Monthly Archives: July 2017

A Brief Meditation on Clipless Pedals

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Last year, while riding in Watchung Reservation, a cyclist passed me on WR Tracy Drive. “On your left,” he shouted as he whizzed by me as if I were standing still. There was no shame in being passed. WR Tracy Drive is a steep incline. The cyclist who passed me was training for hills, and I was just out for a pleasant ride in the park. Nevertheless, as is my habit, whenever someone shouts “on your left” (asshole for “I’m faster than you”) and puts a significant amount of distance between himself and me in a short period of time, I always try to close the gap, or even pass the offending showoff. Usually I have little trouble. I’m a fairly strong cyclist and there are few people I can’t catch if I’m genuinely determined. This guy, however, moved like a grey ghost through the mist. By the time I downshifted and started to pedal in earnest he had already rounded the circle on Summit Lane and was nearly out of sight. Try as I might I couldn’t catch up. I never even came close.

I went home that evening demoralized, feeling weak and old. What was it about the demon cyclist that I lacked? I suppose it could have been age. He appeared to be in his prime cycling years. I’m well into middle age. It could have been conditioning, but it wasn’t being winded that held me back. It was a simple lack of speed. I suppose it could have also been physical strength, but then again, cycling isn’t a sport that involves brute strength. Nobody trains for the Tour de France doing squats. I decided it was form, technique. He was getting more of out his bike than I was. He was younger, stronger, and better conditioned than I was, but he also employed what he had more effectively than I did. I looked down and noticed I was still using my ancient platform pedals with toe clips. I needed something to force me to keep the balls of my feet firmly in the center of the pedal. I also needed to tighten my straps and my toe clips to the point where I’d be using the upward stroke as well as the downward stroke.

I decided it was finally time to switch to clipless pedals.

The term clipless pedals is highly misleading. Even though you literally “clip in” the way you do on a pair of skis, we still use the name invented back in the 1980s to describe pedals without straps or toe clips. They’ve been standard on high end mountain bikes and road bikes for a long time, and they’re starting to trickle down to the masses. The only reason I had put off making the switch for so long was, oddly enough, the Internet. The idea of “clipping into” pedals on crowded suburban roads had always made me nervous. It’s one thing to have your feet bound to your pedals on a group ride out in the countryside. It’s another thing altogether when you have to stop for a red light every few blocks. What’s more, there is a generally accepted truism on the Internet that clipless pedals have a learning curve, that for the first few weeks that you use them you have a tendency to get your feet stuck and fall off your bike. The idea that falling off your bike while learning how to use clipless pedals is so well-accepted on every cycling forum and discussion board and stated with so much confidence I never thought to doubt it. That fall just seemed like something you’d have to go through. It was kind of like losing your virginity, something I didn’t want to experience on a crowded city street.

I’ve never fallen off my bike while using clipless pedals. I’ve never even come close. In fact, they’re so easy to use, I can clip in and clip out so fast, I’m baffled as to where the idea came from. I’ve even tried to get my feel stuck in my Shimano SPD clipless pedals, and take that obligatory fall, but I can’t seem to manage it. My feet always come out effortlessly, and I have a hard time believing that anybody else has had a different experience. So how did it become such a truism on the Internet that getting your feet stuck and falling off your bike is part of the process of learning how to use clipless pedals? I suppose maybe somewhere, sometimes, one person did. Perhaps it was the ghost of Buster Keaton rehearsing for a new silent film somewhere in cinematic heaven. Then he posted it on a cycling forum. Somebody else reposted it, then someone else reposted it again. Eventually it became conventional wisdom. People started to believe it happened to other people even though it never happened to them. Then maybe they made up stories about getting their feet stuck in their clipless pedals (even though they never did) just to feel like part of the crowd.

I’ve away from my ongoing experience with clipless pedals sure of only two things. They work. I’ll never take a long ride without them again. But above all this. People on the Internet are full of shit.

Get a Job You Damned Hippies

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Everybody who’s ever gone to a protest has, at one time or another, been told to “get a job,” and I’ve always wondered about the origins of this particular form of heckling.

I wonder no more.

A statute of the first year of his reign, 1547, ordains that if anyone refuses to work, he shall be condemned as a slave to the person who has denounced him as an idler. The master shall feed his slave on bread and water, weak broth and such refuse meat as he thinks fit. He has the right to force him to do any work, no matter how disgusting, with whip and chains. If the slave is absent a fortnight, he is condemned to slavery for life and is to be branded on forehead or back with the letter S; if he runs away thrice, he is to be executed as a felon.

https://libcom.org/history/bloody-legislation-against-expropriated

The passage quoted above, is from the 28th chapter of Karl Marx’s Capital, and it’s too bad Marx never got to see the Internet.

These days I spend a lot more time on social media than I do protesting, and the online equivalent of “get a job” is “you can’t criticize capitalism on an iPhone.” Every leftist on social media has heard it. Every conservative on social media thinks that by repeating it he’s already won the argument. So how can you respond?

