Monday, April 26, 2010


I've been reading with sadness the recent news stories of teens bullied into suicide. One tale in particular hit close to home, as it happened a couple hours north of where I live. A quirky, bright kid comes home from 8th grade one day, announcing to his dad "Well, today I learned that being smart isn't cool." A few years later the kid, showing no outward signs of depression, shoots himself with a shotgun. The officer responding to the scene recalled that he could hear the mother's screams from half a mile away, and came into the clearing to see her holding her son's corpse in her arms. Turns out the kid had never talked about it with his parents, but the psychological bullying and peer pressure built up and up inside, until he saw only one way out.

I normally don't even finish stories in which kids end up dead, because my fertile imagination always conveniently supplies Roslyn as the understudy. I imagine myself, coming into a clearing after hearing a shotgun blast, and seeing my beautiful daughter, a gaping hole where her face used to be. Or, she becomes the object of a kidnapping, held for ransom and then never given back, instead raped & tortured to death. I see these things unbidden, and knowing that I do, I generally flash back to the news Main Page, and try to turn my mind off.

I kept reading this particular story, though, because the kid in it was bullied, mostly because he was smart from the sound of it, and that resonated with me. I was bullied in school, not so much because I was a super-smart nerd, but more because I was small and innocent-looking and didn't care about being "macho." I was a good target for bullies, because it was obvious just by looking at me that I wouldn't fight back, and even if I tried, I didn't have the goods to back it up. That's classic bully-victimhood, right there: the inability to fight back. 'Cause, that's where most bullies come from, right? I mean, except for the exceedingly rare ones who are genuinely batshit crazy (and I knew that guy, too, in 8th grade), bullies by definition are the guys who pick on the guys who can't fight back.

I remember several from grade school, but mostly R. This guy R. had a last name that was pronounced one way, but looked another, and the way it looked was not too complimentary, and by my memory I called him that one day in retaliation for whatever slight brutality he'd visited on me. That was it, boy. From that day on, through the rest of the school year, he was gunnin' for me. When we finally ended up in the principal's office (a common destination for him, but one that scared the shit out of me), I was forced to admit what I'd called him. It was like coughing up your stomach, man: you probably could do it, but geez, it'd hurt!

I moved right at the beginning of junior high…a horrible time in almost everyone's life, made more difficult for me by our move to the redneck-y depths of the Thumb. There, it seemed like everyone who wasn't already a super-geek was some sort of athlete or else a rough-&-tumble thug. The bullying intensified for a few years between 7th and 10th grades, never coming to full-fledged fisticuffs (except for that time that A. stapled my upper lip to my braces…a different story altogether), but there was that genuinely crazy dude. His name was J., and he looked like a prototypical Stone Age throwback: tall, shaggy, with just enough brain mass to cause trouble. Serious trouble. The last I saw of J. was when he lit his locker on fire and the cops took him away in handcuffs.

Like most kids who get bullied, I was embarrassed that I couldn't handle it myself, and spoke little of it to my parents. I did have some coping mechanisms that really helped, though. The first thing I did was recognize that I got picked on because I was weak; my logic led me to 1) ask for a weight set, and 2) take some karate classes. The weights helped me put on some muscle, and while I certainly never became anybody's answer to Mac at the beach (you know, the comic book back-cover ad of the geek who gets sand kicked in his face), the toning helped my inner attitude immensely. So did the karate: I got through three promotions, and though I never once used what I'd learned in an actual "situation," like the weightlifting I felt more in control, as if I could use the karate to fight back. Sometimes, that's just enough: the confidence itself counterbalances the need to get physical.

I also had a keen mind for revenge fantasies. I was talking to Miss Tessmacher about this the other day, and she was pretty sure that such a mindset wasn't all that beneficial, but I'll tell ya: for me, it really did help. A lot fantasizing came from movies: underdog-gets-his-day things like Valley Girl, or out-&-out shooters like Death Wish…things where the premise required the protagonist to go so far beyond reality that I just ate it up. And I got to thinking: "Hey, B. has really been bothering me lately. Well…I know where he lives, maybe I'll just go and pour sugar in his gas tank some night. Or, fuck that: maybe I'll soak a rope in gasoline, put that in his tank, and light the bitch up. That'd show him who not to fuck with!" In a pre-Columbine era, this kind of thinking was tremendously empowering, because I realized: I still had control. Or, some modicum of control. And that's all I really needed: the awareness that I was not completely helpless, that if things got totally out of hand, I could just…fuck somebody's shit up.

