(thumbnail courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, original image found here)
Like the title? Take that old campaign slogan as a reminder, in this season when inauguration day is so close and Midwest bashing so popular on both coasts, that my native region did in fact send a president to the White House not so very long ago, and his name wasn’t Trump. Now, which enlightened part of the country gave us that man? I forget, but I’m sure it will come back to me.
As a barbaric Midwesterner, on looking at this article by Jeff Barron, I found that the author made a lot of assumptions about the lifestyle of the reader that weren’t as generally applicable as he seemed to want to think they were. Certainly, they were not applicable to mine. My thought, as I look at these items that I supposedly couldn’t get past without spending $50 (my budget for three days) was that much of this looked ready to go straight into a landfill, as if those weren’t filling up quickly enough already. Taking a look at the aptly labeled item number 2:
The place for a book is on a bookshelf, or at the very least, on one’s desk, where one will be reading it when one gets up the next day. In a “bedside caddy”, it is waiting to be damaged should one toss and turn during the night. Books are not things that I throw out, they are things that I treasure and return to, as references if nothing else, so breaking the binder on one would be annoying.
Reading in bed raises safety issues, as well. Does one never read with pen in hand, ready to write notes about what one is reading? What happens if one falls asleep as one reads? That pen is ready to go right into one’s eye. I like having binocular vision and would like to go on having it. How about you?
This one just seemed wrong. Clothing for pets? Let us get past the humor of the image and think about what is being done.
I don’t have any pets, but if I did, I’d recognize that they were living beings distinct from me, deserving of at least some degree of respect, and to non-consensually stick them inside garments that wouldn’t feel natural to them (or in any way be needed) would be both demeaning and cruel. Ever see a dog struggle to get his fake antlers off at a friend’s holiday party? If I did like my pets, even a little, why would I treat them that way? If I didn’t like them at all, why would I have pets? Would I not try to find a home in which they would be loved? This made no sense to me, philosophically, but at least we were still in the realm of physical possibility.
I will firmly maintain that Los Angeles is not a real city. Real cities look like cities. Los Angeles looks like a giant, smog choked suburb in which a few office towers were put up by mistake. This is understandable, as the place has earthquakes (a lot of them). Chicago has earthquakes, too, but as they come a few hundred years apart, and the next one isn’t due until some time in the 23rd century, we don’t worry about them very much. We figure, by that time we’ll be able to have Scotty beam us out of the way. Or something. That being the case, we’re willing to save on the cost of land by building vertically, cutting down on travel time and giving us something that looks and feels more like a city.
Squirrel feeders? My apartment is more than 100 feet above the tree tops in my neighborhood. If a squirrel managed to get up to my place to eat, I would gladly bring him a dinner plate, if only we had balconies. Which we don’t, probably because of that over 100 feet down thing (over 300 feet down, toward the top of the building). Picture the weekend coming, and some funny person deciding to throw his beer bottles over the edge - that could get gruesome. So, much as we’d like to cater to those superpowered squirrels, it’s just not going to happen, even if the squirrels do manage to develop superpowers, and no doubt, take bloody vengeance upon the dogs, for centuries of terror and oppression, forcing us all to become cat people, I suppose.
No, it’s still wrong.
The pour-over brewer: I’ve never made coffee. This is true: I have yet to make my first pot of the stuff. I might make some, soon, because I intend to play around with it as an ingredient in at least a few recipes, but up until now, I’ve had no reason to do so.
Drinking coffee alone seems a little sad to me. I go to coffeehouses for that. When I do, like a lot of my neighbors, I will be walking, because the CTA costs money, and job security is just so last millennium, as far as our local employers are concerned. Sure, some people will pre-caffeinate in order to fit in better with the crowd once they arrive, but this is a choice of questionable wisdom in a city in which public washrooms are miles apart. A 1.5 mile hike might not sound like much, but try it hopping on one leg, while weighing the relative merits of soiling oneself in front of an audience and spending the rest of one’s life as a registered sex offender for pubic urination. Those 30 minutes could end up seeming like a lifetime, unless one wants to wait for so long before going, that everybody has cleared out of the coffeehouse by the time one shows up.
Knorks - sticking a cutting implement inside one’s mouth. What could possibly go wrong, and will I be able to say anything about it after it does?
I think I see where this one comes from. There’s something that people in our area call “the Anglo-Saxon wannabe tabletop two step”, a strange maneuver that calls for the practitioner to either switch one’s knife and fork between one’s hands every time one cuts one’s food, because Emily Post will return from beyond to haunt one if one ever cuts or lifts something with one’s left hand - or even better, that one should first saw one’s food (again, just with the right hand), put down the knife, pick up the fork, spear the (presumably, by this point room temperature) food, stick the food in one’s mouth, chew, put the fork down, pick up the knife again, and continue in this manner until one’s plate is partially, but not entirely cleared of food, because to refrain from wasting food on a planet filled with starving people would be the height of rudeness.
