talking about at length every day, and I don’t like posting short quick things, and so I don’t get a lot of followers. But that’s okay: because I would rather have readers. I would rather post something at length once a week or so, that a dozen or so people actually read, than post a new sentence every hour and have ten thousand people scroll past it and smile when they do. I’d rather have comments than likes. I’d rather have people come back to read more of my writing than have a post of mine go viral. Don’t get me wrong, I like the likes, and I’m grateful that there are people who think me interesting enough to actually follow on this blog or on Twitter; but if I could trade all of that for some published work, or a weekly column, even if it was in a small newspaper or magazine, I would do it in a heartbeat.

There: that’s something I would do quickly.

I had an interesting week on Twitter, which was part of the impetus for this blog. I live-Twitted several cracks about the debate between Clinton and Trump on Monday night, and that was fun. I do have some followers, mostly my students, and they get a huge kick out of me being on Twitter – which is an ego boost, I will readily admit. Though it sort of freaks me out that the response can sometimes be instantaneous: I have one student that, when she likes or retwits my twits, she does it within a minute of my posting it. It makes me nervous: because sometimes the speed of something like Twitter leads to bad judgment, or truly terrible typos and Freudian slips and malapropisms that may never be lived down. As we learned from the 3am version of Mr. Trump this past week, as well. I’ve been badly burned by my rapid writing, because the posts that nearly got me stripped of my license to teach in Oregon were done without much forethought, in the heat of the moment, and that ended up badly; too, the actual report that led to my blogs being discovered came from a Facebook post. So social media makes me nervous. I like the ability to write what I want to say, and then step back and think about whether it is a good idea to say it or not; there’s a blog post about Hillary Clinton sitting on my computer, where it will stay, because writing it got me too annoyed and I turned much too insulting. But there are no drafts for Twitter. I post things, and I have deleted things after I posted them; but if they already got retwitted, then it’s too late.

Then on Wednesday, one of my favorite authors, Christopher Moore, twitted a Trump joke: “Yo daddy so orange, they push his face in the dough to make jack-o-lantern cookies.” And I quickly twitted back “Yo daddy so orange they use his dandruff to make Tang.” I was ecstatic when I saw Mr. Moore liked and retwitted my post. For a moment I thought it might go viral, or that I’d get a whole swath of new followers; but really, the excitement was that Christopher Moore, whose writing and especially whose humor I have tremendous respect for, liked my joke. That was nice. So on Friday, when I saw one of my favorite comedians, Patton Oswalt, twitting back and forth with several other people about the Alt-Right version of Star Wars – jokes about the Sand People being illegal immigrants and Han Solo not being a real hero because he was captured, and so on – I thought of a good one, and I twitted it to Mr. Oswalt. Hoping for the same response.

But I didn’t get it, because, it turns out, someone else had twitted the same joke (Darth Vader: “You know, if Leia wasn’t my daughter, I’d probably date her”) ten minutes before I did. That person got hundreds of likes and retwits; I got none.

That’s too fast. In ten minutes, my joke went from funny and appreciated, to derivative and ignored. In other words, to make that joke and be successful at it, I would have had to be ten minutes faster – most easily accomplished by obsessively following Twitter feeds and looking at trends and hashtags. But that is not something I want to do. I don’t want to spend hours jumping from thought to thought to thought, cudgeling my brain into coming up with something funny or interesting, in less than 140 characters (Because you have to leave room for the hashtag!), faster than other people can come up with it. If I was already famous then I would have an instant audience and I could twit things at my leisure that they might appreciate; but then I run the risk of twitting idiocy and having all of my followers instantly know about it and spread it all over the twitterverse. Like Mr. Trump. Or Jaden Smith.

I would rather take my time. I would rather think of something original to say, or create a new perspective on an old problem, than follow trends. Particularly because: had I been the one who came up with the joke ten minutes earlier, and gotten the likes and retwits, I would have been forgotten ten minutes later, when the next person thought of the next funny joke. I don’t want to be that fast, and I don’t want to be forgotten that soon.