As I went through high school, the bullying lessened. It helped that I was a metalhead, as were most of the tough guys, so they couldn't pick on me for that. And I was smart enough to basically get along with all the Brains, of which the girls at least were pretty popular. My guy friends were basically the class-clown lot, which is a safety net all on its own: nobody really beats the shit out of the funny guys. At a basic level, though, I was friends with a few key people I could really look up to. M. was a few years older than me, but because we were in band together we became friends. He was tough in that country-redneck way, but also a good guy, and he took some steam off of me from the older bullies. C., the first friend I made when I moved to town, took some shit from people but never relinquished his own sense of pride, continuously browbeating the bullies back with intelligence (to this day, he refers to these kinds of people as "oxygen thieves"). But really, my savior was J., who was just a little bit psycho. Also a band buddy, J. was the kind of guy who regularly dressed in brown boat shoes, camo pants, and a pink oxford shirt. He wasn't built, but he was totally unafraid of the bullies. I remember a time behind the drugstore, some guys started calling shit to us, and J. calmly walked up, grabbed one of the guys around the neck, brought him to his knees, and smashed his head 4 or 5 times into the guy's car door. He did that whole macho thing while the dude was laying on the ground groaning, beating his chest and bellowing "Anybody else want some?!?" I got pretty much left alone after that. And while the adult me would never condone that kind of violence…the teenage bully-victim me thrilled inside to see such an awesome display of power and fearlessness. Alas, J.'s psychosis ran a little bit deeper than I realized at the time, as he had some legitimate mental troubles just a few years later…

I don't know how much schools need to try curtailing bullies. Schools, parents…they can only do so much, can only see so much. That's why teenagerhood is such a suck-fest: people are at their chest-thumping cruelest, and too often kids are left to sink or swim on their own. I only hope that I have enough parenting skill to teach Roslyn to swim before she gets thrown into the deep end.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Problem With Polling

Okay, here's the thing about polls: they might be good tools to gauge socio-political trends…or, they might not. I was reminded of this by reading this sentence in a recent Rasmussen Reports poll claiming to show a majority favor repeal of the recently-enacted health care law. The article stated: "The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 56% of likely voters nationwide favor repeal…"

Except, that's not really 56% of likely voters. That's 56% of likely voters…who answered the phone and took the survey. Not the same thing at all.

Because, I never take the fucking things. I don't listen to someone cold-call me and ask for money. I always hang up on robo-calls. ALWAYS. So, the numbers are there, yes. But those numbers alone don't tell the whole story. It's not 56% of voters…it's 56% of phone-answerers.

I'm not required to answer the phone, or the door, for that matter. I'm certainly not required to take part in a survey. So, the better question is: who is taking the time to do these things?

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Pulling A "Carlin"

I came of age during a certain Silver Age of comedy. This would be roughly the '80s, with some catch-up work being done with comedians whose work started before I really got into it, but I went back and picked it up. I loved Steve Martin, Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bob & Doug McKenzie, Jeff Altman, Robin Williams, Sam Kinison…the list could go on, but why should it? What I have to say doesn't entail having a complete list, but rather focuses in on 3 of them whose comedy was also philosophy: Martin, Kinison, and Carlin. Martin himself was actually a philosophy major in college, so the goofy existential nature of his stand-up routines followed what might be termed a natural course. Kinison was picking up on the rant-&-rage aspect of Carlin, pointing out things we all know and then taking them to ridiculous conclusions…but of course he died right at the height of his fame. Which leaves me with Carlin.

George Carlin. Y'know, I never knew what George himself found funny. Even after watching & re-watching his 13 HBO specials, after reading his books, and seeing him twice in concert…I never really saw him laugh. Robin Williams cracked himself up mid-routine, but George…he was a rock. Sometimes he seemed too angry to laugh (or to laugh AT), but some of his kookier dick-&-fart jokes were such side-splitters…but never once did he laugh at his own shit.