But you see, I live in a city in which even caucasians are a minority, and Anglo-Saxons are only a tiny subset of that minority, so here, when one says “Emily Post”, the response will probably be “Emily who?”. Unenlightened by such wisdom as hers, we are often left defenseless against the ravages of common sense. We will think nothing of holding the knife in one hand, using it to cut while holding the food in place with our forks (held in the other hand) and then lifting food which we can then eat while it is still warm (or chilled) without switching implements or putting anything down. Shocking, just shocking, isn’t it? Worse still, left handers will reach for things with their left hands, and see no correction - but that is a scandal for another time.
Point being, that without the rigid etiquette dictated by a culture that is not our own, we’re left without a problem for the knork to solve, and the thought that internal lacerations are a bad thing. So, we’ll pass on that knork thing, but thank you. Really.
Bento boxes - Where am I going to carry that? Time to shock the people in Los Angeles: like a lot of people in Chicago, I don’t drive. I take public transportation or walk. This saves literally saves me thousands of dollars each year, on the cost of the parking spot alone (which I think start at over $600 per month in my neighborhood), and I can read while I’m on the El or bus; I couldn’t really do that if I was driving.
Am I going to stick a bento box in my backpack, next to my books? Sounds messy. As I walk (ask an Oregonian what that word means) along, the boxes are going to pop open, because they will have tipped over.
Desk lamp made of wood and iron - you do know that wood is a brittle material and iron is a heavy one, don’t you? What is that item going to look like in a few decades?
Yes, I know - living in California, you probably don’t think in those terms, but as I write this, I sit at my great-uncle’s old desk, having slept in my great-aunt’s old bed, my keyboard lit by one of my father’s old lamps. In some parts of the country, we don’t get paid absurd amounts of money just for showing up for work, and we’ve had to learn to be a little more frugal, buying solid items that will last instead of an endless stream of flimsy items to be constantly replaced. In the long run, we spend less money that way, and gain an added connection to the past. Looking at that lamp, I do not see something that I could someday pass along to one of my nieces or nephews. I see cracks propagating through the wood, eventually growing to macroscopic size and finding their way to the surface. I guess one could put splints along the fracture, and maybe I would if I got such an item as a hand-me-down, but would one not do better to just to get an all iron lamp from the beginning, and sidestep the entire problem?
The shower step, for shaving my legs? I have yet to have a girlfriend ask me to do that, Jeff, and I’ve gotten around a little. I know that the waxed male body is just the latest thing, but I see no evidence that anybody but the waxed males like that trend.
Look at the $20 bill. It gives us a sense of scale as we see how large this water bottle is. This is a water bottle for somebody who doesn’t walk anywhere, and is never more than a few steps from a car. It also seems like a foolish choice, even where you live, because if that car ever breaks down, nature will give you a quick, harsh reminder that Los Angeles has an arid climate.
Chicago, not so much, but we still get hot days and dry days, and people still get thirsty. The sensible choice is not this silly little $13 item. It is to spend a portion of that buying a pair of large, square bottles of water, drink those and then refill them with Lake Michigan tap water. I’ve peeled off the labels, so I’m not sure how large these bottles are, but they appear to be about three liters apiece in size, and usually last a few years before they start to leak and have to be replaced.
For those who’ve often been getting around on foot, and been using public transportation when they’ve not, a backpack is a thing one must have. It is indispensible. How else is one to carry 6 liters of water, which will not be at all an excessive amount on days when the temperature will be above 90, and the relative humidity above 80%? To go around with only that little thing, which looks to be the size of a bottle of cholula (5 fluid ounces), is at best to have a very bad day, and at worst, to foolishly endanger one’s own life. Go back through the archives for the Chicago Tribune - our heat waves do kill people, and so prudent people will treat our weather with respect. A backpack provides one with an easy way of carrying those water bottles and other possessions, without fear that one will forget and leave them somewhere, or for that matter, spend the whole day juggling. Two water bottles, one’s reading material and what else? Without a backpack, how does one carry all of that, comfortably?
Having a backpack, if one is carrying books or some sort of journal in which one writes, one eventually learns to keep these wrapped up, because all of that bouncing will add to wear and tear. No expensive purchase is needed for that, just a pair of quart zip lock food storage bags, one around the other, will achieve this just fine, while addressing a few problems that locals will have.
1. Chicago has sudden, torrential downpours. Those cheap, ziplock hefty bads, easily had at any Jewel foods in 30 packs for a few dollars each, when zipped shut and nested (outer zip lock downward) can keep one’s journals and reading material dry and undamaged for long enough for one to get indoors, and empty out one’s backpack onto a table, allowing it to air dry.
2. One’s water bottles could start leaking, giving one another reason to protect that which is made of paper from possible water damage.