I suppose you could answer with something like “so you just made a homophobic joke on a computer, a device invented by Alan Turing, a gay man,” but these kinds of snappy comebacks rarely affect iPhone trolls. Conservatives believe that we the little people must defer to our betters, capitalists like Steve Jobs, and Alan Turing, an intellectual who invented the computer, but failed to profit by it, doesn’t qualify. In other words, “you can’t criticize capitalism on an iPhone” is a statement of loyalty by an already enslaved individual to his master. The social media iPhone troll won’t get an immediate reward like the medieval Englishman who denounced an idler but deep down inside conservatives believe that if they worship the billionaire class hard enough they may some day get to be part of it.

Dunkirk (2017)

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This is what I felt like watching Dunkirk

As Matt Zoller Seitz observes, Dunkirk is not so much a war movie as it is a disaster movie disguised as a war movie. As an early member of Generation X — so early that I’m almost a Boomer — I’m old enough to remember the classic disaster films of the 1970s. All through Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed reimagining of the almost miraculous evacuation of the defeated British army from France in May of 1940, I kept thinking of movies like Airport, The Towering Inferno, Heatwave, Tidal Wave, and the film it most closely resembles, The Poseidon Adventure. Dunkirk says nothing about the Second World War, the Battle of France, the conflict between fascism and democracy, or the politics of France or the United Kingdom in 1940. Some malevolent force is attacking 300,000 British and French soldiers stranded on a beach less than 100 miles from the British Isles but it’s not the Germans, whom we never actually see. To paraphrase the Slovenian intellectual Slavoj Žižek, Dunkirk, like Jaws, is an expression of a sort of “free floating anxiety.” The Germans aren’t a rival nation. They aren’t fascists or Nazis. They could be just about anything the English speaking world currently dreads.

We have, Zizek argues, a laundry list of fears about corporations, immigrants, the environment and so on . “The function of the shark is to unite all these fears so that we can, in a way, trade all these fears for one fear alone.” He continues to note that fascism worked in precisely this way.

“You need to generate an ideological narrative which explains how things went wrong in a society, not as the result of the inherent tensions in the development of this society, but as the result of a foreign intruder…It’s the same operation as with the shark in Jaws.” This, for the Nazis, was the figure of the Jew.

http://www.critical-theory.com/watch-zizek-jaws-fascism/

Zoller Seitz’s review is intelligent and ambivalent. He quite rightly observes that Dunkirk is a combination of both the best and worst of Christopher Nolan. The problem is he never quite gets at just how bad this movie is. I’m not sure exactly why it’s received such universal acclaim. Maybe, as Zizek observed about Jaws, and as Rick Perlstein observed about 1970s disaster films in his great book The Invisible Bridge, it expresses some of the nihilistic despair of the age. But unlike Jaws or the Poseidon Adventure, Dunkirk is a nasty, elitist, and almost unwatchable piece of dreck with no sense of humor, no faith in the “common man,” and no desire even to entertain the poor innocent viewer who, like me, paid $12 dollars to have his head fucked with for two hours.

Dunkirk is not even a good piece of filmmaking in a purely technical sense. Christopher Nolan insists that we see Dunkirk in an IMAX theater, but why bother? The evacuation of the British Army from France in 1940 was a epic feat by a flotilla of small boats piloted by ordinary British civilians but Nolan captures little of its scale or its significance. All through the final third of the film, when the rescuers finally arrive, I kept thinking “where are all the boats?” Indeed, there only seemed to be about 20 of them, hardly enough to transport 300,000 men from almost certain death — or a POW camp in Germany — back to Merry Old England. By the end of this ludicrously overpraised movie, Nolan just seems to be phoning it in, not even bothering with a bit of CGI even to fake the sight of the over 700 ships that made the Channel crossing that May.

While it’s true that most soldiers are just ordinary men, and that it was the Soviets, not the British or the French who won the war against Hitler, Dunkirk is one of those rare films that made me want to see even some heroism on the part of the western allies. Alas, there is none. While it must be admitted that Nolan’s film does express some of what it must be like to be part of a defeated army that’s lost its discipline and moral, he’s no Tolstoy or Thucydides. It’s difficult to imagine that the army on Nolan’s beach ever had any discipline or moral. They seem sheep by their very nature, passive observers of their own imminent death running around like ants who have just escaped a broken ant hill. Nolan’s neoliberalism and right wing worldview is also on prominent display. Some soldiers do indeed get up off their asses and try to find a way to survive, but it’s always as selfish individuals, and almost always frustrated.

Dunkirk does have one man of heroic stature. Naturally, in a conservative movie, it’s a white, upper-class, middle-aged yacht owner, a soft-spoken man played by Mark Rylance who risks his life, and his son’s life, to rescue as many British soldiers as possible? How do they pay him back?  A troops of exhausted, terrified, and dirty soldiers muck up his boat with oil. A shell shocked infantryman played by the great Irish actor Cillian Murphy murders his young apprentice. For Nolan, it seems, the war against fascism was not about the British people pulling together to beat Hitler. It was about an innately decent bourgeoisie doing its duty to save the world from their own working class. I think we can all pretty safely assume that once the war is over, Rylance’s character will never voluntarily give any dirty, oiled covered proles a ride in his boat, ever again. In the end Dunkirk is just rich man’s paranoia about how the working-class will act when society breaks down.

