“A Swing & A Miss”: Taxes, Athletes & Rigged Games

Who’s on first?

In Friday’s issue of The Boston Globe, a front page article entitled “Eye on ’13 tax bite, big earners seek to move up pay dates” opened with a discussion of Mike Napoli’s $39 million contract offer from the Boston Red Sox.  According to the article, with a payday such as this, Napoli is a member of the tax bracket that may potentially see a rate hike of about 4.6% come January. In addition to Napoli, columnist Callum Borchers describes a number of athletes – or more specifically – athletic agents attempting to lessen their clients’ tax obligations in 2013 through a few interesting tactics (including having some of their 2013 wages turned into 2012 bonuses).  And it’s not just a baseball issue, Borchers illustrates the same strategies used by players in the NBA and NFL as well in order to underscore the fact that “it is common practice for the rich to adjust their pay dates when tax increases loom,” (A17).  Ok.  But just which ‘rich’ is Borchers focusing on?

It is Borchers’ choice of which ‘high earners’ to include in the article that gives me pause.  Let’s put this into perspective – Mr. Napoli’s salary from the Texas Rangers in 2012 was $9.4 million, so a 3-year $39 million contract with the Red Sox is nothing to sneeze at.  However – and this is crucial – in the world of the truly wealthy, it’s also nothing much.  Let’s be real, if the Koch brothers – estimated to be worth $31 billion each – lost $39 million, would they even notice?  Indeed, in their September issue Forbes reported that for 2012 the “average net worth of a Forbes 400 member is a staggering $4.2 billion”, which is the highest average in history.  This is not a collective number, this is the average worth of the 400 wealthiest individuals in America.  In fact the collective worth is even more startling, as msnbc.com reported that “collectively, this group’s net worth is the equivalent of one-eighth of the entire U.S. economy, which stood at $13.56 trillion in real terms according to the latest government data”.  $4.2 billion, $31 billion, $13 TRILLION…these are the numbers of the real ‘high earners’ according to the leading financial magazine, yet the Globe gives front page coverage to “high earners” earning…$39 million over 3 years?  Really?  In my opinion, focusing our attention on high earning athletes is a sleight of hand designed to trick our attention away from the real game & how it may be rigged.

So let’s play ball.  When we are talking about the potential impact of a tax hike on the richest Americans we are not talking about athletes or movie stars, though they are often the face of celebrity and fortune.  But that’s not just because they are good looking, rather it’s part of the game designed to focus our attention off those that are truly the biggest earners and also (according to many) the biggest policy impacters and political lobbyers.  In fact, the richest Americans maintain their power largely by remaining invisible.  Yet when the earnings of just one address – like 740 Park Avenue (which a recent documentary by Alex Gibney claims is “home to the highest concentration of billionaries in the United States”) – is equal to or greater than a large portion of America and yet they often pay less taxes, there is a big problem.  But the more we are concerned with the Pitt-Jolies or Evan Longoria and his $100 million six-year contract, the less attention we pay to the people for whom $16.7 million annually is, truly, chump change – people who could buy and trade baseball teams the way kids trade baseball cards.

To talk about “high earners” and limit the conversation to star athletes is a problematic but clever move.  Using a sports analogy we might say it’s like a pitcher about to attempt a pick off of a runner trying to steal second base.   In the crowd we watch the position and movements of the pitcher, carefully designed to avoid a balk and – critically –  drawing our attention to the lead off, our eyes glued on the runner hovering between first and second, while we ignore all the other players breezing into home plate.

An Open Letter About The ‘Youth Vote’

Dear Young Voters of America,

I’m writing to you today to apologize.  Not for doubting you – the way that some journalists and pundits did prior to this election.  No, instead I’m writing to apologize for the way the media so often talks about you, rarely talks to you, sometimes talks at you, but almost never talks with you.  I want to say sorry that you are discussed as a homogenous group that moves through the world and acts according to some programmed chip implanted in those aged 18-29 (as these are the completely random ages assigned to ‘youth’ voters).  I am sorry that you are defined solely by your age and that your opinions, perspectives, personalities and other identities (like race, geographic location, sexuality and socioeconomic position) are strategically erased so you fit more easily into your assigned category.