3. One can keep one’s wallet tucked into the bag around one of the books. The North Side of Chicago, in particular, is lousy with highly skilled pickpockets. Carried in this manner, one’s wallet is harder for them to reach, less likely to accidentally tumble out when one retrieves a possession, and if some would-be crook tries to get into one’s bag in order to go searching for that wallet and gets caught (as he probably would be), that would be one interesting conversation, wouldn’t it? How is he going to talk his way out of that?
I have yet to have a wallet stored in this manner lifted or lost.
$16 to pot plants which would be doomed from the moment I purchased them? The lack of a green thumb is not an issue. The lack of sunlight is. Again - remember, no balconies, and no option for putting flower boxes outside of our windows, for reasons of safety. A falling pot could easily kill somebody.
Houseplants usually don’t fare well in Chicago. In the low rises, the trees above steal one’s light, to such an extent that those using analog cameras soon learn that 400 film tends to be a waste of one’s money unless one has a tripod. It’s dark here, even during the summer, and the gloom during the Winter can be absolutely sepulchral. Not a gentle pearly white sky, but just a sooty grey mess overhead, so thick that one can hardly see the soot that gathers on the snow.
Combine those skies with concrete canyons, and one will get a failure of photosynthesis that will being doing plants in, year round. When we want to see something green at mid-Winter, we will tend to go to a conservatory. It’s a better choice.
“There’s no esc from the colors!” Mr. Barron says. “Or from the mockery of my neighbors if they ever see that thing in my room”, I add.
A rainbow covering for my keyboard? Please. Being part French and living in the Midwest as I do, I’m getting enough jokes about my supposed sexual orientation, already. If I purchase that item, I might as well paste on some sparklies and get on top of a pride parade float, because I’m not going to live it down.
If any SJWs want to take offense at that line of argument, let me ask you - are you volunteering to walk on ahead and deal with every tenant in my building who would be dishing on me for the next few months, if I ignored those social norms? I didn’t think so.
“This weird container that bends around your odd shaped sandwiches.”, he says. Sandwiches? I don’t ever make them or eat them.
Or need them, really. What is a sandwich, usually, but an attempt to hold more flavorful cold cuts next to plain, bland meat, so that one sort of meat might serve as a flavoring for another? When I cook, almost without fail, I’ll prepare something that comes with a sauce or is already seasoned (such as a risotto). My food does not need to be topped with slices of pepperoni (or whatever else might have found it way into a sandwich), and my body certainly doesn’t need the added salt or nitrates, or the bread for that matter. I tend to get queasy when I eat that, and I certainly can do without the added carbohydrates.
Very fine point pens? What are those for, again?
Oh, yes. Coloring. I don’t do that, either. Or draw. I’m not a good artist, unless one counts that puttering around I do on the computer (or my photos) as art, in which case I am perhaps not completely terrible. I’m also not very good at watching the time. Got to run. Maybe I’ll continue this, later.
Sorry if you’re seeing this in mangled or incomplete form at some point, but Buzzfeed’s system often fails to accept updates, so sometimes when I’m in a rush to go, I just have to accept that the update won’t be happening for a while.
Addendum One, Thursday, Jan. 19 - taking care of the remaining items, during the spare moments I’ll have on this thrill packed mid-winter day that shall be devoted to organizing my room and getting coffee …
This one might look a little more sensible, until one notices that one would be spending $45 (!) for a lunch bag, but really, it isn’t. In the case of the bento boxes, I was tempted to say “what’s wrong with Tupperware” - a lot cheaper, just as reliable, and once one gets past the nouveau riche snob appeal of spending $18 on a special little plastic box, one sees that it’s just a plastic box and one of those looks much like any other. Yes, I shop at K Mart. I feel a little part of myself dying every time I go in, but as a good, hardy Midwesterner, I’m sure that part will grow back and how can I pass on such savings?
Either way, though, whether I choose the frugal or extravagant choice when I choose that container, I’d back with the reality that I have no car, that everything I’m carrying has to travel inside my backpack, and that most of my meals have sauces on them or are otherwise wet or at least moist, usually in a slightly fatty sort of way, eg. the cheese spread of a piece of toasted polenta, which would not travel well, at all. Tupperware can very useful, but inside that backpack, it’s going to pop open, too. So, what does one do?
One brings dried food - fruit and jerky are common choices - to tide one over, trying to not consume so much of these as to leave one trapped in the washroom on arrival. The good news is that Chicago is relatively compact, so one won’t have to travel absurdly far before one reaches one’s destination, and there are plenty of cheap places to eat once one gets away from the Loop and the more upscale neighborhoods like Lincoln Park. Even in Lincoln Park, there are cheap places like Taqueria El Norte, so the need to carry whole meals just isn’t there, and why would one need a $45 sack to carry jerky and dried fruit? For the short time that will pass before they are consumed, the shopping bag from the store will be protection enough, both for the food (which one doesn’t want to see get dust on it) and the inside of one’s backpack (which one doesn’t want to see get food on it).
