Personal Pieces posts
Sunday September 25, 2022
I experienced a couple of leaf blowers this weekend—one across from Scarecrow Video yesterday, the other on my usual walk to Lake Washington today—and for some reason this time they just felt like the end of everything to me. We created this device that is super-noisy, fuel inefficient and just generally inefficient, whose purpose is not to clean but to move a mess from one location (yours) to another location (theirs) while bothering as many people as possible. And these things still exist and thrive after decades. They're indicative of what we're like as a species and why we'll end.
Wednesday July 06, 2022
Dreaming of Holding Hands with Lepers
Patricia, Wendy and I were in a swanky hotel, and, at my behest, Patricia and I went up to the room of someone like Raoul, the Dutch guy I knew in Taiwan, and while he was taking a shower we ran through his room and out onto the balcony and danced in the rain. The point was to be outside and feel the rain on us. Wendy stood back in the hallway, marveling at our bravery. Except I wanted us to be stealthy. I wanted us to zip in and out without Raoul realizing we'd done it and Patricia didn't feel that way. So she didn't run back out into the hallway again with me. She stood near the bathroom door, where Raoul was taking his shower, and made a loud noise. And only then did we slam the door and run down the escalators.
There was someone who'd put up like police tape near a door in the building that led to a parking lot. It was kind of like they were marking their spot? Like a homeless person? No, it was someone I knew from elementary school and high school, Kristin G., and she was a state rep now, and whatever she ws trying to do, the attention she was trying to focus on this issue, had kind of worked. Other people were asking me to help out with the parking lot because I'd done that before—gotten people spots to park. “He works magic on this,” someone said. And I'm like ... OK? I guess? And we're walking through an upper floor of the parking garage, and the others had disappeared, and it was just me and this leper, this literal leper, who wanted to hold hands because he never got to feel human touch. And I understood what he wanted but I was also nervous. I moved my hand away from his because I didn't want to get leprosy. I felt guilty for not caring about him more.
Thursday December 23, 2021
Dreaming of Minnesota VEEPs
Here's a series of dreams from the other night—the night I was contemplating canceling our Xmas flight to Minneapolis because of the Omicron variant. And I did wind up canceling it. Going, and possibly exposing family and loved ones, felt wrong. But as soon as I canceled, not going felt wrong, too. it was wrong either way. Anyway, here's what I dreamed the night before choosing whichever wrong way.
I was at a party in the home of a successful Minneapolis couple and was hearing snippets of conversations about how such-and-such's son had received a summer internship offer from such-and-such top politician—and it wasn't even his best offer! It was people I didn't know, and didn't really care about, and I was ready to go. I was standing in the screened-in porch in my overcoat, waiting on a friend so we could leave.
I was making small talk with the husband/father, congratulating him on something to do with his son, when I saw Hubert H. Humphrey and Walter Mondale walking up the sidewalk to the house. Humphrey seemed full of pep and vigor, like he was 1960s Humphrey, while Mondale was slow and wan, like he'd just been through, or was still going through, a grave illness. I was the first person to greet them. “Mr. Vice President,” I said to Humphrey, nodding and shaking his hand. “Mr. Vice President,” I said to Mondale, nodding and shaking his hand. I was amused by this but stumbled a bit on Mondale. Humphrey greeted me by name. “Erik!” he cried, then made small talk, to both me and the room. I was wondering, “Does Hubert Humphrey know me?” until I realized I was still wearing my nametag from a Minnesota Law & Politics event on my shirt. So did he recognize the badge? L&P? Had he been at the event, too? I asked him something about the nametag but he was dismissive. At first I thought he was dismissive of nametags but it was the coat I was wearing. It was the idea of standing there, ready to leave, without leaving.
He and Mondale entered the party, celebrities, but not quite, the old guard really. They were apart from everyone. D. was inside, too, by the dining table, being admonished by someone who was angry he'd gotten a “Jeopardy!” answer/question wrong. It was a rhyming answer. Something about “sees us” and “please us” and the answer, or question, was supposed to be “Who was Jesus?” and D. had said something like “Jesub,” so the guy was admonishing him. It was suppose to be joking, in fun, but his tone kept getting angrier and angrier, and D. didn't take it well. He was drinking coffee, and he grabbed a can of Reddi-Whip off the dining table and petulantly fitzed it into his coffee. Was he supposed to be on a diet? And this wasn't that? The angry dude was suddenly calmer: “C'mon, no need for that,” he said. He suddenly seemed the adult in the room, while D. seemed physically smaller.