In this sense I could apologize to all the essentialized identity-based “groups” that pundits discussed in the days leading up to – and after – the election, allowing for people to make sweeping generalizations about the “Latino Vote” the “African American vote” or the “Female Vote” etc. as though sharing (to varying degrees) a skin color, a religious affiliation, a sexual orientation, or a set of reproductive organs is a defining attribute in the sense that it will define what you think is important and (in this case) who you will vote for.  Indeed this reductivist approach to identity is problematic because it ignores the social construction and fluidity of identity, the ways in which many of us fit into multiple (and often overlapping) categories, but most importantly – it ignores the more pertinent issue: that these “groups” do not coalesce through the superficial markers of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, religion, etc. but rather because of a shared history of oppression and disenfranchisement.  It is the political and social ‘othering’ of these peoples that marks us as ‘groups’ (in any sense of the word).  If I still inhabited the academy I would insert here some brilliant quote about the social construction of identity and its relationship to systems of power by some obscure theorist – but I kicked that Ivory Tower to the curb so instead, here’s the same idea in 140 characters or less, from the night of the election: “Fun Fact: The blacks and Hispanics you are hearing pundits say are winning it for Obama are also known simply as Americans” (@pourmecoffee).

So, I’m sorry to all Americans who found themselves reduced to one-dimensional straw men in this election coverage as well – but this letter is a special dispatch to those millions of people who find themselves between the ages of 18 and 29.  You are the youth vote (even if you didn’t know it).  As an anthropologist who specializes in collaborating with young people, I know some of you quite well: you are my friends, my former students, my co-researchers, my co-authors.   You lent me your voices and stories for my dissertation, and I know some of you pretty well – so I also know that many of you did not vote at the polling place in November – but you have been voting with your feet and your voices as part of the revolutionary (and thus systematically ignored) Occupy movement.  And that gets my vote.

But for all you youth voters who turned out on November 6th, you get a special letter just to you.  Because I heard you won the election for Barack Obama.  Nice job.  And you also get this letter of apology because I read what people wrote about you both before and after the election and, well, it bugged me.  As Lizzie Crocker & Abby Haglage noted in their article about the youth vote for The Daily Beast, “[t]his year, America lost faith in the youth vote, bemoaned a lack of enthusiasm on college campuses, deemed youths ignorant on policy, and invalidated their opinions altogether”.  And they are totally right…except for one important detail.  This exclusion, marginalization and invalidation didn’t just happen this year – or in this election – rather there is a long history of this kind of dismissal of youth’s opinions and perspectives in U.S. politics (and just about everywhere else).  And so the themes I noticed in the articles and blogs about the ‘youth vote’ are ones that I’m sure you – my young friends – are quite used to by now, having long experienced adults reducing you to stock characters.  Still, the tropes evident in political musings about the ‘youth vote’ belie some deeply entrenched ideas about young people, and thus they deserve our attention.  Allow me to explain.

In the myriad articles and posts I came across about the ‘youth vote’ a certain theme emerged.  This theme reduced you to online zombies defined by social media use, an addiction to anything with a lower case ‘i’ in front of it, and a tragic (yet inevitable) enslavement to The Cool – or whatever is ‘trending’.  This “iVote” motif assumes that, as youth, you vote for president like you vote for Prom King.  Furthermore, it portrays youth voters as not-yet-fully-formed people and your views are either 1) dismissed as inherited from your parents and accepted blindly, or rejected blindly in that ‘rebel without a clue’ kind of way or 2) dismissed as the naïve optimism of those who have yet to enter the ‘real world’ (and I’m trying hard here not to quote John Mayer).  So join me, if you will, on a quick tour through the iVote media landscape.