Not having Carlin in my life kind of leaves a hole, because I really treasured the man and what he had to say. He was so profoundly influential on my own sense of humor, and I grew up laughing too hard to realize how insidious he actually was. George was teaching me to think, in very specific ways, without ever giving the appearance of doing so. It's only now, with an adult's understanding of the world, that I realize how much of my thinking works the way it does because of Carlin's stand-up routines.

I think the best thing I ever saw George do was to take a normal set of circumstances, one we could all see and agree "Yup, that's the way things are!", and then exaggerate the hell out of it, following a particular course of action to its own (usually uncomfortable) logical conclusion. It was only after you were laughing yourself silly that you'd realize "Hey, he's serious about this!" And then you'd realize that George's comedy was often centered around rubbing people's noses in their own shit. Kind of like listening to Strange Fruit. Uncomfortable truths, brought to the light.

My best example of this was George's attitude about taking care of crime. Basically, he advocated fencing off one of those big square states that nobody really uses ("like Utah") and putting all the criminals inside. Put as many confiscated drugs and guns as you could in there with them. Then, to make things really interesting, put a gate in the fence every 50 miles or so, and have it programmed to randomly open once a week, for 45 seconds. The killer was that he saw all the commercial possibilities of this course of action. Certainly, you'd want video cameras all over the place, especially at the gates. Then, put the unedited video on Pay-Per-View! And use the money to pay for our schools.

See what I mean? He took a basic truth we all know about, something we all say "We really need to do something about that!", and then he followed it to a certain logical conclusion, to see if what we said we wanted turned out to be what we really wanted…or if it just turned our stomachs. "Hmmm…well, that would certainly relieve our over-crowded prisons and find a way to fund our schools, which are good things…"

I call this Pulling A Carlin. Take some idea, some set of circumstances that we all seem to agree on, then exaggerate the shit out it and follow it to its logical conclusion. Basically, play up the uncomfortable nature of who we are and what we say & think.

I'm certainly no comedian, but I'd like to Pull A Carlin on health care. Ready?

We say we value human life. It is our stated goal to preserve life, which means we don't throw Down's babies into burlap sacks and drown 'em in the river, and we don't take granny with Stage 5 lung cancer out behind the barn and put 'er down. Good. Now: how do we achieve the goal of showing how much we value human life? Does there need to be an equality to the way we consider our value of human life?

Take Person A ("Steve"). Steve is middle-aged, college-educated, works hard and makes a decent wage. Steve's employer provides health care, so that when Steve (or his family) gets sick, there's a co-pay to deal with, but basically the insurance company picks up the tab. They really don't, of course: the employer pays premiums for Steve, and Steve himself pays for some of his premium, and all the people together in that insurance pool pay for premiums, and out of that collection of money, the bill gets paid. Notwithstanding any large-scale catastrophic claims, everyone in that pool gets their health care taken care of.

Take Person B ("Sarah"). Sarah is middle-aged too, but she's lightly learning disabled. In another era, we'd have said she was "mildly retarded." Part of her disability is illiteracy, so she never went to college, and has difficulty in modern times keeping a steady job. The jobs she does land certainly don't come with health benefits, and she lives below the poverty line so she doesn't have the discretionary income to buy insurance on the open market. She's the legal guardian of her two young grandchildren, because her fuck-up of a daughter is addicted to drugs and lives in a car outside Tucson. One of the grandkids gets sick, Sarah tries to take care of it as best she can with OTC medicines she can barely afford, especially after she loses her job because she took too many days off caring for the sick grandkid. Finally the grandkid is so sick the only recourse is to take her to the emergency room, where doctors treat her for pneumonia and keep her for 6 days. Sarah naturally has no way to pay for this, so the hospital "absorbs" the cost by charging Steve's kid $50 for a fuckin' aspirin.

I don't have any way to make this funny, there are no hidden cameras to put it all on TV…but I still want to know what the logical next step ought to be. Is this system broken? If it's not, if this system works for everybody, then let's let sleeping dogs lie, and we can all use more and more of our income to prop up our existing health care system. That's fine. End of discussion.

