Thursday, December 02, 2004

Walking past the library (again)

My walk to the office from the train station takes me past the Downtown L.A. Library. It is not uncommon to see individuals sitting on the benches or wandering the walkways outside its walls who seem to have a great deal of free time and an inconsistent bathing schedule. Except when there shooed away by Los Angeles’ finest aging, overweight officers so a film crew can shoot a scene for a commercial there.

Over the years I’ve seen quite a bit, from insistent down-on-their-luck souls just seeking spare change "for the bus" to bag ladies shuffling along with vacant eyes. I dare not suggest I’ve seen it all, and I don’t mean to sound jaded, but let's just say it takes some effort to show me something new in the arena (so to speak).

One recent morning as I approached the corner of 5th and Flower (the edge of the library grounds) I came upon an older man coming the other direction. He had no front teeth, and was dragging an empty shopping cart behind him. (Nothing novel about either of these elements of the situation). When I got within about eight feet of him, he looked more-or-less at me and muttered with as much of a scowl as one can muster without teeth: "Call 9-1-1… I'm gonna take out your legs with some 2x4s."

However, before any of this could come to anything, the light at the intersection turned green for me to cross, so I continued walking past him without breaking stride, nodding at him in vague acknowledgment, commenting to myself, "Well, fair enough."

Some people would have been alarmed at the moment of accost from a man with a tenuous grasp on reality, but I appreciated (at least theoretically) the warning; it’s not everyone who gives one the opportunity to summon emergency assistance before being attacked. Or being thusly threatened. I mean, it’s more than Ron Artest gave that first guy he punched in the Auburn Hills crowd (although whether most NBA players have any better grasp on reality is arguable).

I was not concerned, however, because not only was he not a professional basketball player, it was clear that he didn’t have any lumber in his cart with which he could follow through on his declaration (and even if he had, I felt reasonably comfortable with my ability to dodge his attempt to strike).

Besides, I bet he says that to all the boys. Reflecting back, I don’t even feel special.

Still, if I’d had any change in my pocket I might have given it to him—not so much out of pity or out of fear but for giving me something a little different. Heck, I pay a bunch of money for cable that I don’t watch that much; surely his gesture, though likely sincerely malicious (in his mind), was worth a small donation.

(Not what he really needs, of course, but that’s not the focus of this piece. Ahem. Okay, everyone who walks past numerous homeless people every day, please raise your hand. Now, keep your hand up if you would have helped him. No, I mean taken him your home and… Yes, that’s what I thought.)

To counter that, allow me to describe another recent encounter. This one occurred on the evening walk to the station, well after dark. That’s when only the (what we’ll call) the die-hard panhandlers are out; the heavy foot traffic in Downtown L.A. is in the middle of the day, before businesspeople have gotten into their BMWs and SUVs—sometimes in their BMW SUV—and returned to their communities (where the homeless are restricted to a couple guys outside 7-Eleven), so those still there in the evening are, in a manner of speaking, more committed to their craft than those who dwell there at midday.

There were two women walking in front of me and I’d already started moving to pass them when I discerned the figure on the corner on the other side of them was a panhandler. From my position and due to the poor light I couldn’t read the sign he held, although I imagine it involved a plea for help. I didn’t have any change in my pocket (you may be noticing a pattern), but I did glance at him, curled up the corners of my mouth and nodded in some acknowledgment of him being there, which is more than the ladies did (even though he had teeth and no shopping cart). The traffic signal was already green so I kept walking out into the crosswalk, but before I got too far I heard him say in a sincere tone, “Thank you for smiling.” He sounded like he genuinely appreciated simply not being ignored.

In the past I’d received many automatic “bless you” responses from those whose pleas I’d semi-apologetically declined, but being thanked for granting him the same treatment I’d give anyone else with whom I made eye contact did make me think about things differently. It was probably the case that most people not only didn’t give him anything but went out of their way to pretend he wasn’t there.