I think that’s the impetus behind the Harambe memes. Now, to be clear: while some memes are funny, I generally can’t stand them. They represent the lowest common denominator, which is why they spread so widely and catch on so quickly. Sometimes they’re genuinely funny – like some twits in the twitterverse – and frequently they are cute, because cute is one of the lowest common denominators; but they are always the worst form of the argument, when they are about serious topics, and they are always reductive and simplistic and generally obnoxious to one group or another. My favorite use of memes is in messing with my students: because they don’t expect me, their middle-aged English teacher, to use memes, so when I do, there’s a disconnect that I find more amusing than the meme. But for most meme-people, the humor is unpredictable: it’s impossible to say which meme will catch on and which will not. There are people whose lives online revolve around making memes; some of them are good at following and capitalizing on trends; some are good at making trends; all of them are stuck in an endless cycle of rapidity, catching onto jokes that rise and fall in instants, and the fame that comes with originating the joke following the same arc. A year or two ago it was a frog on a unicycle with the tagline, “Here comes dat boi – Oh shit waddup!”

Then it was another frog – no reason in the meme world – named Pepe, with a depressed look in his half-lidded eyes and his downward curving lips (He has had a recent resurgence when it came to light that Pepe is now popular with those who make vile racist memes, because they dress Pepe up as the minority they wish to denigrate. Yup. Funny stuff.).

 We have also gone through a caveman Spongebob, several images from a video of Shia Lebeouf, far too much of the wrestler John Cena, and recently a strange obsession with Rick Harrison, the star of Pawn Stars.

At one point it was Harambe. The gorilla in the Cleveland zoo who grabbed and held a child who got into his enclosure, and was shot and killed by zookeepers trying to protect the boy. It was a sad story that rapidly caught the attention of the country, particularly online, because it hit so many buttons: children’s safety and violence and the treatment of animals.

Harambe memes caught on partly because the biggest audience for memes is teenagers, and teenagers revel in mocking other people who take things too seriously, which is how the outcry over Harambe was seen – people weren’t concerned with the Syrian refugee crisis, or about the murders of African-Americans committed by police officers, they were concerned with the death of one gorilla – and partly because one meme-creator had an idea: a stupid and crude and absurd idea; and so of course, that’s the one that caught on. The idea? Men flashing their genitals as a tribute to the gorilla. The tagline was “Dicks Out For Harambe.”

Yeah: it’s kind of funny. Put in the right absurd context – a job interview, a political appearance, a Christmas special – the absurd notion is amusing. Because it touches on a taboo that people often find absurd anyway, the issue of public nudity, and also touches on the absurd obsession that most men have with their own genitalia, it got even more traction. And it had its usual run as the most popular meme of the moment. I’m sure whatever meme-maker came up with the line had a sharp uptick in followers or likes or reposts, and I’m sure he or she (Probably he) was gratified and possibly enriched by the increase in ad revenue. The popularity has ended now – thankfully – and I rarely see “dicks out” jokes any more. There was a brief resurgence when another great ape, the gorilla Bantu, died owing to a mistake in a medical procedure, but the slogan “Balls Out for Bantu” was apparently too derivative even for meme-fans, and it never caught on the same way. One of my former students twitted a picture to me, of a poster that some (probably apocryphal) English teacher had on a classroom wall that showed a gorilla’s face and the slogan “Books out for Harambe,” which he said I should put on my wall, but when I told him that there wasn’t enough No in the world (A dick joke AND a meme joke? Oh, sign me up!), another of my students took my side: evidence that the meme is largely dead. When even teenagers don’t think you’re funny any more, there’s no place left for you in the meme world.

But I still see Harambe memes. Now they have changed. Now they are about the gorilla being remembered; now the absurdity is in someone crying over the idea that Harambe’s death will be forgotten. Again, mocking people for taking things too seriously, or at least the wrong things too seriously – but now it is without the lowest common denominator. No dicks in this joke. So this one is less absurd, which makes me question why it is so popular.

So I wonder: how much do people who make memes, who spread memes, worry about the thought of being forgotten? How much of this latest spurt of temporary fame is about this genuine fear? In a world where the attention span covers approximately six seconds or so, where this week’s star is the “Damn, Daniel” guy and next week’s star is Rick Harrison and the “Damn, Daniel” guy is gone from people’s memories forever – what is the point of trying to reach the top? The second you do, you fall right back off, and you probably never make it back up again.

That’s exactly what I’m talking about. (And I realize now that I have gone on longer than I intended; I would apologize, but I’m never actually sorry for using a lot of words) When life is about going as fast as possible, then life, too, goes as fast as possible – which is really damn fast. And that may be exciting, but it also gets us to the end before we know it. And whatever that end is, whether it is obscurity or nothingness or even eternal paradise: it won’t be exciting, and it won’t be fast.

I would rather write than trend. I would rather be read than laughed at. I would rather read and consider than get through things. I would like to take my time.