I believe this brings us down to a $28 total, meaning that I’ve won the challenge, I could quit right now, and probably bask in the accolades won for me by my miserly ways, but let’s see how much further and lower I can go.
I like getting new books, but I’m not sure that this one looks like a priority. There are disadvantages to living in a relatively compact city. One doesn’t have all of the floor space one would like, and in my case, I don’t have all of the bookcases I’d like. I still have some empty wall space, so at some point in the near future, I might get some more bookcases in, but for the time being, I’m doing a lot of stacking. As a math tutor, I can not afford my own office, so I can’t even move some of my work related books there, to space I don’t have, so the small amount of space I do have has to be budgeted, forcing me to ask “to what degree am I attached to this.”
The complete works of Shakespeare, which is a hand-me-down from my maternal grandfather - that, I’m greatly attached to, and I get a lot of value out it, enough value that even if I had just picked that book up at a garage sale and it had no sentimental value to me, its place on my shelves would still be justified. But let’s be honest about this title, as we enjoy the agitation we’ll be causing the anti-elitists by doing so: this looks like a low brow consumable. Unless the book has a personal significance because, say, your mom gave it to you before she died, what will you do with it? Skim it quickly, maybe laugh a little, maybe worry a little about yourself because you laughed, and then never look at it again. You’re certainly not going to look at it as a reference. Can one picture writing an essay in response to this book? Probably not.
A book I buy for myself probably can’t become a keepsake, because what is a keepsake, usually, but something that helps one remember a person and a sort of continuation of that person’s presence? I guess that as one ages, one could wish to remember one’s younger self, so even an item that one picks up for oneself can have sentimental value if it is a marker of some significant (or at least memorable) moment or episode in one’s life, but Buzzfeed just doesn’t fit into my life that way. No website does. Conclusion: this is not a book I’m going to hold onto, and it’s not one I’m in a hurry to get. How am I going to respond to this?
At first, with a sad observation: the last few decades have been brutal for those of us who would have traditionally carried the title of “nerd” or “bookworm” with a little bit of defiant pride, and they’re getting worse. While drunken, semi-literate (and prematurely aging) ex-jocks are getting fast tracked into the managements of companies that they then, predictably, run into the ground, educated, hard working people will go for years without getting so much as a rejection letter from the human resources offices at the businesses to which they apply for work. The sort of people who buy books, who are intelligent enough to appreciate their true value, are being held down in poverty for reasons that aren’t difficult to see, not the least of them being that American anti-intellectualism has in no way been exaggerated in the popular press. If anything, the problem is worse than advertised.
This leads us to a very sad sight one can see outside of used bookstores, every night: unsold books being put out on the curb, to be thrown away, because the bookstore ran out of space before somebody with the money, with space of his own and the will to buy, showed up to purchase them. I’ve picked up a fair amount of free reading material that way, some of it musty from having been in the rain a little. I’d stick a little paper toweling betwen the pages so they wouldn’t cement together as they dried, smoothing each page out before laying down the next sheet of toweling in order to minimize the buckling. There would still be a little damage, that couldn’t be helped, but it would be free, and I’d have the pleasure of thinking that there would be one less book headed for the landfill or, almost as bad, carved up by a visual artist who treats books as a sculptural medium, as if they were nothing more than the wood out of which they had been made, as if the written word had no value.
This title has a very good chance of finding its way out into one of those soon to be soggy curbside book boxes. If it was a best seller, I’ll almost certainly run into it, because my hikes take me past some of the more space-challenged bookstores with regularity. I’ll pick it up for free, sit down in the Bourgeois Pig (it’s a coffeehouse) and read it while I drink. Then, since I’m very sure I’ll never be reading it again, either I’ll place it in the book exchange in front of the Pig (a little wooden house-like structure that I believe is called “Gnome Hall”) or go onto Bookcrossing.com, make out a slip for the book and “release it into the wild”, leaving it in a place (maybe on a table in another coffeehouse) where it is likely to be found and unlikely to be thrown out. Either way, somebody else gets to enjoy it without spending any money on it, either.
I suppose that I could also pass the book along to my siblings, but there’s a knife on a ball on the cover and that’s an idea I’d rather not give to my nephews. Not that I’m saying they’d act on it, but … did I mention that I live in Chicago? Why take chances?
I think that this is as much as I’m going to add, today. I find the fact that I’ve had to write and publish this post in installments absurd, but my primary ISP has been a nightmare to deal with. The connection keeps dropping. The reason for this is probably not hard to find, as the diagnostic window that keeps popping up keeps suggesting one: it says that I need something called a “phone filter”, which the technician failed to install when he was in my apartment. But when I call technical support (also known as “their Indian call center”), all I get is a clueless individual reading from a script who will run me through the usual drill (have you rebooted your computer, etc, etc) before telling me that she’ll send me another modem, which doesn’t address the problem at all (thanks, “judy”). When I ask to be put through to a supervisor, she refuses, and when I go to one of their stores in Chicago, I find that all that the employees are willing to do to “help” is point me toward a phone on the wall, which I can use to talk to the same call center that has been completely unhelpful. There would seem to be no getting past Judy.