Whatever qualms I may have with straight-up giving such people money—or rather, qualms with the authenticity of their sob stories—I have no issue with regarding them as human beings. (That is, at least up until I catch them in obvious lies that undermine their pleas.)

This is where you’re hoping I say I turned on my heel and went back and gave him some money, or marched him to a restaurant and bought him food and talked to him. Well, I can say with absolute honesty if I see him again I’ll certainly be more inclined to at least pause and find some spare change. Even if it causes me to miss the train and have to wait 20 minutes for the next one.

Admit it: A few paragraphs back you thought me heartless. And at best you were only partially correct. So there.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Won't get fooled the first time: Confessions of a ne'er do well

Generally, I avoid being topical. It’s not so much a fear of becoming quickly irrelevant (I prefer to do that slowly); I tend to procrastinate too much to stay on top of what’s going on from a commentary standpoint. There’s plenty of people out there picking up the slack in that regard.

Despite my best intentions, I have encountered thoughts going through my mind lately of a political nature. Don’t worry; it’s not what you think. Except for those of you who know me, where it will likely be exactly what you think.

Let’s get something clear up front: I am the problem. I’m cynical as heck when it comes to politics. I am not particularly of the belief that my vote really counts. I was pretty young when the Watergate scandal happened, and honestly have no first-hand recollection of it, but I have grown up in the wake of it and cannot escape its legacy. I don’t find I want to. I absolutely think politics is a game, much like football, or, to a lesser extent, badminton, and as such, the point is winning, not being a good sport; it seems the rules of the game apply only to the extent one must try to not get caught breaking them. For better or for worse, I came into being pretty much about the time when either a) reporters got better at finding the rule-breakers, b) reporters decided to start reporting on the rule-breaking (after a long period of tacit acceptance), or c) politicians got cocky about rule-breaking. (Likely all three.) I never got to regard presidents as heroes like past generations apparently did.

And I say, thank goodness for that. Rebuking the system may not make the world any better but blind adherence to it ain’t exactly the best way to go either.

I’m not saying that any of the above is true in an objective sense. I’m stating that most of the horrible clichés that have been proffered by the pundits and the TV shows and the movies about my generation’s apathy toward politics are pretty much the opinions I have about the process. I’m not proud of that—not because I wish I thought politics was cool, but because it’s such a drag to actually fit in with my peers; I’m not fond of fitting the mold, even though I realize I do more often than not. What little shred of individuality I delude myself into believing I have is somewhat fragile in that regard.

Given that stance, it may be a little bit of rebellion against stereotype that I have voted in every significant election since I came of age (including, now, five presidential ones). I do read the ballot and take some time to research the initiatives; yes, this is bordering on taking the wretched system seriously. However, it may be completely predictable, falling back into the trap of cynicism, that not once have I cast a ballot for a candidate who was elected president (or governor; I don’t recall if by accident I hit on any actually elected senators, representatives, assembly members, judges, or mayors; anything’s possible, but I wouldn't hold my breath on it.)

How have I achieved such a phenomenal track record of political target-missing? It’s actually not that difficult: I live on the West Coast, and I generally vote in the evening. With the glory of our modern media’s ability to keep the public informed on the status of the vote tabulation, the winning candidate is often announced before I get to the poll. My state’s electoral college pledge (nearly double that of any other state) is already over in one candidate’s tally before some retiree has found my name in the registry.

That is not me succumbing to apathy; it’s my genuine experience. I long ago accepted it as how it goes. I’m not the least bit bothered by it. Frankly, it takes a lot of pressure off, and allows me to punch the hole for the Libertarian, the Green Party rep, the Peace and Freedom guy, or… no, I don’t think I got to Nadar before he fell off the ballot. I know they won’t win, but I kind of feel someone should make them feel like they didn’t completely waste their time; they made some effort—perhaps not much, but some—to be involved even knowing they would lose miserably, and I have to respect that in at least a tiny way.