I was biking with J. to some building—a room above my room, which I wanted to show her because it was so cool-looking, but how had I found it before? I was lost. J. said it must be further along so we got back on the bikepath. We were riding slowly but faster than everyone around us. Then I realized, “Wait, we've gone way too far,” and we doubled back, but now we were on a street, something like the area between Nicollet and Lyndale in South Minneapolis, like 58th, and at an intersection we came upon an old strip mall. “Have you ever seen this?” I asked. She hadn't. It was quaint, like something from the past, but not monetized quaint, just old and dim. There was a paper supply shop. I wondered: How could that still be in existence? Particularly after the pandemic. All the shops were open, but barely. There was a bookstore, and we walked down the stairs, but the front of the bookstore was simply full of colorful, sad, useless items in cellophane, sold in bundles.
Tuesday August 03, 2021
My First COVID Test
Last week I met a friend for drinks and the following morning I woke up with a scratchy throat and some shortness of breath. I felt a bit of an “uh oh” but mostly thought, “Probably from talking so much.” We'd been careful. When in the bar, ordering, we were masked, when we sat outside we were maskless, and outside we had to talk at a higher volume, which is why, I figured, my throat was a bit raw that morning.
Then my friend sent me a text saying his throat was scratchy, there was some shortness of breath, so he was going to get tested for COVID.
The Delta variant has been raging around the country like wildfires—which are also raging around the country—and though it's mostly striking the unvaccinated, abouot 150,000 vaccinated people have gotten it, too. Supposedly it's less deleterious for them/us. I think the vaccine basically reduces COVID to a case of the flu: You may feel bad but you won't go to the hospital. For the unvaccinated, it's worse than the original strain.
The first decision I had to make was this: Do I cancel the Mariners game that afternoon? I was going with a family friend, mid-70s, vaccinated, great, great shape, but still mid-70s. Being a worst-case scenario dude, I imagined, you know, “Dad, how did grandpa die?” “Well, son, there was this asshole named Erik who thought a baseball game was more important than Grandpa's life.” I monitored myself through the morning, didn't seem to be getting better, and sent him a text around 10 AM, canceling (I hate canceling), and offering both seats if he wanted to take his wife. Turns out she didn't like baseball, he mostly went to the game to be with me, so no sale. Or no give. These are Mariners tickets: The kind you can't give away.
I tried another friend, newly into baseball, but she, it turns out, was sick in bed with a cold. She, too, had worried it was COVID but her test came back negative.
That's when I decided to get tested. And that's when the comedy began.
My friend had been tested down at Rainier Beach, a half hour away by car, and I lived on Seattle's First Hill, commonly called Pill Hill for all the hospitals and medical facilities in the area. Surely there was something nearby. Didn't the local chain pharmacy, Bartell's, test for COVID, for example? No, they merely administered the vaccine. My wife thought they were testing down at the Convention Center, a 10-minute walk, but that was earlier in the pandemic. No more. Life was back to normal, apparently. Google searches were hugely unhelpful.
So I called my GP's office, which was right across the street. They directed me to the first floor. The place on the first floor was booked that day, and anyway it would take them 3-5 business days to get the results. I needed to know sooner, since my wife and I were meeting her family on the peninsula in a few days. “Is there a place nearby that takes walkups?” I asked. “The PolyClinic on Broadway takes walkups,” I was told. So I walked over there, found the place, asked for a test, was asked why I wanted one. When I told them, they said, “Sorry, we don't test people who exhibit symptoms.” I guess it was an immune-compromised area.
Long story slightly less long, I drove to Rainier Beach for the test. It was near a park, and the “facility” was kind of like a food truck. You gave your info to a guy at a foldout table then walked to the food truck where you were given a sterile swab, which you self-administered 10 times in each nostril and handed back. Less than 24 hours later, I had my results: “None detected.”
It is a shame that after 18 months we don't have a better system. More of a shame, of course, are all the vaccine holdouts, and the bad actors on Fox News and within the Republican party disseminating the bad information to keep them holding out. What do you do besides shake your head? They don't want to wear masks, they don't want to take the vaccine, they want everything open. What children. We should be talking about the wildfires blanketing the country in smoke. We should be talking global warming, and the slowing of the jet stream, meaning weather systems stay in the same place longer, creating, say, floods in Belgium, Germany and China, and the baking of the Pacific Northwest. But the unvaccinated take up all the oxygen.
Anyway, that was my first COVID test. I doubt it'll be my last.
Monday June 14, 2021
My Taiwan Movie
You know those company ice-breakers where you‘re supposed to go around the room and tell colleagues something about yourself they don’t know? I usually go with this one: “I was in a 1988 Taiwanese kung-fu comedy. It was called ‘Wan nung yuandong yuen’ and I played a hui waiguoren, or bad foreigner. In a bar fight, I get a bottle broken over my head by Hu Gua, the Johnny Carson of Taiwan TV.”
With a good crowd, it usually gets follow-ups:
- No, I don't know kung fu or any martial art. I'm almost defenseless, really.
- My Chinese is so-so. It was better then.
- The bottle was a breakaway, not a real one, but yes it hurt a little.