I’d replace this ISP in a heatbeat if I could, but for reasons that I don’t want to bother to get into an aside in a post, I can’t. At the moment, I’m stuck with these *cough, cough* “illegitimate children” (I’m sure you can think of another word), and the staff at the company either can’t or won’t do its own job. If I named the company, I’m sure you’d recognize the name. It’s a very old and well established company that once had an amazing reputation and history, but which now seems to distinguish itself by the low quality of its service and its incredible mismanagement. While I’ve typed this passage, along, the green lights have gone red and the connection has been lost, twice. Just imagine trying to get anything done this way. Try to imagine needing to place a phone call, learning that you can’t do that, either, because the phone is routed through that same modem and one’s ISP connection and - oh - there it goes again. Imagine wondering what happens if an emergency comes up, and one can’t call out because the connection has dropped, yet again.
Such are the joys of dealing with businesses in a society in which even the most sensible sort of governmental regulation will not happen, because the government is more interested in appeasing a relatively few, absolutely insane activists. If any libertarians or neo-cons want to take offense at that observation, they can kiss my donkey. I’m not going to pretend that real world problems don’t exist, just because somebody else has a fixation. If this makes me sound like I have no respect for their beliefs - good, because I don’t.
Addendum 2, Sunday, January 22: My internet connection is working again, sort of. I couldn’t tell you why, but last time, after going around and around and around with customer support, which as I said would refuse to do anything other than run me through a script that ended with them sending me a new modem, finally I screamed at “Judy” and threatened to sue the provider and name her by name in the lawsuit, which, I suggested, might not be the best possible thing for her career.
This persuaded her to put down the script long enough for her to agree to send a technician by my apartment. The problem turned out to not be the modem, a thought which probably should have occured to “Support” after they sent out 5 modems in a row, reminding me that I had to ship the preceding modem back and then hope that it would be lost en transit, because if it was, I would be billed the $150 replacement fee for a useless piece of hardware that wouldn’t even be in my possession, any more.
Ain’t laissez-faire grand? The technician, during that visit, told me that my modem was asking for data from the little communications hub we have in the stairwell for our floor too quickly, causing the modem to keep resetting. Doing a search under the name of the company and a four letter word for “drawing in air sharply” than begins with “s”, I found reports of exactly this problem plaguing the customers of this company, over and over, but the company’s management has never bothered to acknowledge the problem in the script, because “haha, neener, neener, luv ya, we do what we want.” At least, until Judy gets threatened with a lawsuit and I mention having lawyers in my immediate family who would be willing to represent me for free (which is true).
The technician left without installing a phone filter, because “Judy” didn’t bother to tell him to, but he did reduce my modem speed. This (as my problems on Thursday showed) didn’t eliminate the problem, but it made it into an intermittent problem instead of a chronic one. This time, around, they problem went away without effort from me, aside from that of dealing with a bad connection. Why it did so, I don’t know. Maybe one of the other people on my floor called the company and told “Judy” that he’d hire somebody to kill her if our connections didn’t get better. We are in Chicago, as I’ve said, and that service can be had for a reasonable price. So I’ve heard. Not that I would know, firsthand.
There are two items remaining. Let’s get to them.
Laser guided scissors … what would I be cutting with them? Looking at the image, I think somebody is cutting fabric, and I have no idea of why somebody would want to do that. I’m sure there must be a reason, but that reason is just not a part of my world.
Remember, we have limited living space, which can force some very hard choices. A bit over a year ago, my father was forced to move out of the family home. He doesn’t live in Chicago. He lives out in a sort-of suburb, far enough out from the city that there is a faint and noticeable shift in accent that was an endless source of amusement for an ex-girlfriend of mine.
“Come on, say it.” “Fine. My bag full of eggs is starting to sag, so I’d better get a rag off of the peg.”
About half of the vowels in that sentence come out as long a sounds. The town is a little ways out, but, sad to say, not so far out that yuppies couldn’t discover it. “How charming, how quaint”, they would say, snapping up the 19th century homes that they would then tear down and replace with plywood palaces indistinguishable from those they could have built anywhere else, because they wanted to enjoy the view. Which, in a manner quite mysterious to our wealthy betters, seemed to become less memorable by the day.
Some of those awful, awful rustics had refused to sell, but democracy came to the rescue. On moving into this former factory town, the upper class newcomers learned that as quaint as it was, it could be rather spartan at times. “Why, dahling”, one of them would say, “do you realize that there’s a patch of weeds over there.” “We call that ‘prairie’, ma’am, and it’s a vanishing ecosystem.” “Well, make it vanish a little more quickly. We could put a soccer field there.”
