Party-favor Women Make Mince of Healthy Brains

Party-favor women make mince of healthy brains

Tanned legs dance across the hull of a yacht

Parked in full view of chronically dormant wealth

Eyes dilated by excess

And the throbbing hearts of aging, scorned social climbers

Whose embers glow in a discarded pile

Crucible for a Craft

Making a mask mainly for the mirror,

Familiar chant sweetly filling my ear—

A couple drops there, a couple drops here,

That scream solitude is something to fear.

 

Taking my liquid courage to cry,

Beatless, stone-cold heart to belie.

 

The next best thing to my true friend—

Writing the craft, legend to upend.

 

Black Caps

Art Credit: Francis Bacon

Art Credit: Francis Bacon

At the crest of the city

Lies the now quiet park,

Where Love lost His mind

And nearly killed us both.

 

I laughed when the vibrant kites spiraled toward my cheek.

As the ladybugs told their jokes

And my sun-steeped limbs danced with the clouds.

 

I could still taste the bitter, black caps

In the rising majesty of sights and sounds,

Cool water calmed my mild nausea

Tucking me in for an afternoon of sensory delights.

 

Until I saw it—

His face.

 

Eyes agape with the shriek of a twisted secret,

Thin, blue rims punctured by the bleak, black caps

Scurrying over the grass with

Vacant abandon.

 

Disjointed shards of thought

Gushing from a sick-crusted mouth.

And His posture, once familiar,

Now desolate—

A befouled alley strewn with broken glass.

 

His limbs stiff in self-protection,

Throwing erratic blows to fight

Shifting specters along desultory paths.

 

“Can’t you see the kites, Love?”

I begged.

“No. It’s all an Inferno,”

He replied with the curdling rip of alienation.

 

I stood witness to His imagined torture

My fragmented faith walking the razor’s edge between

Hospital and Home,

And looked again into the stormy, dark caps of His eyes

For an answer.

 

He shot down the hill in terror

To crush His delusions

Under the merciful tires of traffic below.

 

My body resisted seeping between the verdant blades

And my feet took flight.

 

Vomit dripping from the picnic blanket

As I finally reached His quaking hand and

Guided our four heavy, labored legs down

Stained sidewalks and steep curbs

Into Our house on the old, familiar street corner.

 

“You’re going to be fine.”

“I am?”

“You are.”

“I am?”

“Yes, you are. Don’t worry. It will be over soon. I love you so much.”

“I am.”

I Pity the (Perfect) Fool

I tend to pity the person who’s shackled with the perfect scorecard of privileges. Without poverty, ugliness, shoddy parenting, social isolation, deformity, handicap, ignorance, bad luck, or a general lack of opportunities, what can we blame for our failures. Advantage makes a person responsible for less-than-optimal outcomes, and what normal, self-respecting, other-blaming person wants to be held to that standard?

Big Hearts in Poverty

What do people typically seek from their professional lives?  You may hear responses such as “fulfillment” or “autonomy,” “meaning” or “personal satisfaction.” More often than not, the response pays thought not only to an individual’s talents, but to a larger aim as well—to do good in the world. As if by nature, most of us harbor an aching desire to make a difference, to leave our communities a little bit better than we found them. While the will to exact positive change is evident in the hearts of people, there is a troubling lack of benevolent careers that pay enough for someone to survive and raise a family. Why is there such a discrepancy?

Like many of my peers, I dipped my toes into several professions after graduating from college. My most rewarding jobs included being a teacher, a freelance writer, and an addiction specialist, but the compensation for these positions was severely lacking.  Many jobs that are absolutely essential to society pay pauper-wages, careers in fields such as  education, social work, home care, medical assistance, childcare, small farming, construction, and more. This decreases the number of people who go into these important lines of work and makes our infrastructure more tenuous. Without those who provide our food, shelter, medicine, childcare, and schooling, our society would collapse into disorder and desperation. And yet they receive next to nothing for this essential labor, which causes many to turn to public services such as food stamps and General Assistance (GA). Locked into this grueling treadmill of poverty, these people burn out, become sick, and in turn, aren’t able to raise healthy families.  The cycle continues.

I hit my breaking point working as an underpaid addition specialist for two years in San Francisco. I was the valedictorian of my high school and I’d graduated summa cum laude from Berkeley with degrees in psychology and sociology. I had other job options, but I’d wanted to give back to a community of people in need, to do the right thing. I had a caseload of over 50 clients with a high turnover of colleagues. It quickly became clear that I’d either need to marry into money—how passé for a self-sufficient, well-educated woman—or seek a better-paying career. I chose the latter.