Some people are now ashamed of me for seemingly “throwing away” my vote. Here’s the thing: That’s their opinion. My opinion is that it’s a representative democracy (a republic, actually—you know: “…and to the Republic, for which it stands…”), which means that individuals only matter to the extent that a bunch of other individuals have the same position and can get a candidate who represents them to represent them in the system. (That’s an oversimplification, admittedly, but come now: You all just watched the big map on CNN turning colors that represented a majority for a given area but certainly not everyone in said area, so you know this to be the way it operates, like it or not.) I don’t believe I am like a majority of others, as noted earlier, therefore my vote be swallowed up by those who have found a greater community in my geographic locale. It is what it is: irrevocably flawed but still the best system around (mostly because socialism is completely unrealistic, given our basically selfish nature).

I have yet to come across a candidate—or, for that matter, a political party (or, for that matter, a religious philosophy)—I felt “represented” me. There have been ones who have held some of my views, but I consider that more coincidence than anything. When it gets down to it, the thought of a politician who really represents me frightens me severely. I don’t want an official who’s ostensibly working for me who is like me; I’m undermotivated, reasonably intelligent but lazy, and largely indifferent about a great many things. In short, with proper backing, a personality makeover, and the relinquishing of what principles I like to think I have, I would probably make a fine politician.

I know. Scary. We all deserve better.

Like most cynics I have enough lingering idealism to really screw up myself. Because of that, I want politicians who don’t represent me but instead are better than me. I accept that all humans are innately flawed, but statistically some must be less screwed-up than the rest of us. (Obligatory cynical clichéd but true remark: They’re too smart to go into politics.) Hence my dismay with politics: There’s no way for me to not be disappointed. This makes it harder to invest myself emotionally in the government, but all in all, that’s not so bad.

There’s a lot of people who were very invested in this most recent election, particularly for the one who wasn’t in office, and they are now completely distraught. I understand this, of course, but from my detached standpoint (it’s kind of like how I can appreciate the blues while never having been oppressed: I can envision what it must have been like, based on the completely different frustrations of my life… exaggerated ridiculously). By no means was I happy about the outcome, but for me I wasn’t going to be “happy” had it gone the other way; it’s politics. It is what it is: Something John Stewart will skewer on the Daily Show no matter who’s in the Oval Office. When it comes to politics for me, the only thing that's exasperating is how the people who get exasperated about it get further exasperated by my not getting exasperated about it.

Anyway, as I was saying, I’m arrogant enough to conclude no politician represents me, and I’m too principled (in theory) to concede my support to the one who is least unlike me, yet I’m contraire enough to keep voting even though it would seem my beliefs would direct me to stay away from the polling place. I suppose the only way to justify the cynicism expressed above regarding the assertion that my individual vote doesn’t matter that much by itself is to keep casting it and having it not matter that much, with that inexplicable hint of idealism way in the back holding out for the time I’m wrong. Perhaps there is that extent to which it’s easier to just vote than to have to keep explaining to my friends why I didn’t, but really, I’m not against voting or the system; I’m just acknowledging its limits. It’s what we have, so I may as well get what I can from it. That may be the pathetic joy of having had the opportunity to vote ironically. Anyone who voted for a candidate who won will never get some mileage out of being able to tell others at a party (or on a blog) that he got to vote for an unabashed lunatic millionaire. Oh wait. That’s not clear enough. I mean he got to vote for Ross Perot. (Clinton had already been projected the overwhelming winner, people. Loosen up.) That specious bragging right they can never take away.

I told you that to tell you this: The day after the 2000 election, while the recount mired the country in confusion, I told a friend, “At this point, both sides are just fighting to house-sit for four years. Whichever candidate gets in there won’t be re-elected in 2004.” And then due to circumstances we all understand yet are completely flummoxed by, it was clear the election would be close. It was touted as important with that implication that even us cheeky bastards shouldn’t mess with it. So when I found myself in the booth, I set aside my cynical principles, and I punched the hole for Kerry/Edwards, with the sincere belief that my off-the-cuff remark from four years before would be made prophetic.

Well, we all see how that went.