In the National Review Online, Jason Fertig blames the Republican’s loss on “the education system for failing to teach civics…and for spending precious class time on fashionable, left-leaning topics like sustainability”.  Right – because ensuring that we don’t destroy the planet for future generations is certainly not a real area of academic concern so much as it is a ‘fad’.  We might as well call it iSustainability – to really tap into the heart of this voter demographic – a demographic that Fertig assumes is stuck in the social mores of junior high when he agrees with Herman Cain in saying that Obama won because he was “more popular”.   Because we all know that, for the ‘youth vote’, presidential elections are just popularity contests.  I mean, c’mon – folks aged 18-29 don’t really care about the economy and social policy – they’re way more into how pretty you are, or what kind of music you listen to.  Sound silly?  Well, Fertig himself posits that, “Mitt Romney’s iPod playlist may have hurt him in the general election more than we realize”.  Does no one else take issue with this idea?  And, on that note – can you imagine any other voting ‘bloc’ having their pick of president dismissed in such a way?  While every “minority” group was essentialized and homogenized in this election discourse, no other group is assume to vote based on things like musical preference.  As for the young voters I feel confident in saying that this was not a case of Jay-Z versus Meatloaf (or the insane Ted Nugent) – it wasn’t about taste in music or any kind of aesthetics for that matter – it was about issues important to all Americans, regardless of age.

Still Fertig contends that the cultural shift that reelected Obama is one about being “cool”.  I wouldn’t even bother responding to this notion except for the fact that Fertig isn’t the only one out there floating the idea that Mitt lost because he wasn’t as “cool” as Obama.  In an article on Forbes, Stephen Richer (a fitting last name for a Forbes journalist) tries to figure out why the “Obama Zombies” (a pejorative label that deserves its own critique) once again voted Obama into office.  He lists three possible reasons, the first being that, in his own words, “Obama is just the man”.  This is Richer’s label for the idea that “young voters are infatuated with Obama not just because of his ideas or party label but because of his personality, dulcet voice, jump shot, cool vibe, etc.”.  Sound dismissive to you?  Interestingly, it is Richer’s second possible explanation for why the Republicans lost that I think is the most reasonable (but gets lost in the article) and that is the idea that, “Our policies no longer jive with the youth”.  Now I would argue that even his use of the word ‘jive’ belies the reality of this situation.  Still (and maybe I’m guilty of some naïve optimism myself here) this sentence hints at another ‘youth vote’ theme that should be the most common but in reality is quite rare, and that is the theme of “The Knowledgeable Youth Voter” – where one (perhaps begrudgingly, or in spite of oneself) actually attributes at least some level of rational thinking to you, our young voters.  Yet it is amazing how rarely one sees this theme in articles about the youth vote.

On USNews.com Elizabeth Flock notes that “several groups that study the youth vote say they are confident Romney’s lack of appeal to youth lost him the presidency”.  And in an amazingly ill-advised conference call to campaign donors on Wednesday November 14th, Mitt Romney himself addressed the issue of the ‘youth vote’ and reduces them to swag seekers vying for the policies and programs (“gifts” in Mitt’s phrasing) promised by the Obama administration.  As he said, “with regards to the young people, for instance, a forgiveness of collage loan interest was a big gift,” and “free contraceptives were very big with young college-aged women” because apparently young men don’t care about that issue (sorry, “gift”).  However, if we read through the dismissive tone of what Romney actually said, or re-worded the sentence altogether, we may come away with the radical idea that young voters took a good hard look at the policies and programs of the prospective Presidents and made thoughtful decisions about what would best benefit themselves, the economy, the nation, and the world.

Now, I’m not going to deny that Obama has a ‘cool’ factor that we haven’t seen in a President…well, ever, but I will say that the iCool and Swag Seekers themes likens the youth vote to a popularity contest – stripping youth (as they are so often stripped) of being actual thinking, reasonable, people with well (in)formed ideas and opinions.  Because that is, actually, the reality of the situation – to which a few journalists have finally caught on.  In a rare example, US News article author Flock notes that “while Romney and running mate Paul Ryan occasionally reached out to struggling college graduates in the campaign, the Obama camp did a better job of addressing their concerns” (my emphasis).  Concerns like affordable higher education, the reduction of college debt, and possibilities for being able to get a job (Obama even has a website devoted to these – and other – concerns of young Americans).  Finally, a journalist notes (in not so many words) that it wasn’t about social media campaigning, or how well the candidates tweeted – it was the substance of the message that mattered to young voters.