In recent years, I doubled my salary when I became an SEO manager at an online marketing company. I wrote and edited online articles with the purpose of driving people to morally dubious, for-profit education clients, entities that have contributed to the explosion of student loan debt. I justified this to myself on the grounds that it was for education, so it couldn’t have been all bad, right? My desire to “make it” economically pulled the wool over my eyes and I felt spiritually bankrupt in the process. To my old company’s credit, they gave me free reign to create research-backed infographics that told the truth about wealth or gender inequalities, that explored careers in clean energy or medicine. These messages didn’t exactly align with the company’s desire to attract new students for client “diploma mills,” but they let me have my virtual soapbox to air all manner of issues important to me. For that, I am very thankful. They let me be me, even if I did get laid off one month after receiving a perfect performance review.

C’est la vie.

As a freelance writer, I still occasionally write articles for online marketing companies. Why? Because I love to write and I need to eat. These are the people who pay for my work. Plain and simple.

So why does our society offer such limited options for those with big hearts who don’t want to live in poverty? Are the astronomical salaries of defense contractors, corporate lawyers, investment bankers, lobbyists, and other ethically unsavory professions a reflection of our priorities as people, or is this simply a case of historical Wealth and Power protecting their elevated status, an ossification of the status quo?

I’ve seen evidence for both sides.

First, American priorities seem entirely out of whack. A handful of people in the U.S. have more wealth than the entire GDP of impoverished nations such as Sierra Leone, Ecuador, and Liberia. Our annual defense budget ($637 billion projected for 2015) is more than enough to feed and educate every child on earth, and yet our government callously fills the coffers of our defense contractors without addressing the real root of our nebulous War on Terror: a lack of access to opportunities in developing countries. Take care of basic needs for people, and the scourges of modern society seem to clear themselves up. 

If we had a real interest in curbing violence around the world, we would have stopped building weapons which further escalate conflict and started investing in the hearts and minds of our purported enemies. This is not to neglect the countless non-profit organizations and other groups supporting infrastructural projects across the world. The issue is that a disproportionate share of the wealth is funneled into militaristic as opposed to humanistic ends. We should be paying people to do something better than shooting a gun. A majority of civilians on both sides of the conflict recognizes that building schools and providing basic services is better than building weapons or military bases, and yet we’re manipulated into believing that occupying other countries against their will is somehow for our protection and their benefit. It’s shameful.

We can’t continue pursuing the same militant strategies which have only fueled the flames of anti-Americanism in the Middle East and around the world. Our interest in other countries has been justified on the grounds of “freeing the people” from oppressive regimes or spreading democracy. It’s curious that we only pursue these “noble efforts” in countries that are of strategic interest to us for resources (e.g., oil reserves in the Middle East), corporate development (e.g., United Fruit Company in Central America), or otherwise. Where are our strides to end tyranny against the North Korean or the Nigerian regimes? The horrors of these countries are well-documented, but we do nothing. And then the American government goes and shakes hands with the oil-rich Saudi Princes, the leaders of a country where women still can’t drive and there are regular beheadings stemming from a misuse of Islamic law.

Another problem is that many Americans, likely exhausted from mind-numbing careers, seem to value entertainment above edification. We pay our actors, pop musicians, and athletes exorbitant sums for delighting us in the Coliseum of Mass Media while our schoolteachers and caretakers struggle to save for retirement. 

There is ample evidence that American priorities are somewhat misguided, and it’s not entirely our fault. In fact, we’re behaving very rationally given the system into which we’re born: one where life’s meaning can be artificially constructed by the amassing of goods and power.

To that point, Wealth and Power have a history of safeguarding privileges for themselves and for their heirs. There are more millionaires in the Kangaroo Court of our country, the United States Congress, than ever before, and there are countless examples of people jumping between public service and private companies to bestow benefits on the other. Companies can pay for the election of representatives of their choosing, especially in the wake of Citizen’s United which enables businessmen to unleash unlimited campaign contributions. Our “public servants,” on the other hand, continue to pass legislation which protects incredibly low capital gains and corporate taxes for society’s most entitled people. There are some well-meaning politicians who strive to serve the larger public, but they are increasingly rare as Wealth becomes more and more politically prescriptive in the outcomes of elections.

So how do we change a society embroiled in political pseudo-conflicts, Republican versus Democrat, which always leaves the same wealthy entities in power? Grassroots movements such as Occupy Wall Street have the murmurings of creating change, but the lack of leadership in orchestrating demands extinguished the flames of revolt too quickly. What is the tipping point of a revolution? When will enough people stop watching the hypnotic shadows on cave walls and become privy to the real forces directing their lives?

Does the Cream Always Rise to the Top?