My God I hated this movie.

The 401k: Free Stuff for the Rich

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The section of the Internal Revenue Code that made 401(k) plans possible was enacted into law in 1978.[4] It was intended to allow taxpayers a break on taxes on deferred income. In 1980, a benefits consultant named Ted Benna took note of the previously obscure provision and figured out that it could be used to create a simple, tax-advantaged way to save for retirement. The client for whom he was working at the time chose not to create a 401(k) plan.[5] He later went on to install the first 401(k) plan at his own employer, The Johnson Companies[6] (today doing business as Johnson Kendall & Johnson).[7] At the time, employees could contribute 25% of their salary, up to $30,000 per year, to their employer’s 401(k) plan.[8]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/401(k)

My late mother left my brother and me two cars, a largely worthless house, a checking account, some debts, and a retirement account that just about covered the debts. My plan was to cash in the retirement account with no delay, and clear the debts. My brother advised against it, insisting that I “roll over” my half of my mother’s retirement account into my own retirement account. Since my brother was taking the time (and time off from work) to deal with the paperwork, I agreed to do it his way. Later, when the bank called in the outstanding debts, he reversed his position and agreed that I should cash in my half of the retirement account to clear my mother’s outstanding loans. A month, and a “small” brokers fee later, all of my mother’s old debts have been cleared.

My brother insists that he wanted to “roll over” my mother’s retirement account to avoid paying taxes, and that’s probably true. Part of me, however, also believes that he was trying to teach me “financial responsibility,” something that I, as the family loser and black sheep, have never had. The more I think about it, the more I realize that they’re both true, that the 401k is basically a gift by the federal government to the rich made possible by brainwashing a large part of  the middle-class that “financial responsibility” means setting aside a little part of your paycheck each week and giving it to Wall Street.

What do I mean? I’m no financial expert, but I do know that the IRS enacted the law that made the 401k possible in 1978, at the dawn of the neoliberal takeover of the American political system. A few years later, Ronald Reagan put the Social Security trust fund into the general revenue . Remember how people laughed at Al Gore for saying it should be put into a “lock box?” In the late 1990s, Bill Clinton had planned to partially privatize Social Security, a plan that was derailed by the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Bush tried, and failed, in 2005. Obama attempted to make Social Security privatization part of a “grand bargain” in 2013, and none of this would have been possible without the 401k, the idea that our “retirement” should be part of an overall investment strategy managed by a public, private partnership between Wall Street and the federal government.

Even though it’s presented as a favor to the middle-class — you don’t have to pay taxes on your income as long as you save it for retirement — it’s really a federal subsidy to the banks. If it were really about “saving” you should have the option to specify a part of your paycheck each month that you can take tax free and hide under the mattress, but you can’t. You need to put it in a fund that will then be invested on Wall Street. Try to imagine just how much money ordinary middle-class people have fronted Wall Street since 1978. Try to imagine what would happen if something went wrong, if those banks helping us to “plan responsibly” acted irresponsibly?

We don’t have to imagine. After the repeal of Glass-Steagall in the late 1990s, the banks did just that. When it all came crashing down in 2008, Wall Street used those retirement accounts as a gun to the head of the American people. Bail us out or the whole system comes crashing down, and you lose everything. The 401k gave the American people a stake in the survival of their own ruling class. At the moment we should have been letting the banks fail and dragging the rich out of their mansions to the guillotine, we suddenly discovered that if the rich failed, we failed. If Mr. Fat Cat McScumbag lost his penthouse on 5th Avenue and his yacht, little Johnny Middle Class lost his college fund. We had been made hostages, not only by the repeal of Glass-Steagall, but by a decades old law that had been presented to us as a gift.

In other words, the 401k is basically free stuff for rich people. Act irresponsibly. Take that money and spend it on hookers and beer.

Feeling Anglophilic

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Last year I cycled 500 miles through New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut on my road bike. I traveled as lightly as possible, bringing only a very small backpack and a handlebar bag. On the whole it was a good experience, but there was one thing I couldn’t stand, walking around in cycling shoes (I used clipless pedals).

So I bought a Carradice “College” saddlebag from Carradice of Nelson, handmade (and signed) by a genuine British person named “Emma.” It seems well made and has a ton of room, enough for a heavy texbook, my raingear, and a pair of running shoes. I may regret not buying one of the smaller bags. I only bought the huge one because it was on clearance, 31 pounds plus shipping, about 65 bucks overall, but then again, I probably won’t. My bike is a “large” and fits someone between 6’0″ and 6’3.” So I don’t raise the saddle that high. But the bag still seems to have plenty of clearance. I’m a little surprised at just how well engineered this thing is. I test road carrying at least 10 pounds and barely knew it was there.