And so one was, as the neighborhood’s high school got the olympic sized swimming pool we never knew we needed, the up-to-date computer center that most of us had managed to get into graduate and professional schools without having … the rich newcomers got the local government to go on a spending spree, and spending has to be paid for. Property taxes went through the ceiling, forcing locals to sell their homes, because only the rich could afford those taxes.
Dad was forced to move into a much smaller house. Mom was not in the picture, having died of leukemia a few years ago. My apartment is decorated with as many of her possessions as I could save, but I had to let almost every tangible sign that the dear lady ever existed go, many of her possessions ending up in a dumpster, because there was no space and so there was no choice. Truly there was none. Reaching out from my bed in the morning, I can literally, seriously, pull books off some of the bookshelves lining my wall. It’s that cramped.
This is the sort of hard choice to which I refer, and it’s the sort of hard choice that has to be made in Chicago (and the surrounding suburbs and countryside) a lot. My life has, perhaps, been a little more blighted than those of my neighbors, because while my mother was a genuinely sweet (if deeply flawed) woman, my father is (and was) a narcissistic nightmare of a man with a fondness for passive aggressive behavior.
For example, after I completed the coursework for my PhD in Mathematics and went out looking for work, with MS in hand (and a bachelor’s degree in Physics), Dad (at the time) decided that a telephone was a luxury I didn’t need to have. Right now, I have one, but at the time, I had no clients, and welfare wasn’t going to help much, because the state was giving me $2.50 per day. There are no zeroes missing. That’s two dollars and fifty cents. With that, I was expected to pay all of my bills, including rent and food, because Dad (who at one point was the director of medicine at his hospital) had decided that adversity would be good for my soul. Because working my way through undergrad and grad school, as I had, was just one big party I had been enjoying, as far as Dad was concerned. This forced me to put Dad’s telephone number on my resumes, as per Dad’s suggestion. Dad, then, turned off his answering machine, and left it off, for the first two years of my job search, flying into a narcissistic rage and threatening to “disown” me when I pointed out that he wasn’t home during the day, and that an employer calling with a job offer wouldn’t even be able to leave a message.
My dad is a douchebag, and having a douchebag parent teaches one a harsh truth about life in the America of today - that the parent can have a shocking amount of power when he chooses to derail his adult child’s life, for reasons that nobody (probably not even a therapist) will ever know. By scraping together odd jobs, I was eventually able to afford a phone, but not before I joined the ranks of the long term unemployed, becoming part of the urban underclass, because gaps in one’s work record are considered to be valid grounds for refusal of employment, and because the people in Human Resources don’t want to listen to reason. They don’t need to, because they have a cliché. If one explains the problem that got in the way of finding employment, a problem that clearly is not one’s own fault, they will (quite perversely) then refuse employment on the basis that one is “blaming other people for one’s problems.”
That attitude seldom varies, so while having a father who went out of his way to get me off to the worst possible start in life was a source of difficulties that have consequences to this day, the fact is that even people who came from good families have run into trouble. Chicago is the home of the expression “don’t send nobody, nobody sent.” In other words, if you don’t have personal connections, there is a very good chance that you’ll get to have the experience of watching the receptionist tear your application up in front of you, and then throw the pieces in your face should you linger, watching her in astonishment. There are a certain number of places held for old boys network hiring, a certain number for affirmative action hires, and very, very few (if any) left over, once those first two forms of entitlement are dealt with.
This problem has only be amplified by a periodically reappearing management fad of refusing to hire anybody who does not have 2-5 years of “relevant work experience.” A common rationalization of this practice is that an employee costs an employer more money than he mades for the first few years of his employment, and so what employers ought to do is left some other company hire a new employee, train him for 2-5 years and the poach him, hire him away with a better offer. In other words, “we know that new employees need to be trained, but let’s let somebody else do it” - it’s a form of freeriding. It’s also absolutely crazy, because there is no way for somebody to get those 2-5 years of experience if nobody is willing to hire one for one’s first job. A few years will pass this way, and (surprise, surprise) companies start running out of young professionals, work will start not getting done, and then the companies will break down and hire new people, until they can start meeting their contactual obligations again. What they won’t start doing is hiring the people who were pounding the pavement during the period of slack in hiring, because the cliché is still there. “Why is there this break in your employment record.” “Because practically everybody was refusing to hire anybody without experience during that time.” “You shouldn’t blame other people for your problems.”
This much is a nationwide problem, not really uniquely Midwestern, at all, but what gives it a Midwestern twist is the impact of the oppressive upbringings we are given as a matter of course. As applicants start to notice just how many of the people they meet in the Human Resources offices seem to be stoned out of their ever loving minds, a common response is to do a little networking. Contact a few old friends, and see if they can help one get past the headcases in HR. But the catch is that to do that, one has to have friends who are gainfully employed. In order to have friends, one has to have had enough personal freedom to meet such friends, and here, one often does not, because to one’s family, as one grew up, one was seen as being little more than a slave.