The same is true of the Daily Beast article where Crocker & Haglage spoke to a young woman from D.C. who attributed the GOP’s loss to their “archaic social mores”.  The authors also include in their article a very thoughtful quote from one young voter – Katie Lazares – who said, “Obama’s views are certainly more aligned with the majority vote on social issues than those of his Republican counterpart…And given the way our society continues to shift over time, he sure as hell is more equipped to lead our nation than Mitt Romney”.  Finally, an article about the ‘youth vote’ talks to an actual ‘youth’!  And guess what – she’s not talking about him being ‘cool’ – she’s not talking about what’s on his goddamn iPod – she’s talking about social mores and the cultural shifts that change them in society.  It’s pretty smart stuff.  And thank goodness, because this is the reality.  In an article in the Christian Science Monitor, ‘Rock the Vote’ president Heather Smith states, “Young people are savvy, and they’re committed to this idea that their participation is how they take back power in this country”.

So my young friends, while I’m sorry about how much of the media has discussed your participation in the election, I’m happy to tell you that I think there is hope – hope that people seeing you as rational thinking individuals will be a given, rather than an exception – because this is how it should be. And know that every time you vote and change the political course of the nation, every time you give a quote to media outlets that makes people stop and think – you help change the discourse about you(th).   So keep it up – keep surprising people, keep building coalitions with other (& othered) identity-based groups, keep Occupying, keep resisting…keep everyone on their toes.

With admiration & in solidarity, Kaila

Into Thick Air: Mount Everest And Political Rhetoric in the U.S.

Each month I anxiously await the arrival of one of the many magazines I subscribe to.  Print media is not dead.  While the newspaper may be going the way of the Titanic, magazines are alive and well, and thank goodness.  There’s nothing like the magazines’ shiny pages, the articles about topics I would never otherwise have explored, and the portability – allowing me to read in the tub, on the train, or the treadmill.  This month my Outside magazine arrived chock full of fascinating information: The 20 best places to live!  The island paradise with a dark secret!  The fanatical soccer (sorry, futbol) fans who risk life and limb to watch the sport in Argentina.  But it was the headline on the top of the cover that grabbed my attention – it read, in huge letters “Meltdown on Everest: Why the World’s Highest Peak Is Out of Control”.

Now, I’m no mountain climber, but ever since reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air last year (I know, I know, I’m way behind the times) I have been obsessed with Everest.  And let me be clear: it is not because I want to summit that peak.  In fact it’s the very opposite.  No offense to the alpinists out there – but in my opinion, a mountain with altitudes so high that death is routine should, at all costs, be avoided.  Why?  Well, for starters, listen to how Krakauer himself explained his feelings about finally reaching the summit:

“I just couldn’t summon the energy to care.  It was early in the afternoon of May 10, 1996.  I hadn’t slept in fifty-seven hours.  The only food I’d been able to force down over the preceding three days was a bowl of ramen soup and a handful of peanut M&Ms. Weeks of violent coughing had left me with two separated ribs that made ordinary breathing an excruciating trial.  At 29,028 feet up in the troposphere, so little oxygen was reaching my brain that my mental capacity was that of a slow child.  Under the circumstances, I was incapable of feeling much of anything except cold and tired.” (1996:6)

So…no thanks.  Couple those (lack of) feelings with the frozen bodies one encounters on the mountain and the generally accepted rule that if you can’t walk anymore you are left alone to die, and what I see is essentially suicide – that you pay for (sometimes in excess of $100,000) – a very expensive and very stupid suicide.  In fact, when reading Into Thin Air – I had to stop on nearly every page and recount (to anyone nearby) the below freezing temperatures, the limbs lost to frostbite, the routinization of stepping over frozen bodies (or moving them to the side when they blocked the path) and ask: “why would anyone do this???”.  I know, I know, it’s a big mountain – and people love big challenges – but given the risks I wonder about the draw.  Really, what is going on here?

Now, as an anthropologist I’m about to commit a very big taboo in my line of work – I’m going to use an example from another culture out of context to make a point about something in our culture.  When I taught college I regularly told my students not to do this, but sometimes I guess, one has to break the rules.  Because when I was reading the article about this mountain in Nepal I couldn’t help but think about some cultural issues and political questions surfacing in the U.S. at this very moment – and the parallels, which as a good anthropologist I shouldn’t make – I can’t seem to avoid. So here goes.