- No, the movie wasn't a big hit. Most Taiwanese probably haven't heard of it. Most Taiwanese at the time probably never heard of it.
As for how I got involved? I had a lot of foreign friends—meaning western friends—at National Taiwan Normal University, or Shi Da, and someone at the school was contacted by someone at the movie studio, asking for foreigners, and I was invited along for the ride. I think we did all the filming over two nights, 9 PM to 5 AM or something. We had a few westerners—or maybe just one?—who knew martial arts, but he injured his foot during filming. As for why I had the honor of getting the bottle broken over my head by Hu Gua? Earlier, I was asked to do a scene where I got punched and I was supposed to fall backwards and I went all in, slamming myself against the ground. So much so they were momentarily worried about me. After that, they probably thought, “This idiot would probably be good for the bottle-breaking scene.”
Basic premise: An international sports competition takes place in 1920s China, and we‘re the pushy foreign athletes who invade a local bar one night. I show up about 18 seconds in on the left side of the screen. Hu Gua is the guy in the Boy Scout outfit who tries to keep the two sides from fighting by, among other things, quoting Confucius: <<有朋自远方来， 不亦乐乎?>> Translation: “When friends come from far away, it is indeed a pleasure.” I heard that quote a lot, actually. The Chinese were always saying it to make sure you never picked up a check.
When I returned from Tawain in 1988, I brought a VHS copy of the film to show family and friends. A few years ago, along with some other analog items, I brought it to a digital transfer station in Queen Anne so they could make a DVD of it. Then I posted that scene to YouTube.
Yeah, the subtitles needed work.
For some reason, IMDb calls the film “Kung Fu Kids Part V” but it's definitely not No. 5 of anything. Its Chinese title translates to “Almighty Athletes” or literally: “10,000 Able to Do Exercises People.” No five anywhere.
Oh, and the Chinese misfits won the international sports competition. 當然。
Here are some photos from back in the day.
I vaguely remember waiting outside Shi Da with the others and being driven (in a van?) to the movie studio on the outskirts of Taipei at about 11 PM. The above—an older period piece, a western—was being filmed as we arrived. There was no “Quiet on the set!” because they shot without sound and dubbed later.
The young Chinese guy tries to hit on the western girls until the big guy on the right objects. His name is Bobby, to which the Chinese guy says “Bo pi? Wo ye yo.” “Foreskin? I also have.” It was that kind of “Benny Hill” humor.
Here's the western kid who knew his stuff. He looks morose because he'd just injured his foot. The career that got sidetracked.
The peace sign is a gesture Chinese girls often made. It didn't mean peace; it was just something cute to do.
Getting the run-through for my 15 seconds of fame.
Here's the grainy video version before the bottle is broken. We had to do it twice because the first time the bottle didn't break properly on the first swing. So Hu Gua actually hit me in the head with a bottle three times.
Hu Gua clowning around on set. Nice to hear he's still doing well.
A common sight: western soft drinks being sold with images of western stars. Wonder who the western stars would be today? Probably K-Pop stars.
Near the end of a long night.
I have such a vivid memory of this: Being dropped off on the streets of Taipei at about 5 AM as everything was waking up. These were outside a store waiting to be brought in.
And here it is. The guy with the elongated arms, Bong Cha Cha, was my favorite. He had a Joe E. Brown quality to him.
I miss all that. I miss not knowing where life is going to take you.
Tuesday June 08, 2021
Quick vignette. The other night, I was rushing to keep an appointment at a restaurant—about the fourth time I'd been to a restaurant since things began opening up—when I realized I'd lost my mask en route. These days, walking around Seattle, I mostly keep my mask around my wrist just in case I need it, and it wasn't there. Could I have dropped it? I looked at the sidewalk behind me. Nothing. I was beginning to head back home, knowing I needed the damn thing to get into the restaurant, and knowing all of this would make me even later than ever, when I finally figured it out: I was wearing it.
It's the pandemic equivalent of searching for the glasses that are perched atop your head. I guess it means I'm really used to wearing these things.
Thursday December 31, 2020
The One Good Thing of 2020
My last post before 2020 was this one saying goodbye to the 2010s, which I called, with a nod to Garry Trudeau, “a kidney stone of a decade.”
I guess I didn't know from kidney stones.
If you'd told me on Dec. 31, 2019 that Joe Biden would defeat Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, I would've assumed a good year. I might've said, “As long as I get that, I'm good.” And on some level I am. Nothing mattered more than that, and we did it. We got rid of the fucker. Even if he's still fighting it and trying to undermine the fundamentals of American democracy. Even if his minions and would-be successors do the same. In fact, everything he and they do show the wisdom of the 81 million and the idiocy of the 74. I can't wait until he's swept away. I want to see him thrash.