No free time. Midwesterners have a reputation for being nice, friendly people, one that probably comes from the character of the Midwesterners people on the coasts have been meeting, but what people there don’t stop to think about, as they leap to that flattering conclusion, is that the Midwesterners they are meeting are the ones who didn’t stay to choose home. That will include the ones who, in one sense or another, were cast out. The reality is that despite what you might have seen in a pleasant video about our region, as a group Midwesterners at home don’t tend to be nice people, at all. This shows up in the parenting we get. My father was unusually bad, as child beaters tend to be almost anywhere, but the norm was not good. Thinking back on the people I knew or knew of, growing up, I could mention the girl who showed such great promise in high school, recognized as the brightest student in her school, but never made it to college because her parents decided that they wanted a summer home, and that they didn’t want to have to earn the money to buy it, so they pulled her out of school, sent her to work and pocked her income. She never finished high school.
In a healthy society, parents recognize the fact that they have a duty to do what they can to get their own children off to the best possible start in life, and to gradually give their children more and more freedom as they grow up, as they help their children become responsible adults. That recognition is almost altogether absent in our region. Parents might help their children, but only if the whim strikes them. As often as not, the parents are a net liability, and nobody but the children will see anything wrong with that. My father, again, serves as an excellent example of this, letting me go to bed hungry every night as I grew up and leaving me to patch together low wages jobs (and take out loans) to put myself through school, even though he was making $300,000 per year and fraudulently claimed me as a dependant on his taxes, eliminating any scholarships I might have received. I was already through my coursework in grad school, that far along in life, before I met the first person who said “Books, that’s kind of messed up, he really didn’t have the right to do that.”
Which he didn’t. Really, we could be here all day discussing the topic of abusive Midwestern parenting. Should I mention the ex-girlfriend who was sent to Boot Camp because her father thought that being “fat” meant that she qualified as a troubled teen, and seemed completely untroubled, years later, by the news that some of the kids died at that camp? This much got into the newspapers, so he absolutely knew that this had happened, but he was fine with that, because his little girl came back thinner than she left. Which I guess starvation will do. Takes fat shaming to the next level, doesn’t it? As if to make this even crazier, the girlfriend in question was by no means morbidly obese. Her weight was no threat to her health. In the eyes of the boys around her, she went from being really hot, to being smoking hot, which admittedly might not seem like a bad thing (on the surface), but certainly it’s no justification for imprisonment, reckless endangerment, and a sort of torture that left the daughter haunted by the memories for years. Daddy wanted his little girl to look like a model, and he was free and willing to go that far to make his fantasy (not hers) happen.
In most of the country (I hope), the word “psychopath” would be used to describe such a man. In ours, people shrugged, said “it’s his choice” and “doesn’t she look good” (because I guess they found terror sexy). Even in the Midwest, we’d use that word, psychopath, to describe a middle aged person who treated another middle aged person in such a way, somehow, when parents are this brutal to their own children, they get a pass on moral judgement, unless they go so far that law enforcement gets involved. The real objection in such a case doesn’t seem to be to the brutality, but to the failure on the part of the parents to keep up appearances, who will be seen as being guilty of that most heinous of crimes - the failure to get away with it. Whatever “it” is.
In a society in which parenthood is seen as an opportunity to claim power over another human being and not so much as a source of responsibility, there is a randomness to parental good will. While not every parent will pound on his 12 year old son’s arm until it breaks because the son wouldn’t let himself be robbed by one of the brothers (thanks, Dad), parents in such a cultural setting will typically function as if they were somewhat narcissistic, and there is no predicting what a narcissist will do.
Picture young people trying to get their lives and careers started, at a time when the ladders of upward mobility are being dismantled (as a well known economist has said), when the economy is failing to produce opportunity, and picture them trying to do so under a system built under the assumption of parental help, at a time when the parents aren’t on their children’s side. What are the results of that going to be?
What one sees here: a large pool of highly motivated, highly intelligent people who’ve been left in Limbo, held down in inescapable poverty because those who had power over their lives weren’t expected to wield that power with any measure of responsibility by anybody (themselves included). To get ahead in a society that works on such terms isn’t a matter of accomplishment, it’s more akin to the winning of a lottery. This reality has deep cultural consequences.
One of those consequences is that graduate school (so far) has been my ticket into public housing. :)
I have a room inspection, tomorrow, a continuation of a deliberately degrading ritual inflicted on section 8 tenants to remind them that their poverty is to be seen as a reflection of their moral worth. The right to be left in peace and have one’s privacy respected is reserved to the worthy rich, there (by definition) being no deserving poor. I will soon have to stop writing this piece and return to the task of working on my apartment. I’m not sure of how I am to do with a broken vacuum cleaner, but I’ve been helpfully advised that this is my problem.