In light of the infamous 1996 season Krakauer chronicled in Into Thin Air – which claimed 12 lives (the mountain, not the book – just to be clear) – this month’s Outside magazine article (aptly titled “Take a Number”) discusses the 10 deaths which occurred on Everest this spring, with the author Grayson Schaffer asking the question: has anything changed?  Schaffer’s chilling response is yes, “things are much different now than in the past: they’re worse,” (2012:66).  Throughout the article Schaffer details several problems that are making the mountain more dangerous than ever – and some of those issues bear a remarkable resemblance to ideals (and debates about those ideals) in the current political rhetoric in the U.S.

First, Schaffer notes that even though the mountain routinely takes the lives of the world’s most experienced alpinists, Sherpas and guides – this new Everest of 2012 is more dangerous because “[t]here are no prerequisites for how much experience would-be climbers must have and no rules to say who can be an outfitter,” (2012:66).  The problem, then, lies both with the aspiring climbers and with the start-ups that cater to them.  Let’s look first at the start-ups: as Dawa Steven Sherpa says, “[t]he problem right now is that anyone can set up a company on a laptop. And if they get clients, they can borrow their cousin’s tent, find a cook, and grab a ragtag bunch of guys and set up an expedition. It’s so dangerous,”  (2012:69).   While the mainstream American rhetoric extolls the entrepreneur who wanders bravely into the free-market, unbridled by governmental regulations, and seeks his claim to fame – the reality is (clearly) somewhat less romantic.  But let’s not put all the blame for what’s happening on Everest on these cut-rate start-ups, because as we all know in this land of unbridled consumerism – there are two sides to every cash transaction.   And it turns out that contrary to the service-industry managerial mantra, the customer is not always right.

At Everest, according to Schaffer, “many of the best alpinists in the world still show up in Base Camp every spring.  But, increasingly, so do untrained, unfit people who’ve decided to try their hand at climbing and believe that Everest is the most exciting place to start,” (2012:66 – my emphasis).  This seems to me to be a little bit like someone with no training, but a strong interest in practicing medicine, deciding that removing a spleen is a good way to begin.  The problem here, unlike in the medical example above, is that there is nobody telling these would-be climbers that starting with Everest is just a bad idea.  While Schaffer notes that “some of the more established outfitters might turn them away, novices are actively courted by cut-rate start-up companies that aren’t about to refuse the cash,” (2012:66).  This deadly combination of cash-strapped outfitters, inexperienced climbers and “no formal fitness or experience requirements for Everest clients,” (2012:69) is a recipe for disaster where people are (mis)led to believe that they can purchase the ability to summit the world’s highest peak.

While we seem to be in a love affair with pushing ourselves to physical extremes – as my Facebook newsfeed recently played host to friends posting pictures of themselves mud-covered and sweating from their participation in the “Warrior Dash”, “Tough Mudder”, the “Spartan Race” or even the “Antarctic Ultra Race” – the stakes at Everest are way higher (pun absolutely intended).  If you want to take a turn at one of these extreme races, be my guest, but even Schaffer contends that non-alpinists attempting to summit Everest is “a situation that would be inconceivable in other extreme outdoor pursuits,” (2012:69). And so I wonder if the situation on Everest could be a cautionary tale about the fearless rugged individual/entrepreneur that has come to define the mainstream Republican vision of American citizens: pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, ignoring the science propagated by those “liberal elites”, and believing that they alone can succeed.  It’s a twisted version of ‘we built this’ that allows people with no experience or knowledge to think ‘we can climb this’.  No, you can’t.  And you might die trying.