But just imagine if you'd told me, a year ago today, about some of the other numbers for 2020. That the big box-office hit would be “Bad Boys for Life” at $206 million (the lowest total since 1995); the homerun leader would be Luke Voigt with 22 (the lowest since 1918); and the U.S. medal count during the Summer Olympics would be zero. I'd wonder what the hell was going on. What disaster had happened.
And it has been. But in many ways, the numbers will be worse in 2021. A bill is coming due and we don't know how large it is. At some point, the moratorium on evictions will end and we don't know what that will look like. How many stores are going away forever? How many restaurants? How many businesses will decide that the overhead of an office isn't worth it, that all their employees can work from home? What will this mean? Could we somehow turn abandoned office buildings into shelters for the homeless and the recently evicted? Walkability used to be an important measure in a home's desirability. Will that be true on the other side of the pandemic? If you can work 30 miles or 100 miles or 3,000 miles from your workplace—assuming there is a “work place”—why battle high rents and traffic jams?
Last August, for my day job, I interviewed a bankruptcy attorney out of Lexington, KY. This is part of that conversation:
What else is coming your way?
A lot more of business closures—hospitality industry and restaurants that have had to issue letters to creditors saying they had to shut down, and they didn't have the assets to even file a bankruptcy. That's been the bulk of my practice the last couple of months. It's been hotels, it's been restaurants, event venues. A couple of newspapers.
How bad is it? How screwed are we?
We are so screwed. My calls used to be talking to people about whether they should file a Chapter 11, a 7, or what would be the best relief for their business. Now, I'd say at least five clients a month come to me where I just shut their businesses down because they're beyond resuscitation.
Closure is really no different than a Chapter 7. The reason why you don't file a Chapter 7 is because, with these places I'm representing, there's a bank that has a lien on all of their assets. So I usually just call up the bank and say, “They're not going to make it. Come get your stuff at this location.” Then I send letters to all of their vendors and employees and whoever else that isn't going to get paid, and I tell them, “We had to close our doors. You're not going to get your money. The bank got everything.”
The real impact, the rash of bankruptcy filings, I think that's not going to happen until next year. There's still money out there circulating from the PPP loans, stimulus checks. Landlords were forgiving rent because they were getting their mortgages forgiven by the banks for a three-month period.
So your assumption is that there's another shoe that's going to drop, and it's going to be a big one?
Yes. That's what I've been trying to gear up for because I know it's coming.
At least we'll have a working president who will look beyond his own ego. At least we'll have that. Thank you, 2020, for that one thing.
Friday December 25, 2020
Xmas Letter 2020
Sunday December 20, 2020
Dreaming of Big Bird
A dream from the other night.
I was sleeping outside in a sleeping bag near my father—who never camped a day in his life—but we weren't out in the wilderness. We were by the side of a house and the house was by the sea, and I had a moment thinking, as if COVID-related, “Oh man, this is great being outside in the fresh air.” But then worries. We were outside. Animals were outside. There were birds circling above us, but now I was on a big mattress, and I was with my wife, Patricia, and my cat, Jellybean. Basically it was my real-life sleeping situation transplanted into the dreamworld, and I was thinking, “Well, at least Jellybean will keep the birds away.” But then I worried again: What if one of the birds is like a hawk? Could Jellybean take on a hawk? Just then this big bird swooped in front of Jellybean and flapped its wings in midair. Jellybean sniffed at it but I was l like, “Get away from her!” to the bird, but the bird wouldn't go away. “I need a baseball bat,” I thought, and suddenly there was one, on a shelf in this shed by the house, and I grabbed it and was ready to strike ... when the bird just laid down on the road. We were no longer by the side of the house but further along. “Does it want to die?” I asked Patricia. “I've heard about things like this,” she said, nodding. “End of life rituals.” And so I took the baseball bat and struck at its neck and severed its head. Now we needed to clean it up, and just like that there was a trash bag by the side of the road. But now the body was big and plump, and its feet were like the feet of Big Bird on “Sesame Street,” so we really had to cut it into thirds to make it fit. I managed to do it with the bat and with a minimum of blood—just a splotch on the road. Patricia held the garbage bag open for me, and then we argued about the best way to get the dead bird into the bag.
My favorite part is Big Bird's feet. Also how I wanted a thing and it was suddenly there for me. Wished that happened in more dreams. Or, you know, in life.
Saturday November 21, 2020
Dreaming of Jeff Bezos
Here's a dream from last night—or early this morning.
I was working at Amazon and heading to some event with Jeff Bezos. Was it planned that we would go together or were we just leaving together the office at the same time? The office was on the second floor and to get to the street level you had to walk down a long wooden outdoor staircase. That's what we were doing, but every other step there was a giant object, like a huge iMac computer, that we had to step over. Was there also snow? We were going to a movie premiere or event like SIFF, and Bezos was talking about how he hadn't been to a movie in years. I said “Really?” and was going to mention seeing him at Seattle movie theaters over the years—like at that Ricky Gervais movie—when he added he'd been to see “Our Miss Brooks” and some other film. I couldn't hear him. We were reaching the bottom of the staircase, and I was like, “What did you say again? 'Our Miss Brooks' and what movie?” He got frustrated. No, he insisted. It wasn't “Our Miss Brooks” but “Our Miss Brooke.” It was a festival dedicated to the life and career of Brooke Shields.