Writers of the past must have had some idea about the size and complexity of the world. Even Nietzsche, Montaigne, and Marx had opportunities to travel, to experience the delicious diversity of natural scenery, belief systems, and earthly pleasures. Did their reflections hold any external validity, or were they broadcasted simply because Western Europeans have a stranglehold over what we now deem to be “classic”? They no doubt had a powerful grasp of expression, but they were given leading roles in shaping epistemological history by virtue of privilege and tradition. How many true thinkers have been denied a voice due to less favorable circumstances? How many unsung philosophers labored over never-to-be published manuscripts, great works of art ignored, yellowed by time and finally reduced to dust in the cruel course of time?

Furthermore, the complexity about which I speak has never been more apparent, has never been more thought-shattering than it is today with our endless opportunities to virtually taste the wonders of existence. It’s impossible to feel the feeble rain in this ocean of possibilities. Montaigne possessed a sizable but limited library comprising the most monumental works up to his day. The collection may seem primitive and limited by modern standards, but at least it was finite. How does a modern person glean the gold from the silt in this baleful sea of information?

Argentina Does it Better: Medical Care

NOTE: Scroll down to the last three paragraphs if you’re pressed for time and want to know why Argentina does medical care better than the United States. If you’re interested in the arresting tale of this bloody shirt, enjoy the ride.

Last Saturday, Jon and I went to El Catedral de Almagro, a dimly-lit warehouse with antique furniture, high ceilings, and abstract artwork. The corrugated tin walls, barrel tables, and huge papier-mâché human heart suspended above the bar lent the space a unique vibe, and the tango-savvy crowd felt right at home. Every night, El Catedral invites people for lessons in the national dance of Argentina. Jon had promised that we’d learn before leaving Buenos Aires, and we’d loosened up our limbs with a couple of cheap bottles of wine before hitting the dance floor.

A live band complete with an upright bass, a cello, an accordion, several guitars, and a piano took the stage just after 1:00 am. Parties in Argentina don’t get going until the early hours of the morning, as people are prone to eating dinner around 10:00 or 11:00 pm. Jon and I conversed with travelers from Switzerland and Germany, and the crowd began to thin out after the band finished around 2:15.

We were across town from our apartment in Belgrano, but we had our bikes for us waiting outside. Traffic was sparse at this late hour and it was a balmy 80 degrees.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but we started heading out in the wrong direction, and before long, Jon had gotten too far ahead of me on Rivadavia Avenue, a relatively busy thoroughfare with no bike lanes. I accepted that I was completely lost and figured I’d just meet Jon at home, asking passersby the general direction of Palermo, a neighborhood with which I was more familiar and felt confident I could navigate. After about 25 minutes of following the advice of these kind, inebriated strangers, I’d found a familiar path which I took all the way northwest, back to our Belgrano apartment.

I walked in expecting to see Jon with his feet propped up on the table, maybe enjoying an episode of M*A*S*H* or a TED Talk on paranormal activity. To my surprise, the apartment was dark and empty. It was 3:15 am.

I took a quick shower as relief from the heat and sticky exercise, and when I emerged, there was still no sign of Jon. The clock hit 3:45. I walked out onto our balcony to look up the street, and checked on a baby pigeon in a nest to the left of our bike storage area. As usual, the neighbor’s cat was eyeing the little bird, but had never mustered the courage to jump the gap which was two stories above the sidewalks below. I tried to read, but my mind kept drifting as I looked up and down the streets. By 4:30, I decided to check out the route from El Catedral on Google Maps. I’d figured he’d probably gotten a flat tire and had to walk the rest of the way. Once I determined that the entire journey was projected to take less than two hours on foot—and this was by the hypothetical “Google walker” who was no match for Jon’s rapid ambulation—I began to get worried. Ok, not just worried. I panicked. It was 5:15 and the sky was starting to get light, and there was still no sign of Jon.

I ran downstairs to speak with the security guard of our building who tried to assuage my fears. We jointly made a plan to call the police at 7:00 am if Jon still hadn’t turned up.

It was 6:10 and the sky was brightening. My imagination visited all of the usual dark places of an ambiguously bereaved (and hysterical) girlfriend. Accident. Robbery. Kidnapping. Senseless beating or murder. Leaning over the banister, I finally spotted a figure making haste toward our building. He was tall, wearing a blood-spattered white shirt, and walking a bike. I ran downstairs to meet him.

Here’s what happened: after we’d gotten separated on the journey home, Jon had hit a pothole on his bike which threw him over the handlebars. His chin, taking the brunt of the impact, had split open as he hit the ground, and he also sprained his right wrist. His arms were covered with nasty cuts and contusions. Two witnesses called an ambulance which drove him to the hospital. When he arrived, medical staff asked for only two things: his name and his age. They stitched up his chin and treated his wounds for free. In the United States, this treatment could have cost him over $3,000. According to the New York Times, it can be over $2,000 for three stitches and around $1,000 for a short ambulance trip, a ride that was free 30 years ago, even when wounds aren’t life-threatening. In fact, if we were at home, I would have considered taking a needle and thread to him myself, or calling one of my friends who’s a doctor.