I’ll take this opportunity to apologize to my Democratic friends. I didn’t realize the universe was so hell-bent on keeping my not-voting-for-the-winner steak going. Who’d have thought one person could make a difference? (Now you all wish I’d voted for Bush, I bet.)

Remember: Don’t compromise just out of fear of being wrong, even if it’s merely being wrong for completely asinine reasons.

Thank you, and the deity of your choice (or lack thereof) bless America.

"The makers of the of the Constitution sought to protect Americans... . They conferred, as against the government, the right to be left alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men." - Louis D. Brandeis, Supreme Court Justice, 1928

Monday, October 25, 2004

It's a Good Life

Much as I wish I could attribute my moments of serenity in the face of unbelievable chaos to meditation or love of my fellow man, it really springs from a prudent fear that was brought to the public approximately seven years before I was born.

Through no fault of my own, I have lived my entire life in the metropolitan Los Angeles area, a socio-economically diverse region. Most Angelinos don’t experience each other because they cocoon themselves in their vehicles as they get around town. That's not to say they don't piss off each other, just that their interactions are separated by tons of metal, glass, rubber, and (with any luck) several meters of asphalt. I was that way until five years ago when I started taking public transportation (light-rail trains) to and from work.

There is a certain level of calm I’ve achieved—well, at least, there’s a level of frustration I’ve avoided by not having to sit in traffic. Generally, by the time I get home each night I have decompressed from the work day by being able to just sit on the train and not need to worry about those around me. Or rather, by developing the ability to ignore them pretty well.

I’ve seen businesspeople in suits talking on cell phones. I’ve seen homeless people curled up sleeping across the seats. I’ve seen teenage boys hitting on teenage girls before they reach their stop. I’ve seen the overly righteous stand up and evangelize. And I’ve tuned out that and much more by putting on my headphones and playing my Walkman a bit louder, gazing out the window at the passing scenery of Compton, Watts, and south central L.A.. I have avoided trouble by adapting the methods of those in the autos: Don’t make eye contact. I keep to myself, and any thoughts I may have about my fellow passengers I direct to the pad of paper that is usually across my lap.

It’s not always easy, of course.

One evening not long ago, I arrived at the downtown station (the beginning of the line) and boarded the train as I had many times before. Surveying the open seats, I took one by the window in the last row. In front of me was a curly haired child of perhaps 3 or 4, with what I presume was his mother in the aisle seat beside him. As I waited for the train to get under way, I donned my headphones, pulled out the pad, and began to compose some inchoate thoughts about email-maintained friendships (which may or may not become an entry here someday). The young lad stood, turned and faced me, leaning his head over the back of the seat, seemingly enthralled by the sight of my pen scratching along the paper. I suppose at that age, uncorrupted by video games, journal writing could be rather entertaining (even without comprehension of what’s being written). I smiled at his advances, as he was smiling at me. Or in my direction. The mother must have been very tired, as she could barely keep her eyes open, much less pay attention to him. (The young woman who had taken the seat next to me read her book with intensity; she was better able to play the game of ignoring surroundings, with the child focused on me.)

I kept writing, undaunted. As I noted, I have years of experience with dealing with distractions, and even a toddler’s head moving back and forth from the seat in front to inches from my face was not enough to disrupt my modest creative momentum. I had, however, underestimated my companion.

Again his head drooped over the seat and, having grown bored with the flicks of the pen, dribbled spittle on the edge of the page.

He laughed delightedly. This brought his mother from her pseudo-slumber, and she made futile attempts to pull him back in to his seat, with little swats of his bottom making no difference in taming him.

I smiled in feigned amusement, and turned the page.

He turned around, facing forward again (but still not sitting down), leaving me alone not because of any action his mother had taken but rather because he’d lost interest in me. She resumed her inability to stay fully awake, not saying anything to me at any point during or after the… interlude.