Thursday September 17, 2020
My Summer of Looking at Bar Graphs
If 2020 were a movie, what would you call it?
I was asked that recently, and, remembering a 1985 coming-of-age Yugoslav film, “When Father Was Away on Business,” which I saw at the U Film Society on the University of Minnesota campus, and whose title is a kind of bland missing of the point—the father was sent away to labor camp for anti-Stalinist rhetoric—I went with this: “The Year I Let My Hair Grow Long.”
Our windows have been closed since then. Open windows is normally my thing in the morning. Making coffee, and listening to George Harrison's “All Things Must Pass” album, which has become my pandemic staple, I open the kitchen window for the morning briskness and freshness. When I take the coffee into my office, and before settling down before the computer, I open the horizontal window there, and lean out to take in the day. Is traffic heavy? Are people walking dogs? Is a crazy person cursing passersby? I haven't been able to do that since Labor Day. I miss it.
The bar graphs have a similar kind of sad sameness. For Covid cases in the U.S., it's a quick rise and slow fall (March-early June), then a steeper quick rise and slower fall (June-present). For the Seattle AQI, it's a quick rise 10 days ago at 10 PM, and then a kind of stasis. Despite various predictions otherwise, our AQI only dropped below 150 for a few hours last Thursday. Sometimes it shoots up into the 200s (Hazardous), but mostly it fluctuates between 170 and 190 (Unhealthy). Yesterday was a little better: mostly in the 150s. This morning I was up early at 4 AM, wrote for a bit, then refreshed the page after 5 AM and knew hope: 137! Not that horrible red but a hopeful orange! Unhealthy only for people like me with respiratory issues! Yay! Then I did the coffee routine with George but without opening any windows, came back to my office with my coffee but without opening any windows, refreshed the page and ... 151 again. So it goes.
I could also title my 2020 movie “Mornings in the Plague with George.” I've relied on him a lot. From the title song:
Sunrise doesn't last all morning
A cloudburst doesn't last all day
Seems my love is up
And has left you with no warning
But it's not always going
To be this grey
“All things must pass,” yes, but the problem with the smoke is it keeps returning every late summer now. We got it bad two summers ago, mild last year, bad again this year. And it's all the west coast. That conversation needs to happen. The climate-change conversation needs to happen. Because it's happening. This time of year, it might always be this grey.
Sunday June 14, 2020
Friday afternoon, I walked over to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ, to see what's going down.
That last bit, “to see what's going down,” is from The Book of Daniel. Doctorow, not God. Daniel is the son of the Isaacsons (really: Rosenbergs), the Jewish couple executed for treason in the McCarthyite 1950s, and now it's 1967 and he's in his 20s, at grad school, and leftist kids are storming the barricades. He's writing his book/thesis in the library when a young hippie arrives to tell him they‘re bring the “motherfucking university to its knees! ... Close the book, man, what’s the matter with you? Don't you know you‘ve been liberated?” To which Daniel smiles and decides to go outside and see what’s going down. That's one of the book's last lines. I love Daniel for that. I love Doctorow for the book.
Yesterday morning, in that haze between dream and wake, I was trying to remember the acronym protesters took for the several blocks they cordoned off on Capitol Hill. Had to be CHEZ, right? “Home” in French. Then I remembered: No, they went with CHAZ. As in “the spaz.” Kids.
I was only down there briefly on Friday afternoon so I don't have much to report. Basically 12th is no longer a thruway. They blocked off the street between Pike and Olive, and then for several blocks to the west. The abandoned East Precinct is right in the middle of it, on Pine, and now covered with grafitti. That's also where Northwest Film Forum is located, and Northwest Liquor, and that Chinese place Vinny and I went to a few times in better times. You can still walk around inside just fine. You kind of get looked at as you enter—at least I did—but no one's hassling anybody.
A block to the west, at Cal Anderson Park, where I used to play softball, tents have been set up and garbage was overlowing the bins. Again, I didn't stay long. It was way too crowded for a 57-year-old asthmatic-germaphobe in the midst of a global pandemic, but even without Covid it still wouldn't have been my scene. Both too dirty on the ground and too clean in the minds. The “We don't need cops” crowd feels hopelessly idealistic to me. They‘re kids. They’re the Bernie folks, working on fucking up another presidential election for the rest of us. And Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, who helped set up the zone, and told others not to allow cops in, is about the last person I'd follow anywhere. She declares orders within the zone while leading chants on impeaching the democratically elected mayor.