So why not just buy a touring bike with a rack? Well, they’re expensive and hard to find, for one. But they’re also heavy and slow. Doing 100 miles a day requires you to travel as light as possible, and what I’ll mostly be taking on long trips are clothes and spare shoes (not particularly heavy). This bag seems to fit the bill.

So why don’t Americans make more stuff like this? Who knows. American bike stores seem mostly interested in selling you carbon road bikes that weigh 12 pounds or full suspension mountain bikes. This saddlebag is a product of an English cycling (and touring) culture that goes back 100 years. Young Franklin Roosevelt probably used something very much like it on his long cycling tour of Germany.

A Ventriloquist’s Dummy

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As a very early member of Generation X – so early I almost qualify as a Boomer – I had the good fortune to grow up without the Internet. I always had access to computers. Anybody who went to Rutgers in the 1980s will remember the fifty or so original Macs, each in its own cubicle, in the Owls Roost study hall. But that instant community you can get these days simply by opening your laptop and logging into social media would have to wait until AOL in the mid-1990s. I was in my late 20s before I ever posted a thought online. Back in the 1980s, unless you got involved in a college newspaper or literary magazine, you largely wrote for yourself.

During my troll attack last week, one of the ring leaders kept repeating that she couldn’t believe I had twice as many followers as she did. I have about 1200 followers on Twitter. It’s a respectable number for a nobody, I suppose, but it’s also highly misleading. Even though I cull my followers list of sock puppets and spambots, I rarely interact on a regular basis with more than nine or ten people. Social media provides the illusion of an intellectual community more than the reality of an intellectual community. If you spend enough time tweeting you will get followers. That doesn’t mean you’ll get readers. The vast majority of “hits” I get on this blog come from Google searches, not social media, and even here, I doubt the ratio of people who actually read the posts compared to the people who just look at the first few sentences and then go onto the next search result is very high. I have trivial 1200 word film reviews that have gotten over 10,000 “hits.” Four people read my undergraduate thesis on Joseph Conrad, a committee of three professors, and myself.

To acquire “followers” on Twitter or “friends” on Facebook is not so much to get readers, but to enter the corporate “hive mind.” Indeed, on Twitter, if more people actually comment on the tweet than simply like or retweet it, that’s considered a “bad ratio,” and evidence you’re an idiot or a troll. It’s easy to feel popular and smart on social media, especially on the Twitter left. Just find some establishment boob with a blue check mark, wait until he says something stupid, and retweet him with a snarky comment. If your comment taps into the hive mind, you’ll get hundreds of likes and retweets. Or just say something like “smash the state” or “fuck the police” or “that’s racist,” and you can almost imagine that you’ve just written the Communist Manifesto. Argue that people should read the actual Communist Manifesto, on the other hand, or, God forbid, Capital, and you’re just as likely to be accused of being a “privileged” college educated, “ableist” white male.

Twitter and Facebook are both based on a clever lie. You imagine you’re expressing yourself through the software. In reality, the software is expressing itself through you. The more your thinking conforms to a narrow range of acceptable opinion, the more popular you become. The more complex and informed your thought, the more you will be ignored, or even “dragged.” Just about the worst thing you can do on the Twitter left is to start a sentence with the word “actually” – to basically say “I disagree” – or to point out that “not every member of this group fits your description,” the infamous “not all men” cliché. On the Twitter left, you can be more radical than Lenin, but you must never say something like “we should judge people as individuals, not as members of their gender or ethnic group,” and it makes sense. Twitter is not the megaphone of the people. It’s a corporate advertising platform designed to break people down into demographic profiles that can then be sold to advertisers. The more I act as a “white male” or an “American” or a “college graduate from the northeast” and the less I act as “Stanley Rogouski” the more useful I am to lords of Silicon Valley. If I spend enough time on the Internet, I may eventually get more readers than Herman Melville ever got for Moby Dick during his lifetime, but I will in no way be a great, a good, or even a mediocre writer and thinker. I will be the perfect ventriloquist’s dummy.

Images of my suburban dreamworld: 10

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This is my 2013 Jamis Commuter 1 propped up on its seat and handlebars for its monthly chain cleaning. Don’t ask my why I love this bike so much. It’s cheap, heavy, slow, and has required a lot of maintenance over the past few years. Nevertheless it gets me 7 miles to work in the morning, and 7 miles back home in the evening. It’s got a rack for panniers and a chain guard so I don’t have to roll my pants up. It’s so cheap I really don’t have to worry about it being stolen. It’s my bad weather bad neighborhood, leave it at the train station all day and ride it through the rain any time I want bike. When it breaks I’ll get a new one.

I sometimes wonder why people buy mountain bikes for commuting, especially full suspension mountain bikes, especially poorly made, and quite frankly dangerous full suspension mountain bikes from department stores. The Jamis Commuter 1 is cheap and heavy but it’s also simple and well-made. Front shocks are meaningless on suburban streets. A rear suspension on a bike that costs under $2000 is absurd. I suppose it’s all about the “cool factor.” Department stores like Walmart sell dangerous, $200 dollar full suspension mountain bikes because kids like to pretend they’re riding state of the art $2000 dollar full suspension mountain bikes. Then these bikes don’t get used and get sold to very poor people for $25 dollars. I’ve seen Hispanic restaurant workers riding $25 dollar used mountain bikes in January through snow packed roads. They put me to shame, but they’re something to aspire to as worthy in their own way as Chris Froome or Peter Sagan.