I know some people would have interceded before the child could do such a thing. I know some people would have demonstrated their indignant rage at such action. These people clearly have not seen the episode of the Twilight Zone from 1961 titled “It’s a Good Life” (starring a young Billy Mumy in a truly distrurbing portrayal of an omnipotent adolescent). I have seen it. Many times. And I paid attention.

The child shrugged off spankings with glee. The mother was beleaguered to the point where her futile discipline was nothing more than an attempt to make them seem normal, but I saw through it then. Clearly he was the spawn of something demonic, and who knows what powers his wicked heritage had given him. I smiled to convey the sense that it was a good thing that he’d drooled on the paper. A very good thing.

Admonishing the mother would be pointless; this was beyond her mortal skills. Undoubtedly she suffered every day since some smooth-talking denizen of the netherworld wormed his way betwixt her legs; me calling her an abjectly poor parent would barely register. I suspect she wasn’t actually napping, but rather making some plea in her mind to whatever power in the universe that might keep her child from destroying us all. Anything I said would have only distracted her from that.

Some may conclude that I’m actually just too pusillanimous to confront these inconsiderate individuals, but I prefer to think of it as taking the high road and not exacerbating the situation. I like to believe they will pass through my life quicker if I just leave them alone. When it gets down to it, they’re just not worth getting upset over. Really. Not one f#%*&^g bit upset over.

And most important, I don’t want to be wished out to the cornfield. I may not be making the world a better place, but I certainly couldn’t do anything from out there.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Karma: A morality play... er, ploy

How could he, having a comfortable home and a full stomach and disposable income, blithely pass a homeless person on the street, not donating even a few meager coins to the haggard individual, and then expect any worthwhile good fortune to come his way?

Was it a matter of convincing himself that the spare change would not get the person off the street, would only facilitate the person’s situation another day without improving his lot in any significant way? Could it be as simple as assuming the person would only use any collected funds to purchase booze or drugs and therefore he was refraining from encouraging those destructive behaviors (that were only keeping the person down)? Might he approach it from the assumption the person didn’t want to rejoin mainstream society with all its pratfalls, and as a choice made consciously or unconsciously by the person that he need not feel compelled to support it? Need he tell himself were he to end up the victim of such a fate he wouldn’t expect to live off the pity of others, that if he couldn’t actively take steps to get back on track he would be better left to die in the gutter?

Would he be in the clear (as it were) if he genuinely believed that not giving to the panhandler was the right thing to do? Was that the standard by which karma judged good from bad? If so, he could not be denied any compensatory (albeit minor) benefit in some future scenario. However, were he just pretending to believe in the conviction of such action (or lack thereof) to assuage any guilt, would it not stand to reason that karma could not only deny him thusly but that karma would be obligated to inflict upon him some (minor) bad fortune?

Would it be wiser still to conclude the dispensing of fortune held no overall fairness, that it was ultimately arbitrary (at best), and that all for which one should hope was the absence of any really awful circumstances to befall one (such as whatever would lead one to be living on the street without any loved ones to come to one’s aid)?

As unsettling a thought as that was, he found some strange comfort in it. By the criteria that one need only believe one is doing right in order to deserve karmic reward, the true a-holes of the world—the egomaniacally self-centered, the hideously self-righteous, the incorrigibly inconsiderate—would need merely believe in their own minds that their actions were good, that they were justified in doing so, to be entitled to have situations turn in their favor more often than not.

What he feared most was that these individuals did believe it already, that whatever influence that should have set them on a better path had failed, and that all the breaks they got would simply continue to come their way because they were not tethered to the same mindset with which he had been saddled; their oblivion was their trump card in the game, but he could never have that because something inside him compelled him to comport himself in a manner he considered to be considerate of others.

If there were some universal standard of behavior that applied equally to everyone regardless of personal belief, the a-holes would get theirs eventually, and that was pleasing to consider, but it meant he was just as likely to be karmically screwed by his actions as he was to discover he truly had done right.

As he’d dismissed the beggar’s plea with nothing more than a half-hearted apology without even breaking stride, he had to dismiss the expectation that giving anything to the person would later result in something good happening to him; as long as there was neither the proverbial rhyme nor reason behind who got good things when, as long as it was out of his control in any way, there was a certain liberation to be found.