Tonight, the six-or-so-block radius within Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood was filled with more teach-in tables, murals, free food, tents, and people than it had been since this conflict between demonstrators and police began over a week ago.
Protesters have called this an uprising and have a long list of demands that include rent control, free college for the state of Washington, and abolishing the Seattle Police Department and “the attached Criminal Justice Apparatus.”
Yesterday, Fox-News spread lies about the zone, because that's what Fox-News does, when all they had to do was just report what was going down. It's teach-in tables, murals and free food. What's being taught, who's doing the painting, and who's paying for the free food are part of the unanswered. (FWIW, my wife is impressed by the artwork.) The bigger unanswered is how it all ends. When the free food runs out? With the first act of internecine violence or power struggle? I assume it‘ll be more whimper than bang. Give it a few weeks and it’ll become a drag. That's my hope anyway. We definitely don't need any more bangs.
Tuesday May 26, 2020
The Monster in the Middle: A Few Thoughts on Unfriending Facebook
I joined Facebook on December 31, 2008, because friends urged me to join, and I left Facebook this past weekend because it’s undermining American democracy. I joined when we were in the midst of the global financial meltdown and I leave as we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. I joined when that idiot Bush was president and … don’t get me started.
Donald Trump is actually the main reason I left Facebook. In the wake of news that Facebook helped turn the 2016 election in Trump’s favor, I assumed that Mark Zuckerberg and company would act as responsible corporate citizens—like Tylenol did after the 1982 poison-murders, or Jack in the Box after the 1993 E.coli outbreak. I assumed Facebook would be the place where ads were vetted and bullshit exiled. Nope. The opposite. To Facebook, political ads full of lies aren’t bugs, they’re features.
To be honest, I should have bolted after the Data Analytica scandal broke in March 2018, the way my wife did. One minute she was there, the next she was gone, a ghostly blank avatar on my Friends page. That kind of freaked me out a little. She was gone … but still here? Seemed wrong. And dangerous? Some part of me—the part that doesn’t know anything about tech—thinks it’s easier for hackers to take over such accounts, since they’re just sitting there. So I decided when I left Facebook I wouldn’t leave any ghostly blank avatars behind. I’d get rid of it all.
I’d been unfriending for a while anyway. If Facebook reminded me it was So-and-So’s birthday, and if I had trouble placing them—someone I met at a dinner party once?—I’d just unfriend them. It was kind of fun. Last fall, when the Facebook news got worse, I sped up the process. I became proactive. I’d go to my Friends page and be merciless. Who are you again? Bye. I also began to see more blank avatars there. Were others bolting, too? I got down to 200 friends, then 100, then 50. I have to admit my Facebook feed became more interesting. It was people I cared about.
Soon I began to get rid of the photos I'd accumulated as well. I archived the ones I wanted and deleted the rest. It bugged me that I even had to delete Events—things I went to, or didn’t go to, two, four, or seven years ago: Vinny’s 50th, Erika’s 50th; a Prince Memorial I couldn’t attend; Silent Movie Mondays no one would attend with me. Why didn’t these go away once the Event was over?
Then I went whole hog: I deleted every scrap of “About” info: where I worked, went to school, my family relationships, my life events. I got rid of Videos, Check-Ins, Sports, Movies. There was so much of it. And yes, I assume deleting something on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s deleted for Facebook; I assume they keep that data somewhere. Deleting, in fact, is just another form of data for them. But it still felt good. I wanted to cut ties. I wanted to leave a blank fucking slate.
Finally, I went after 11 years worth of posts. That took a while. Not just because it was 11 years worth but because I kept rewatching stuff: clips of John Mulaney in 2018, or Lin-Manuel Miranda from 2016, or Jon Stewart in 2015. (God, I miss Jon Stewart.) I saw a genius clip of Scott Thompson’s Buddy Cole character on “The Colbert Report” helping the 2014 U.S. Men’s speed-skating team appear less gay for the homophobic Russian Olympics. I watched my nephew Jordan, last spring, singing “Corner of the Sky” from his senior-year high school musical “Pippin.” He was 7 when I joined Facebook, his brother Ryan 5. Now they’re nearly 19 and 17. Their whole lives were on the feed I was deleting.
Many posts were already dated. A 2017 news item said Kevin Spacey would be playing Gore Vidal in a Netflix biopic and I wrote: “I’m there!” I suggested Louis C.K. as the next Oscar host and everyone was like: “Love him!” I kept quoting Garrison Keillor. I kept writing: “Franken 2020!”
I came across a jaunty invitation from a wife throwing a surprise birthday party for her husband. Within a year of that past, that event, they would divorce acrimoniously. I had trouble unfriending from my friend Jessica’s memorial page; it felt like severing a connection forever. I couldn't delete my mother’s 2019 obituary, with nearly 200 comments from family and friends; it stayed at the top of my feed, the first post I came across in my backwards march through time; the lump in my throat.