The Jamis Commuter 1 will get me through snow-packed salt and brine covered roads this Winter.

Profit and Denial: My Impression of the American Health Care System

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Back in February of 2013, I was riding my bike through the little town of Garwood, NJ, a tightly packed little strip of chain stores and fast food outlets, when I noticed a car door open a few feet ahead. “Well here it comes,” I thought, “the second most common type of bike crash.” Three days later I woke up in University Hospital in Newark, flat on my back, with a tube coming out of my arm. There was a nurse with a clipboard. Fox News was playing on the TV set. I don’t think I was technically in a coma — I did remember a few things, being wheeled into a large machine to get an MRI, accusing the paramedics who saved my life of kidnapping me and planning to send me to a CIA black site, someone fishing my wallet out of my pocket and examining my ID. — but it was close. The nurse had a grave, yet compassionate expression on her face, and as she explained to me the long road ahead, how I would have to learn how to walk again, how difficult it was to recover from such a severe head injury, I realized something didn’t seem right. I began to wiggle my toes. I didn’t feel like a cripple. Besides, Fox News was so irritating, I probably would have gotten up out of my coffin to change the channel. “I think you’re mistaken,” I said, putting one foot on the floor, walking over to the TV set, and changing the channel to MSNBC. “I can walk just fine.”

It turns out that she had simply taken the wrong clipboard. I had suffered a severe concussion that knocked me out cold, and kept me off my bike for the better part of two weeks, but I had been lucky. There would be no permanent damage of any kind. A month later, I was once again cycling 100 mile loops through the mountains of Warren and Sussex County. My finances weren’t so lucky. I had no health insurance. I hadn’t had a real job in two years. I had no savings. When I got the bill for $73,121 dollars, it might just as well have been a trillion. There was no way in the world I could pay it. Fortunately, in addition to having no money, I had no assets. All it took was a do it yourself bankruptcy manual, $300 dollars in court fees, and a few hours in front of my desk, and I was debt free. That $73,121 dollars, in effect, had never existed. It was just a figure on a piece of paper, something for the accounting department of your doctor and your insurance company. It was nothing like paying a dentist $3000 for a root canal, for example, or saving up $30,000 dollars to get a set of implants. The costs of dentistry are real, tangible, and rarely, if ever, covered by your insurance company.

To reverse Marx, history repeated itself, only with me it was first as farce, then as tragedy. The year after my severe, yet easily overcome head injury, my mother fell and broke her hip. Three years later, this Spring, she fell and broke her hip for the second time. That she would die was a foregone conclusion. She was 81 years old, at the end of the natural life span. She had also been severely ill for years, much sicker than I had realized, kept alive by an elaborate regime of prescription drugs, which regulated her heart rate, built up her already spare muscle mass, headed off the ever present danger of infection, and kept her bones from shattering every time she banged into a door frame. The first serious illness was going to kill her. That serious illness came in the form of a bad case of the flu last March. She fell, and broke her hip for the second time. The flu destroyed her respiratory system for good. The hip surgery destroyed her digestive system. The surgery on her intestines destroyed her mind. According to the paperwork I eventually got from Medicare, it cost over $120,000 dollars to keep my mother alive for the Spring in a totally disabled, mentally incapacitated state, and I won’t fault the doctors and the two hospitals for going through the motions to save the life of a woman past the end of her natural life span, but here’s what I will question.

During those two months of hell, there was only one person in either of the two hospitals or nursing homes where they warehoused my mother’s cadaver who gave me the unvarnished truth, a nurse specialist at Overlook Hospital in Summit who explained to me with brutal clarity that at best my mother would wear a colostomy bag for the rest of her life, that her mind was no longer capable of processing information and that the “rest of her life” would be measured in weeks, perhaps months, but certainly not years. At the time, I thought this nurse was cold, even callous, but now recognize her as one of the few one intelligent, independent minded health care professionals I’ve ever met. My mother’s own doctor, a man whom for my mother was a combination of priest and father figure, the only person who could get a semi-lucid reaction from her at all during those last two months, seemed more concerned with being liked than with preparing my mother for the inevitable. He lied to her about the colostomy bag. “There was a chance the procedure could be reversed,” I heard him tell her. Surely he knew better. He had also misdiagnosed her earlier that Winter, failing to give her antibiotics for the pneumonia she had developed as a side effect of the flu. My mother’s doctor was not a callous man nor even an incompetent one, just someone in denial watching a movie he had seen seen dozens of times before, going through the motions, and pretending it would all be different if only he followed the usual script.