The thing is that medical treatment is free in many countries, developed and developing. A friend shared with me recently that in his home country of Brazil, medical staff won’t allow people to leave before they receive the treatment they need, free of charge. It’s a proactive view of health that makes people more likely to get the care that keeps them healthy and productive. Many Americans can attest that in any medical situation, emergency or not, even the case of the insured, the first question isn’t, “How can we get this person the treatment they need immediately?” The first question is often, “What will this cost and will my insurance cover it?”

That is not the kind of country we should be.

Solution: This is a no-brainer. Medical care is something that everyone needs in their lives and shouldn’t be performed for outrageous profits. If a hospital in Argentina can give a man an ambulance ride and medical treatment for free, emergency rooms in the U.S. should be able to do the same. This isn’t a radical idea. It’s the humane thing to do.

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The Recipe for Success

Ingredients:

  • Failure
  • Heartache
  • Criticism
  • Self-loathing
  • Alienation
  • Loneliness
  • Blood
  • Sweat
  • Tears

Instructions:

You must suck and suck and suck and suck, until you don’t suck anymore.

(Adapted from friend Joe Kyle Jr.)

Japan Does it Better: Respect for Public Space

Take a stroll through any urban district in the United States and you’ll find abundant evidence of a mass disrespect for shared, public facilities and areas.

  • Our subways, busses, and building facades are often covered with graffiti and filth.
  • Gutters are clogged with trash and refuse.
  • Public libraries are sometimes the only option for the homeless seeking a place to bathe.
  • Many children view public school as an obnoxious necessity rather than a privilege and disrespect the classrooms, books, and teachers that serve them for low pay.
  • Public institutions have a reputation for being inefficient and the officials are often characterized by malaise rather than pride in one’s community.

Everywhere you turn there are examples of Americans simply not treating their public, shared space with any measure of care or reverence.

In my opinion, there is a fervent individuality, a “me-first” mentality that pervades the American conscience and makes it difficult for us to think in terms of the collective good. My mother told me that littering used to be an even bigger problem in the 1970s and 80s, and at least by that measure, Americans have improved. It’s generally condemned to throw one’s trash on the ground, but there are many other ways we can refine the cleanliness and care of public space and institutions.

I found that a communal mentality is endemic to the Japanese people, both in their personal groups and with respect to public space. They are continually aware of what is best for the larger good, what is best for the group. It is uncouth and unusual for people to act selfishly or without regard for the rights of others. As a result, the streets and public transportation are efficient and clean; graffiti is rarely a problem sparing a few non-conformists; there’s a generalized respect for education and the role of public school teachers; and public services are carried out with care and pride in one’s community.

I lived in Japan for two-and-a-half years, and there were several instances where this communal consciousness became readily apparent. The most obvious example, of course, is the Japanese tradition of removing one’s shoes before entering another person’s home. There are some restaurants, dressing rooms, and temples which also have this policy, and the message is the same: I will remove my shoes out of respect for this space to keep it clean for others. Japanese schoolchildren contribute to the cleaning of their classrooms and take up chores collectively. This ritual not only promotes a communal attitude in the completion of a shared task, but also teaches children that shared space is to be kept clean and respected. There is no better illustration of this public-mindedness than sharing a meal with Japanese people. First of all, it is a custom for someone else to always fill your cup. If you are eating with Japanese people and are sharing a pot of tea or a carafe of sake, your dining companion will ensure that your cup remains full. Also, when the food is eaten family style, nobody will take the last bite of anything.

The most heartwarming (and heartbreaking) of these instances, however, was with the Japanese homeless. I should note that homelessness is not nearly as big of a problem in Japan as it is in the United States, and most people who do live outside have some form of mental illness. In Niigata City where I lived, there were a few homeless people who took up residence in the train station walkway elevated from the road and protected from the rain. Each person had a clean, well-constructed cardboard box home with a sliding door. These people would always leave their shoes outside of their box before entering, and would never disturb anyone passing through the train station. It was amazing that even the most destitute of people constructed their living quarters so as to not impose on the public, as if anything less would be undignified, unseemly, and collectively irresponsible. Despite their poverty, there was respect for shared space and an awareness of others.

Solution for the U.S.: We need to get our children more involved in the consciousness and maintenance of public space. Whether it’s a park or beach cleanup, repainting graffitied walls, tracking one’s carbon footprint, or spending more time at centers of communal activity (e.g., libraries, civic organizations, universities), there are many ways to ensure that future generations exercise a greater respect for our shared facilities.

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It’s no surprise that people are reportedly unhappy in marriage. After a day that’s been sold to us as the “happiest day of one’s life,” where can you really go from there?