If it is broken, though…what do we do? Do we honestly say "Fuck 'em, Sarah's kids shouldn't get sick!" as if it's actually a choice? Doing that would invalidate our claim to value all human life…which, again, if you wanna stand up and jump in that line, great: end of discussion. Unfortunately, you'll always be marginalized by society, so you've just sealed the deal on your life as a curmudgeonly hermit. Now, for the rest of us at the table…

Where is the solution? What do we DO for people who, for whatever reason that you or I don't know about, don't have the financial means to pay for health care? Do we let them die, thinking "Well, killing off those sick people will certainly clear up the gene pool!" Maybe we wouldn't be in this position in the first place if we'd let SARAH die back when SHE was a baby! "Sure, one less 'tard in the world who shouldn't have procreated in the first place, now there are FOUR people who won't suck dry the resources of honest, hardworking Americans!"

It's a thought problem. If things genuinely don't work right now, then there has to be a fix. What is it?

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

In Need Of An Antonym

I heard an interesting This American Life episode (is there any other kind?) several months ago, the point of which was NOT necessarily words, but had this fascinating segment that had to do with missing words. That is, words that we seem to need, but don't actually have.

I remember Heather talking about this once: as she was translating a letter from a Finnish friend, she paused and said "Sorry, but this word actually has no translation." I was perplexed: what? Just…translate it! In my mind, anything you can say in one language, you can say in another. She explained that there are some words that simply do not pass that language test. Her example: there's a single word in Finnish that means "bigger than a hill, but smaller than a mountain." Turns out that we don't have a single word that means that same thing. We can "translate" it as I have done, but that single word…doesn't exist in English.

The woman on TAL explained that this is called a Lexical Gap: words that we ought to have, that seem logical to have…but we don't. Her example - the one that is used most often to illustrate the point - is that we have a single word for a child whose parents have died: "orphan." But…we don't have a single word for parents whose child has died. A lexical gap.

So. Someone who can do no wrong might be referred to as "perfect," or "flawless." Lots of synonyms for those words. What I need…is an antonym. And not just "imperfect," or "flawed"…those things suggest a state where perfection is lacking, but not necessarily the utter absence of it altogether. I need a single word that means "someone who can do no right." Any takers on this one?

Monday, April 05, 2010

"I Disagree" vs. "You're Wrong"

I'm all about the philosophical process, here. In some cases, it might be fair to say that I'd rather think about a particular problem than actually do something about it. It's not that I'm not a doer, but rather that I find endless fascination in the conceptualizing of a thing. What if this happened? What if we tried this? Has anyone ever tried this? I'm also a dyed-in-the-wool Devil's Advocate, such that I'll pretty much take any opposition side to whatever is presented to me. Again: it's not that I'm without beliefs and opinions…it's just sometimes much more fun to make hay and take the opposite tack.

Which puts me in mind of the decidedly argumentative nature of American society today. Blame it on the 24-hour news cyclone, blame it on increasingly distanced forms of communication…hell, even blame it on the "I ain't here to make friends!" mentality of (un)reality TV; whatever cause you care to give it, we've become a really surly, bitchy, "Fuck you!" lot. And that makes me kinda sad, because while I think there's always room for discourse, always room for another opinion at the table…I don't wish to make room for "Talk to the hand!" arguments. And god, even as I type that, I really see where that bitchiness comes from: "Talk to the hand, 'cause I ain't listenin'!"

So, yadda yadda blah-blah-blah, "American civility down the crapper!" and all that stuff. Whatevs. I simply wish we could get to a place where saying "I disagree with you" does NOT equal "You are full of shit." Politics, the blogosphere, even driving…we all seem so consumed with satiating our own egos that we don't bother to even listen to what the other person is saying. So, we end up going for the throat: "You're wrong!" Instead, can't we listen to each other, and when we disagree, simply say so? We can say so vehemently, but with respect: "Man, I could not disagree with you more, it's like we're from different planets or somethin'…but, okay, if that's what you think, you're welcome to it." That's still not very nice, nor subtle, but it's volumes different from "You fucking moron, I can't believe you even pretend to have a brain, the best part of you slid down yo' mama's ass-cheek!"

Gah. What started out as a well-intentioned post has devolved into something I've worked on in too small of snippets, over too many days. I feel like I've lost my own point, so naturally any eloquent arguments I might have had are gone as well. Just…look. Here it is: disagree with each other. Fine. American way and all that. But at the end of the day, remember that whatever hash-brained thing YOU think is absolutely the right thing, the ONLY thing, there's someone else out there just as convinced that the polar opposite is true. And he probably has "facts" and "quotes" to back up that position. Can we avoid the "He said/She said" arguments and try listening to each other for a change?