In some ways the American system of health care is a system of wealth care. Had my mother needed a long term stay in a nursing home, it would have cost well over $100,000 dollars a year. Even without the planned Medicaid rollback, I would have had to liquidate my mother’s assets before the end of the Fall. For profit health care is more about the extraction of what’s left of the wealth of the middle-class, not about health care. Those fat cat insurance industry CEOs are getting fabulously wealthy off of people like my mother. Lots of nice, 5-bedroom McMansions in suburban New Jersey are getting built off of the profits made from warehousing the elderly. It’s a system that needs to be torn down and replaced with socialized medicine. But the health care professionals, the doctors, nurses, lab technicians, orderlies and custodians are not insurance industry fat cats or nursing home profiteers. They are simply people going through the motions of a script that’s perfectly appropriate for a man in his forties recovering from a bike crash, but woefully inadequate when it comes to preparing a woman in her 80s for the inevitable.

Perhaps it was better when the Catholic Church ran the hospitals. Atheist though I am, I recognize that Christianity assumes that we’re all going to die, and that preparing an elderly patient’s soul for death is as important as guiding a younger patient’s body through the steps of the recovery process. All the doctors and nurses save that one knew my mother was going to die, yet insisted on forcing her through a checklist of steps that assumed she was going to recover. The absurdity of scheduling an outpatient visit for a dying woman it took a nurse and orderly almost an hour to get out of a chair and into bed so she could go through a “post surgical checkup” was obvious to me, a layman. It should have been obvious to the staff at the hospital, and probably was, yet it was that unspoken reality nobody could address openly. The nursing homes, euphemistically called “recovery centers,” are required by Medicare to discharge patients who aren’t making sufficient progress. There was a genuine possibility, at one time, that had my brother and I not been able to afford the $160 a night fees out of pocket, that they would have simply wheeled my mother out to the street and dumped her on the side of the curb. The people who would have committed that atrocity would not have been evil men and women who enjoyed seeing the elderly suffer – that’s not why they went into geriatric medicine – but simply people going through the motions required of them by the for profit health care system, cogs in a machine “just following orders.” Thankfully it didn’t happen, and thankfully, my mother didn’t live to see the hellscape that’s soon to be forced upon the American people by Donald Trump and the Republicans.

On Leftist Twitter Mobs

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Stop reading Confucius you ableist. Get out in the fields and pick some rice.

Last Thursday night, I was attacked by a leftist mob on Twitter, “dragged” to use the commonly accepted parlance. First they went for the resume I have posted on this website. After they realized that it’s a satirical resume with no real information, useless for “doxing” me, they turned to my review of Wonder Woman. My observation that Gal Gadot is a very attractive woman offended them deeply. I was “sexualizing” and “objectifying” a “badass heroine.” Surely, they seemed to believe, this revealed me as a creepy old white man, and would inevitably lead to my losing all 1200 of my followers on Twitter. When that didn’t happen – I lost about 30 – they began to insult me. I was a shitty writer. I was bald. I was ugly. I was sexually frustrated. I was an ugly old, bald, sexually frustrated failed writer with a raging hard on for a Zionist war criminal (the above mentioned Gal Gadot), all of which of course is perfectly true, and none of which had the desired effect, that I “delete my account” on Twitter. Finally, they wheeled out the leftist weapon of mass destruction. One of my trolls, who had a female screen name and a physical appearance as feminine as mine I masculine, was a self-identified “gender queer,” and my use of the pronouns “she” and “her” had revealed me as a “transphobe” and almost certainly a “Gamergater,” which, they declared, was obvious after a more careful examination of the above mentioned satirical resume. So they spent the next two days filling my “mentions” with scatological memes, Photoshopping corncobs onto my eyebrows, and congratulating themselves that they had “dunked” on me real good.

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I guess the Photoshopped corncob over the eyebrow is the leftist Twitter troll’s version of the dunce cap.

While none of this is particularly surprising or uncommon, it is notable, if only because, for me, the shoe is usually on the other foot. I’m a leftist myself. I’m an enthusiastic participant in leftist Twitter mobs, and have no intention of giving it up simply because I’ve seen it from the other side. I highly recommend it. Leftist Twitter mobs are a cheap, no risk, enjoyable way of turning the tables on the elite, most, if not all of whom have Twitter account. That Hillary Clinton supporter who insists on using the term “Berniebro” well into 2017? Drag him. That overpaid New York Magazine columnist who whines about “free speech” whenever a group of Nazis is chased off campus, but remains silent about the ongoing suppression of the BDS movement? Drag him. That white actress who insists on taking roles as Asians or Native Americans? Drag her. Of course she has an intern who answers her tweets, doesn’t know you exist, and won’t notice the social media campaign flooding her “mentions” with hate, but drag her anyway. Yesterday, leftist Twitter found a particularly deserving target, Kevin Drum, a so-called “liberal” who writes for Mother Jones magazine, but who seems to have been wrong on every issue since the Iraq War, which he supported. This week he outdid himself, writing a short essay wondering why “people” are disgusted by the homeless. I observed that the homeless of course are people, and my response, perhaps influenced by the way I had been in his place only the day before, was fairly mild. Other people were not so restrained.

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My trolls tweeted this image at me repeatedly.