Anyway, it was a big world; he couldn’t be held responsible for all of its problems.

That night he slept an unfettered sleep, on a comfortable bed and not on a piece of sidewalk, solid in his conclusion that even if he didn’t do “good” by not giving to the beggar he at least didn’t do “bad” (he didn’t kick the man or spew insults as he passed, for example), and that there was something to be said for that in this day and age. Not much, but a little.

Besides, he thought, doing good should be motivated by genuine altruism, not fueled by the hope of some later reward from intangible forces. He didn’t always do good, but when he did, he did it for its own sake, without expectation of compensation. Perhaps the next day he will be of a different mood when passing the homeless person, and reach into his pocket and pull out whatever coins he finds and place them right in the dirty outstretched hand before proceeding on his way, without giving the beggar another thought. And whatever would come of it would come of it.

One thing was certain: He wouldn’t be donating any money to charity. Not only was that tainted by tax-deductibility, but those organizations were worse than the homeless; they would harangue you at home over and over until you succumbed to their guilt-inspiring implications or were worn down by their unwavering persistence. (What a-holes.)

Dealing with karma had to be a matter of carefully defining one’s criteria about it.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

fun with grammar and style

The following is the unedited text of a memo sent on 11 June 2004 from the management of the office building where I work. My interspersed annotations are bracketed and colored orange. The names have been removed to protect the ignorant.
In honor of former President Ronald Reagan's funeral, the United States of America's 40th President, [The funeral was 40th president? I should have paid better attention during that administration] [Building Management] will have the Auditorium available for viewing continuous news coverage throughout the day. [Communal television viewing: Memorials for the 21st century.] The Auditorium, located on the Concourse level, will be open Friday, June 11, 2004 from 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.

[Building Name] will have the American flag flown at half-staff in honor of former President Reagan. [Yes, we got the "former" part the first time you mentioned it. Most of us had down the notion that he wasn't presently in office. Feel free to mention the national day of mourning aspect, just to mix it up; that's why it's happening today, even though he died nearly a week ago.]

Please feel free to bring your lunch and refreshment [read: we're not providing jack shit] as you observe this historical [possibly just historic, unless it's based on something from the past] and somber event in our nation's history. [Will the passing of the 43rd president prove to be somber? Only time will tell.]
Is it ironic that communicating about the Great Communicator proved so difficult?

Follow-up Note: On my lunch hour that day I poked my head in the auditorium to check the attendance. At that time, it consisted of 4 people. The building has 55 floors.

Monday, January 19, 2004

just in case... it's been nice...

just in case... it's been nice...

[email composed 19 January 2004]

Greetings everyone,
Please remain calm while reading this.

It is approximately 1:40 pm (PST) as I type this message. I am home because the office is closed for the observation of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

While flipping around the channels on cable television, I discovered that the Showtime network was airing two Pauly Shore movies on two separate channels simultaneously (Son-In-Law on Showtime and Bio-Dome on Showtime 2).

Although I am not an adherent to any particular religion, I am reasonably certain that a scheduling coincidence such as this is undoubtedly a harbinger of some impending apocalyptic event--I find myself questioning how to justify the continued existence of a species that could unleash that upon the universe, and I can only imagine that whatever power there is out there would feel the same.

Rather than wait for that, I just wanted to take this opportunity to issue a proper farewell to everyone in my address book. I've had a good life, and regarding our species as a whole... well, who would have thought we would have lasted as long as we have and thrived as well as we have, especially considering those sabre-toothed tigers and whatnot in our very, very early days?

Anyway, thanks for being my friend.

And on the off-chance that the world doesn't end... uh, well... howdy. Hope your having a swell day. I need to go cancel my cable now...

~ Doug

p.s. If you could offer some response that you are alive and surviving as best you can in this Pauly Shore-riddled world, that may help to make me feel better about things.