Now I know that we, here in North America, are really attached to the whole rugged individualist/man against the wild/anyone can become president nonsense (sorry, narrative)  – but just like in many things in life – Everest is not really the place that you want to find yourself having to pull yourself up by your (frozen) bootstraps and march onward.  Moreover, as my friend Nerissa pointed out when I told her my take on the parallels between Everest and political rhetoric, it speaks to the psychic disconnect some privileged Americans have between the (American) dream and the reality.  Mainstream Republicans may be able to talk the good talk about the poor and underprivileged in our country and truly believe that they are either (at worst) lazy and content to feed off the government, or (at best) able succeed if they took the initiative – but silver spooners like Mitt Romney can never know what it is like to live poverty, to embody disenfranchisement, or to exist on the margins of American society where phrases like “anyone can become president” are as relevant as the idea that you can fly if you just really really believe you can fly.  Nerissa linked this disconnect and naivety to the one about Everest, as she said, “you can sit over here in America and think about Everest but you can’t know that you actually can’t breathe there unless you’ve been there yourself.”

Lastly but perhaps most importantly is the question plaguing Everest right now.  Schaffer states that some think, “it’s time for the government of Nepal to step in and regulate Everest, but [others] are…wary of more oversight from bureaucrats,” (2012:72).  Sound familiar?  On the surface at least (anthropologists close your eyes) the question of governmental regulation is met with the same fear and distrust on that mountain as here in the U.S.  ‘Regulation’, ‘bureaucrats’, ‘government’ – they have become dirty words – they are invasive, a road block for the unbridled rugged individualist who wants to make his own way in the world – or up the world’s highest peak.

But in truth, even those who carp loudly at governmental ‘oversight’ want some guaranteed level of training and knowledge in those whose services they seek.  There’s a reason why people undergo years – if not decades – of training in order to practice in their field.  I mean, I’m sure that medical students would theoretically rather skip the whole medical school-internship-residency-fellowship trajectory (and the myriad exams those years entail) and skip right to earning the big bucks, but let’s be honest – that’s not the doctor you want to treat you.  If you need brain surgery (and I hope that you don’t) you’d probably like your surgeon to have more than just an ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ and ‘can do’ attitude – you want them to know their shit.  There’s a reason why doctors hang their degrees on the wall, and it’s not (just) because they want to look at the piece of paper they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to earn – it’s because when you see those degrees you know you are in the hands of a trained professional.  Now granted, this is an extreme example, but even in situations that aren’t ‘life and death’ my money goes on you wanting that same “I’ve been trained to do this” guarantee from almost everyone you ‘purchase’ a service from: your mechanic, your kid’s teacher, your electrician, plumber, HVAC dude – heck, even your baristas at Starbucks receive training.  And you’re glad they do, because otherwise the FrappaMochaChaiCcino you spend five bucks on wouldn’t taste the same no matter which franchise you visit.  So yeah, I’d like the person who is going to help me avoid (an almost certain) death on the top of the world’s tallest mountain, to have had more than a laptop and a logo – I want them to be trained.  And if that means that someone, somewhere, has to put ‘regulations’ on them – or on me – and there has to be some type of governmental oversight (yep, I said it) – well, so-freaking-be it.

So whether you’re on the worlds highest peak – or a citizen of the United States in this pre-election insanity – you may find yourself swayed by narratives of the rugged individualist/unbridled entrepreneur which don’t quite ring true, or frightened by horror stories of the governmental ogre who’s inevitable next step is to ‘oversee’ and ‘regulate’ what you eat for breakfast.  But in both places what it comes down to is rhetoric versus reality.  And guess what – reality always trumps.  Let’s just hope it doesn’t take us all losing our noses to frostbite to learn that lesson.

The Entitled Entrepreneur

Rosie, the riveting 47 percenter – you need this shirt

Last fall I was one of the millions who descended on New York (and cities around the globe) to proudly declare that I was the 99%.  But it turns out I was wrong.  I’m not the 99% – I’m the 47%.

Yes, the same 47% percent Mitt Romney referenced in the now infamous video of his rant against what he might call the ‘entitlement class’.  As he said, “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what…who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.” (Read the full transcript of the video here).