So what did I do to deserve being “dragged?” Did I speculate on why “we” find the homeless “disgusting?” Did I make a racist or homophobic remark? Did I say something genuinely transphobic or genuinely sexist? Of course not. I had, rather, blundered into an ongoing and perennial debate among social media leftists about education, and, by doing so, revealed myself to be “ableist.” Reading Marxist theory, it seems, is occasionally used by white male leftist “gatekeepers” to exclude the mentally disabled, women, the poor, and people of color from the left. It takes time, leisure, and a lot of formal education to make it through the entire three volumes of Capital. Besides, some people argue, since working class people live the reality of class struggle everyday, they don’t have to read about it in a book written 150 years ago. Privileging the written word is, well, privileged. I had meant to say “there should be no hierarchies on the left. Everybody should be an intellectual. Everybody should get an education.” It was interpreted to mean “only educated people should be allowed on the left.”

Twitter being Twitter, a microblogging system with a 144 character limit, I did not have time to sufficiently develop my argument, but if I had, it would have gone something like this. Working class people don’t need to be told not to worry about formal education. In fact, the less “privileged” you are, the more you need books like Capital, Wealth of Nations, Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, Mark Twain, and Shakespeare. For the genuinely wealthy and privileged, life under capitalism makes sense. It seems rational. You work hard, you get what you want, and even if you don’t work hard, life always seems to turn out okay. For the working-class, on the other hand, life under late capitalism can be a thoroughly baffling experience. Why can’t I pay my bills? Why can’t I afford good health care? Why does it seem that the harder I work the poorer I get? The ruling class doesn’t want us to understand the system that keeps them rich. They want to keep us ignorant. They deluge us with propaganda, TV shows, bad movies, comic books, shitty music, cable TV news, all of which is designed to make us feel that the world we live in is the only possible world. Just read a play by Shakespeare or listen to a piano sonata by Beethoven on the other hand, however, and you instantly realize that that “another world is possible.” The scales fall off your eyes. You feel yourself in touch with the deepest and most humane impulses of humanity. Adam Smith or Karl Marx may take time and study but it’s worth finding a way to learn their major works. Both men made mistakes, but both provide you with a critical perspective that helps you begin to understand why the world is the way it is. Besides, while Wealth of Nations and Capital are both difficult books, they’re both much easier than the Bible, which is a devilishly hard work to master. If the same evangelical Christians we call inbreds and morons can make it through the Book of Deuteronomy, surely even the most disadvantaged leftist can make it through the Communist Manifesto.

Alas, however, it all came across as “this cis gender white man hates transpeople and the disabled.” Perhaps, as Marshall McLuhan argued, “the medium is the message.” What I noticed in my leftist trolls, the virtue signaling instantly turning into ferocious anger when contradicted, the self-congratulatory tribalism, had a startlingly familiar quality to many Republicans I’ve tilted with online. Indeed, much of what my leftist trolls filled my “mentions” with over the past few days, the memes, the sex shaming, the obsession with human excrement, the harsh accusations that I was ‘being too emotional,” was almost indistinguishable from what I used to get from the Trump Train. The democratic, anti-elitist effect of social media, while genuine, is not genuinely socialist, but rather populist. The leveling effect of “dragging” a member of the elite on Twitter works both ways. It does indeed cut the target down to size, but it also puts blinkers on the members of the angry leftist, or right wing populist, mob. If the Trump Train sees everything as a liberal conspiracy funded by George Soros, my leftist trolls seemed to think everybody they didn’t like was somehow a member of “Gamergate.” Indeed, their obsession with a largely online feud that very few people outside of social media enthusiasts have even heard of was startling. Even if I were as sexist, racist, transphobic, sexually frustrated or abelist as my trolls maintained, I’m still a 51-year-old man, far outside the Gamergate demographic, and couldn’t name the five most popular video games if you held a gun to my head. Perhaps I should just take my own advice and read a book, or, better yet, ride my bike. That would be good advice, but it’s advice I doubt I’ll take. Social media for me is as much of an addiction as Diet Coke, and I’ll almost certainly be back on Twitter tomorrow morning. Oh hell, I’ll be there tonight.

Going Carless

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Back in 2008, right after the beginning of the “great recession” I moved back into the basement of my childhood home. It was only supposed to be for a few months until I found another apartment in the city, but we all know how that goes. Getting a lease in Michael Bloomberg’s hyper-gentrified New York was much easier said than done. So I stayed in my hometown of Roselle, a suburb of Elizabeth, about fifteen miles from downtown Manhattan. For years, like everybody else in New York City, I had been carless. Why bother finding a place to park when you can just take the subway? New Jersey is another story. Nevertheless, I never bought my own car. Not only did I have access to both my parents’ cars, since my mother and father were declining — they were already in their 30s when I was born — I was expected to do most of the driving. After my father died in 2011 and my mother broke her hip the next year, leaving became out of the question. There was no way she could have done her own grocery shopping or functioned without my help.