Some of it was quaint. Oh right, flash mobs. Oh god, word clouds. There were “Mad Men”-yourself memes, Benedict Cumberbatch name generators, and Alex Pareene’s “Hack List.” (God, I miss the hack list.) Here's when everyone was doing the “You’re in a horror movie” meme, and the “You’re a serial killer” meme. Name your top 15 albums and pass it on! So much crap we did. All they had to do was ask.
Some of it wasn't quaint at all. Oh right, Cliven Bundy. Oh right, the “Ground Zero mosque.” Ted Cruz and “Green Eggs and Ham,” and Joe Wilson and “You lie!” Here’s when the GOP thought Scott Walker was the next big thing. Here’s when the GOP thought Bobby Jindal was the next big thing. In 2009, Henry Louis Gates, an African-American Harvard professor, was arrested in his own home, and Obama commented on it matter-of-factly during a press conference, and Obama had to apologize. There was even a beer summit with the arresting officer at the White House. That’s how stupid we were. That’s how stupid we’ve always been.
But the toughest part of my scorched-earth backwards march wasn’t any of this; it was the monster in the middle.
The monster in the middle
He started out as a joke. In 2010, after I posted Alex Pareene’s article “A patriot’s guide to still hating Obama for killing Osama,” my father commented: “Donald Trump is already asking to see the death certificate.” I posted a 2012 Onion article in which Donald Trump owns up to what a “sad, pathetic human being” he is. That was in 2012. We had no idea.
I kept getting him wrong. I thought the McCain quote would end his candidacy. Didn't. I thought Megyn Kelly handled him in that first GOP debate. She did, but he won the war. He talked about the the blood coming out of her eyes, and her wherever, and then refused to apologize for it. And that became the story. I'm not smart about a lot of things but I could see what he was doing. I posted:
That awful thing I did last week? I will not apologize for it. That way the story becomes NOT the awful thing I did last week (which is awful) but the fact that I won’t apologize for it (which signals a forthright, stand-your-ground personality). So I turn a negative into a positive. What a neat trick.
Trump kept pulling this neat trick and the mainstream media kept falling for it. They're still falling for it.
He was all over my 2016 feed. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s paean to immigration was forever competing with Trump’s xenophobia. It felt like a battle for the soul of America. I kept warning friends. I posted a link to Jane Mayer’s article about Trump’s ghostwriter Tony Schwartz, who called Trump a sociopath. I quoted Dan Savage: “If Donald Trump becomes president, the people who will suffer are not going to be pasty white Jill Stein and her pasty white supporters.” I quoted Andrew Sullivan railing against the GOP for saying nothing when Trump asked a foreign government “to use the fruits of its espionage to help defeat his opponent.” That one turned out to be evergreen.
Others weren't worried. “The country has a lot of numb-nuts,” a friend wrote, “but not enough to elect Trump.” I wanted him to be right.
This was my status update for Saturday, Nov. 4, 2016:
According to 538.com, Hillary’s chances have gone down more than 20% in the last week—from 85% to 64%, with many of the swing states now swinging the other way. This is a direct result of FBI director James Comey’s unprecedented meddling, which somehow he’s gotten away with, just as Trump has gotten away with not disclosing his taxes, being caught on camera bragging about groping women, chastising a Gold Star family, etc., etc. He’s a disgusting, incompetent, race-baiting man who never did anything for anyone but himself. He may be, as his ghost writer called him, a sociopath.
So today I donated to Hillary’s campaign again, and I’ll be part of the get out the vote campaign this weekend. I’d recommend anyone who can, do the same.
If you have any friends on the left who are not voting for Hillary, warn them. If you have friends on the right, tell them about all of the Republicans who are voting for Hillary. I don’t want to wake up Wednesday morning with a President-Elect Trump. Your healthcare will suffer, your 401k will suffer, our prestige will suffer, and the U.S. Supreme Court will veer right again for the next 30 years. It may even be the end of the American experiment.
This was my status update four days later:
Shorter Allen Ginsberg: America, go fuck yourself.
Brave new world
At the beginning, there had been a real sense of excitement about Facebook. Hey, it’s you! How fun to see you in here! Also a sense of confusion. “What the hell is this site supposed to do for me?” a former boss, 20 years older, posted on my wall in 2009. “I keep getting these e-mails telling me to join because So-and-So wants to be my friend. Some guy I don’t even know, and who doesn’t even know me, says he wants to be my friend. Why would he do that? And why would I want to even respond? Help bring me into the Brave New World of Social Networking.”
I thought I knew. I assured him Facebook was like any new communication platform: great for keeping up with friends and family. It had the added attraction of giving us the degrees of separation between friends. I'd come across a woman who was friends with two of my friends, even though the two friends lived in different parts of the country and didn't know each other. So how did she know both of them? Turns out she grew up next to one in New Jersey and now shared an office with the other’s wife in Chicago. “That was fun, finding that out,” I wrote to my ex-boss. “The unseen connections between friends. You’ll probably get a lot of it.”