So I’ll have to cut this short (shorter, perhaps). The native anti-intellectualism of our region has definitely seen reinforcement, because scholarship has become the road to ruin. Those who skip college and go straight into a trade make money. Those who party their way through college and get drunk with the right people also make money. Those who buckle down, work their way through school, and devote themselves to their studies end up in a world in which the jobs for which they trained either don’t exist or aren’t going to be offered to them, because they don’t know the right people, and the lower skilled jobs are refused to them on the basis of their “overqualification.” When we ask “how are we to get past that, how does one un-take a course”, we get the standard answer “that’s your problem” - one is left without any real hope of a better future, serving as a warning to those would otherwise have thought to pursue a career in one of the STEM subjects, and is instead left with the realistic thought that membership in a gang could be a far better career choice, because the ex-con (if he lives long enough), at least has some chance of finding work. The overqualified, inexperienced grad student looking for his first job has none. Only in his 20s, he soon discovers that his life is over, that there is no escape from the poverty in which he now finds himself.
Not that I’ve absolutely never been offered work, but some of it seemed less than appealing. Somebody offered to hire me as a prostitute, and I suppose that I might have been the envy of my profession because my clients would have been female, but I declined. I also turned down the offer to sell US communications technology (after I returned to grad school to study Electrical Engineering) to what had to be the most inept spy in the hemisphere. But mainly, I’ve done tutoring (which often is really just ghostwriting), nude modeling (which is where the “skin” comes from in “Books and Skin”), and worked as a prep cook for a while. Not much money in any of that, but it has paid the bills and kept my head barely above water.
Living as I do, as so many of my peers do, I deter others from pursuing intellectual pursuits. Those who pursue them anyway are seen as clueless, impractical losers, and one sees this in the local culture - get outside of Hyde Park (home to the University of Chicago) and one finds oneself in one of the least literate major cities one will ever see, a place where people are proud of their ignorance. But what about those of us who didn’t get the bad news about job opportunities in time, or got them and continued anyway?
Outcasts of any sort will create their own culture, based on their own needs and opportunities. In the case of the downwardly mobile Chicago intellectual, crafts are going to so much not be a part of what we do, that the obliviousness you saw out of me above (as I wondered out loud why one would cut cloth) was not faked. I honestly don’t know what project starts that way. Is one making one’s own clothing? What is one doing? I don’t know and neither would my classmates, and we probably never will.
In the reality in which we find ourselves trapped, with no visible route of escape, literary pursuit make a practical sort of sense, because the fruits of a lot of labor can be squeezed into a tiny amount of shelf space - that taken up by a single book. But if we learn to do crafts, what are we going to do with our projects? If I had no space for a piano that was all that remained of a home in which my mother’s family had lived since they first came to this country, do you think I’ll have one for some fuzzy little velvet hand puppet I’ve made (to borrow an idea from Sara Rubin)? No, and neither will those I know. Crafts projects are doomed to be discarded the moment they are done, and so we would see no sense in attempting them in the first place, even if the materials were cheap (and on our financial level, they are not). The projects on which we will focus will be those whose results will be more intangible, those not so dependent on material things, aside, perhaps, from the material things we must have to live - our food and drink.
No laser guided scissors, then. Looking at my desk and table (the only surfaces I have on which to do such cutting), I would see problems, anyway. Section 8 housing was privatized in Chicago, ages ago, and the person who had this building decided that overhead lighting was a luxury we didn’t need (as was climate control, meaning that we shiver through the springtime). If I used that laser, I’d have to worry about it hitting the shiny surface of the lamp that has to sit on it, for me to be able to see much of anything at night, and bouncing around. While I’m sure it’s a weak laser, I’d rather not risk having that scatter into my eye. Anybody who has passed a lab safety examination would know better, even if some troll who will probably show up in the comments wouldn’t.
Why would I want to spend $9 for something I’d never use, and would serve only as a low level safety hazard? I can come up with better uses for $9 than that, not the least of which would be the avoidance of malnutrition at the end of the month, when the money begins to run out. What Barron takes for granted, I think, is a Californian level of prosperity, and the extravagant, wasteful way of life that such prosperity makes possible, for those with no attachment to the past or appreciation for that which they are so casually destroying to make way for their conspicuous consumption.
Addendum three, Tuesday, January 24. All green lights on my modem, none of them flashing, and one item left to write about. Let’s get this done (finally). For once, Barron presents us with an item that might be of use to somebody here …
Good job, Buzzfeed. Your system managed to lose most of the writing I did today, thwarting my efforts to cut and paste it, failing to save it when I hit “publish changes”, even though it said that the changes had been saved. Thanks. Your developers are just the best.
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