Right.  Well, due to some unforeseen (and some foreseen) events, I find myself – for the first time in my life, applying for unemployment.  Coupled with my applications-in-process for affordable health care and fuel assistance, I am officially – if unwittingly – a part of the 47% that has become tethered to the term ‘entitled’.  Now, as a cultural scholar I would be more comfortable talking about the social assistance programs and resources I am applying for – but the linguistic shift that the media has propagated in its adoption of the term ‘entitlement programs’ is so disturbingly pervasive that it seems almost as if these services were always (and only) known by that name (a tip of the hat here to the brilliant PR spin doctors who partook in this revisionist history).  So here’s the ‘entitled’ me in a snap shot:

I have spent all of my adult life working.  I worked in high school, I worked during college, I worked through graduate school, and when I received my Ph.D. I worked some more – being, as I was, one of the lucky ones that landed an adjunct position at an institution of higher learning.  That’s right, up until a month ago – I was your child’s professor.  Last semester – or in the twenty semesters prior – it was my class your son or daughter might have talked to you about during winter break.  I was the one who passed or failed them, I led (what I hoped were) thought-provoking class room discussions, graded their papers, met with them to discuss things they had difficulty understanding in class – or to help advise them on what other classes to take, what to major in, or just how to get through the semester without totally losing it.

As is common in academia my most recent one-year position was not renewed this past August.  Now suddenly I am not your child’s professor anymore.  After over a decade of paying my union dues, my academic dues, my insurance, my mandated retirement fund, my social security, etc. I found myself without a payment coming my way.  Being familiar with the unpredictability of adjunct positions, I was not totally unprepared for the loss of my job, and I had decided over the summer to learn how to begin to support myself by starting my own business.  I did my market research, I registered my business with the state and with my town, I got a business checking account, and suddenly I became that other ‘e’ word that Republicans love to use – entrepreneur.  I even joined an entrepreneur incubator.  And in the midst of meeting with consultants and accountants and business lawyers – to make sure I was doing everything a new entrepreneur must do – I happened to talk to the lawyer about how my health insurance (which had been deducted from my pay check all these many years) was ending at the end of the month and asked if I would qualify for Mass Health. Then I asked if I could qualify for unemployment.  And what about fuel assistance?

I didn’t ask about these social assistance programs because I felt entitled – on the contrary, I did it because in trying to start my business with limited capital (and without feeling ‘entitled’ to ask for a bank loan) I didn’t know how I would pay my basic bills.  When I found out I was eligible for some of these programs I pursued them – not because I could then sit on the couch and watch ‘Here Comes Honey BooBoo’ all day, but because they could provide me with the means of survival until my business got off the ground.  It was like asking mom and dad for help starting my own business – like Romney suggested to young entrepreneurs (and you can read Julian Castro’s brilliant response to that here) except I was asking the government to make an investment in me – a government for whom, as a professor at a state college, I had actually been working for for over a decade.  Because as it turns out, sometimes even the most educated, motivated and self-sufficient of us need help – as Mitt Romney’s own father had when, as a child, his family fled to the U.S. from Mexico and began receiving (what Mitt’s mother called) welfare-relief.

Filing for these ‘entitlement’ programs has not been easy.  Indeed, anyone who has ever been on that side of the call or in those long lines knows that the word entitlement is so off base because nothing about the process feels entitled at all (in fact the only way the word is even remotely relevant in this situation is perhaps when after an hour – or more – spent on hold only to have a recording tell you to ‘please call again another day’ you feel entitled to something, even if it’s just a cocktail).  The other reason why the word entitled is so wrong is because of the time it takes – and I don’t just mean the hours spent on hold on the phone lines – I mean the time it takes for the entire benefits (sorry, entitlements) process.  To wit:

Fuel Assistance: that was “please call on October 1st to schedule an appointment” and then at noon on October 1st it was “sorry, the voicemail box is full and unable to receive any messages”.

Health Insurance: that was “yes, we received your application but it is currently taking us 8-10 weeks to process applications” – meaning more than 2 months for my information to be entered into the system and god-only-knows how long for them to determine if I am eligible.

Unemployment: that was hours on the phone and then a letter letting me know they would determine if I was eligible within the next 3-4 weeks, and then if I was eligible it would be several more weeks before I saw an actual check.

But no problem, right?  Because most of those (sorry, us) entitlement moochers have a few months of rent, grocery, health care and utilities money saved up and stashed away (like most of the other 47% I keep my hoards of cash in the freezer right next to my lifetime supply of Bonbons).