I doubt he did; he's smart and fled quickly. I certainly didn’t. The above was a one-off. Facebook was a small world and it stayed small. It was supposed to bring us together but it drove us apart. It’s still driving us apart.
I debated how to end it. Leave just my mom’s obit? Add a screenshot of the “U Dick” note from “The Social Network” for Zuckerberg? In the end, after reading the comments to my mother’s obituary one last time, I just got rid of it all.
Saturday March 21, 2020
Walking Seattle During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Message left on Capitol Hill, Seattle, Washington, USA, Earth
Last Sunday—just last Sunday—I was talking to my brother in Minneapolis and told him that we in Seattle we pretty fairly locked down now. For several weeks, it was “Should we ... or shouldn't we?” and now we'd definitely landed on the shouldn‘t side. We were trying to socially distance ourselves and be vaguely responsible. I still went to Trader Joe’s that morning, and had taken a walk the day before to Volunteer Park. But even the latter instance, I told my brother, made me worried. I was like: Should I be walking? is this safe for me and others?
“Now you‘re really overthinking it,” he said.
The New York Times recently raised the same point: Is it OK to take a walk? Their quick answer: Sure, just stay six feet away from everyone you don’t know, everyone not in your family. All of which makes sense. To be honest, I was already practicing it. Last Monday, I did the same walk out to Volunteer Park but veered off before I got there because it became too crowded. it was like everyone was going to Volunteer Park, which shouldn't be the game plan. Tuesday, to avoid the crowds, I walked down to the International District and over by the waterfront. That was less crowded but more depressing: a lot of homeless, Chinese in masks, and shuttered businesses. Thursday, I went for a run; Friday, a bikeride. Today, instead of heading north toward Volulnteer Park, I walked east toward Lake Washington. It was good. I like walking the less-populated neighborhoods, where, if you need to, you can just step into the street if someone is coming toward you. I try to do this with a smile but sometimes forget. We‘re all in the same boat, and should be banding together, but ... Yeah. You might kill me and I might kill you. It’s the weirdest of vibes. But I try to smile.
I did run into a friend of my wife, and we had a good conversation from 10 feeet apart. She complained about the social isolation but she's an extrovert. To me, that's the easiest part of all of this. The hardest part is anticipating where we‘re going. Right now, the world is basically divided between those who understand exponential math and those who don’t, and the latter group is ruining us. Six days ago, despite (at best) spotty testing, the U.S. had the sixth-most confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the world: 3,774. As I write, we have the third-most confirmed cases in the world: 25,493. Our curve ain't flattening at all. And we still have spotty testing.
Stay safe, everyone.
Sunday March 15, 2020
Three Trips to Trader Joe's
I usually do our weekly shopping at Trader Joe's on Sunday morning. I used to go at 8 AM (Madison, Capitol Hill, Seattle), but a few months ago they pushed back the opening to 9. Something to do with when trucks could arrive with new goods? I rarely went at 8 AM anyway, and not because I wasn't up that early but because that's when the Type-A folks tended to go, and it's no fun fighting for space with them. I'd usually wait until they cleared out. 8:30, 8:45 wasn't bad. But then the switch and it hasn't been as good. 9:30, 9:45 is much busier.
Two weeks ago, doing my usual Sunday run, there were entire shelves unstocked. Like the cereal aisle? Almost all gone. I assumed some trucks hadn't gotten through, and it wasn't until I was talking to my father later that day, and he mentioned that they'd been stocking up on some items in anticipation of the coronavirus situation, that the other shoe dropped.
Last Sunday, my wife went with me. She normally goes to yoga on Sunday mornings but that class was canceled for the time being. In the store, a lot more people looking worried. A lot more facemasks. Purell by the cash register. But the shelves were better stocked.
This morning, a beautiful, crisp morning in Seattle, with the mountains way out, it was still busy at 9:30, 9:45. But not as busy? The shelves looked like they were being depleted again. Barely any pasta left, for example. Even I grabbed more than I normally would. Are customer-service centers like Trader Joe's giving time off for older employees? One hopes. These people are part of the front lines, too.
Will they stay open long? Today, Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio ordered all bars and restaurants closed. “Every day we delay, more people will die,” he said.
Meanwhile, this morning on Twitter, during his National Day of Prayer, the president of the United States: defended the medical screenings at airports even though they are causing huge crowds to breathe the same air for hours and hours—the exact opposite of what is recommended; talked up the “catastrophe” of H1N1 Swine Flu response and incorrectly stated that Joe Biden headed it up; attacked Chuck Schumer; talked about a full pardon for Michael Flynn; and defended his claims of a Google website.
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