I’m still in the same basement. Both my parents are gone. My mother, who broke her hip for the second time this March, died slowly and painfully over the course of the Spring. A second broken hip in less than five years would have been difficult, not only for an 81-year-old woman, but for a 30-year-old woman, but it was much more. After the doctors operated on her hip, she developed intestinal problems so severe that she had to go back to the hospital for a second round of surgery. The second surgery, or, to be more specific, the anesthesia for the second surgery, killed her mind. It was so excruciatingly painful for so long that she spent most of the time calling for painkillers, almost as if she had been a wounded soldier in film about the Second World War. “Medic. Corpsman. Morphine.” Then her lungs went, then her heart. In the final weeks of her life, my mother probably weighed sixty five or seventy pounds. It was painful to look at her. Only later did I realize that she had in fact been close to death for almost a year, her bodily functions carefully regulated by a veritable pharmaceutical company of prescription drugs, her life’s energy slowly but surely draining away.

My brother and I inherited the house, a gigantic, dilapidated old colonial dating from the Nineteenth Century that’s essentially worthless because of the town’s shitty schools and ruinous property taxes. If I wind up pocketing $20,000 dollars, I’ll be happy. I also inherited the two cars, either of which I could have kept, but I decided to sell both. Why? I suppose the most important reason is money. The cars brought in a badly needed $3000 dollars. There was also the cost of insurance, and repair. One car needed a new front windshield. The other needed four new tires. There was the price of gas but none of it was really decisive. I could have probably swung the price of the insurance and the repairs had I really wanted to, but I didn’t want to. I have a shitty menial job in a warehouse six miles away from where I live. Driving to work feels like an embalming process. You shit, shower, shave, put your clothes on, and then get into your 3000 pound metal death box. You turn on the radio and the air-conditioning to separate yourself from the outside world, to give yourself the illusion that you are in control of your environment. You are not. The songs on the radio have been chosen for you by corporate America. As aggressively as you drive, you’re still part of traffic. Weaving from lane to lane will not get you to where you are going any faster. You stop when the traffic lights tell you to stop. You start when they tell you to start. You are, essentially, a piece of a machine.

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Cycling is different. Sure the bike I ride was made in a factory somewhere in Taiwan. I ride on the same roads as I did when I drove my mother’s SUV. I stop for red lights. I resume pedaling at green lights, but I don’t really have to. On a bike, I retain some portion of my individual identity. I’m a statistical error. No cop is going to arrest a cyclist for running a red light, if only because he’d have no idea how to fill out the paperwork. I move with the overall flow of traffic, and yet, I move around inside the overall flow of traffic at my will. Sometimes it’s dangerous. New Jersey is not Amsterdam. There are places on the roads in between my house and my job where a cyclist simply cannot obey the rules of the road without getting killed, where you must, for example, ride in the “right turn only” lane even if you’re going straight. The traffic in the other lanes is too heavy and too fast. At other times its liberating. I’ve never felt so arrogant as I did the week after Hurricane Sandy swerving into the middle of usually busy, now empty roads past long lines of cars waiting in gas lines. Hurricane Sandy had stopped America in its tracks. It hadn’t affected me at all. Most importantly of all, however, riding to and from my job transforms the job itself. It’s no longer a destination. Even though it’s demanding physically, it becomes a rest stop between rides.  I ride the day’s tension off in the evening. I come to work relaxed. That bridge in the woods, I get to see it every day.

There are of course difficulties. There are flats. Two weeks ago, I got two pinch flats in one day. I wound up destroying my spare tube, and walking 3 miles to a bike store in the humid, 98 degree weather. I’m not exactly sure why it’s so easy to fix a flat at home and so tough on the road, but I’m sure other cyclists will agree with me that it’s more than just the relative ease of using a floor pump compared to using a mini-pump. It’s an art, not a science. You need to be able to isolate yourself from the outside world to the point where you feel as if you’re sitting at home in your garage. Getting a flat coming home from work is frustrating. Getting a flat on the way to work might mean being late and getting fired. There’s traffic. Cars are bad enough. But I ride almost a mile through an industrial area of Woodbridge, where I not only have to dodge huge 18-wheelers, I have to dodge huge 18-wheelers driven by trainee drivers. There’s a “Get Your CDL” school not far from where I work. There are gigantic potholes. There’s dirt. There’s debris. There’s inclement weather.

Inclement weather has turned out almost to be a pleasant surprise. In the Spring, I bought a good set of rain gear. Every Friday this Summer, it seems, we get heavy rainfall. Last week it rained so hard it came through my rain jacket and soaked me to the bone. I brought an extra shirt and an extra pair of socks, but not an extra pair of shoes. I was miserable and wet all day. This week I was better prepared. I tied my rain jacket down properly. I brought spare shoes. It didn’t rain as hard. As I road home through the misty drizzle, I began to feel myself getting back in touch with my body after the long, hellish Spring of my mother’s death. The oppressive heat of the previous day had dissipated. The moisture on my cheeks reminded me of my early 20s when I used to hitch hike through northern British Columbia on my way to work in Southeast Alaska. I was young again. I was free again. Death no longer hovered over me like a dark cloud. It was rain, simply rain, nothing more.