The other day while I was on hold with unemployment (for 55 minutes – and that was my tenth call on that one day) I opened a window on my computer screen and started working on brochures for my new business.  The dichotomy of that moment struck me – here I was applying for my ‘entitlements’ while simultaneously becoming an entrepreneur.  During the Republican National Convention in August these two words seemed to be on an almost endless loop of repetition: while pushing to promote and support the ‘entrepreneur’ the speakers derided the ‘entitled’ – those hapless, lazy, do-nothings that felt entitled to mooch off the hard work of the American taxpayers.  Back and forth, back and forth – the entrepreneur versus the entitled – a nice little Cartesian dualism the party had created to pit two ‘straw men’ against each other – those who move the economy forward versus those happy (sorry, entitled) to feed off the governmental teat.  Listening to the rhetoric it would seem that it’s always been this way.  But it hasn’t – not really – and it’s also not that simple.

I am not one or the other of those ‘e’ words that Republicans love to discuss – I am both.  An entitled entrepreneur perhaps?  At any rate – like most people applying for governmental assistance – mine is a complicated story – and it complicates (in a productive way I think) the one-dimensional stick figure image of the ‘entitled’ that both the Republican Party and the mainstream media seem bent on constructing.

The 47% that Mitt discusses are those who pay no income tax – most likely because they have no – or very low – income.  I’ve never shirked my tax duty – I paid income tax every year that I worked, and as it turns out, if I am eligible for unemployment I will even pay taxes on any money I receive from that as well.  I’m not entitled – I’m in a rough spot – and it turns out that this government might be able to help me out of this rough spot – and that, I think, is amazing.

In his vitriolic speech about the 47% Romney said, “my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives”.  You don’t have to worry about me Mitt – I’ve got it covered, with a little help from Uncle Sam, for which I may not be ‘entitled’ but I am extremely grateful, just like your dear old dad.

This Is How It Happened

...it is a hell of a townIt was a week before my birthday, and like any good Leo, I reasonably expected to have the most fabulous birthday ever.  Two nights at my favorite campground in upstate New York? Check.  All that was missing was a few nights in New York City amidst the hot August madness that would swallow me whole and sweat me out until I was ready to pound the pavement out of my consciousness by retreating to the stillness of the woods.  My favorite patch of woods – situated equally between a waterfall and a lake so clear that the last time we visited my traveling companion had named it “Camp Crystal Lake” – which stuck until she remembered that was the name of the place in all those ‘Friday the 13th’ movies.  Scary hockey masked Jasons be damned, I liked the name, until dusk fell and darkness wrapped itself around the trees and animals no more terrifying than squirrels managed to make their footfalls sound realistically like humans – probably humans with large knives and aforementioned hockey masks – and so this patch of heaven was renamed Pebble Beach.

In my fantasy this year we would spend a few pre-birthday nights in the city before heading up to Pebble Beach.  We would shop and stroll through Central Park, fill our eyes up to the brim with gallery-hung art, visit friends I rarely see, indulge in over-priced meals and end the day on some pillowtop mattress in a hotel room with a killer view of the city.  Sounds perfect – just like a Lioness imagines her birthday week will be (and yes I said birthday week – because one day of being the rightful center of attention is just not enough for most of us Leos.)  Fittingly – my original vision of this New York adventure included seeing the “Lion King” on Broadway – until I actually looked up the prices for this show – which had led me to two realizations: the first was that shows on broadway are ridiculously fucking expensive and second (though related) was that that was why unemployed ex-academics like me don’t go to shows on broadway.  What I had chanted so proudly back in the fall was now more of a sad admission: we are the 99%. (sigh).

So fine, scratch the show, I wandered off into the internet to find my fabulous hotel room – pillowtop mattress and all.  As I started plugging in dates and scrolling through the results my two above realizations set in again.  I am not the 1% – and that was about the chance I had of finding a hotel I could afford.

But fear not – for there was Craigslist!  And there in the vacation rentals section I found the most beautiful two bedroom apartment right in midtown available for the really reasonable rate of 150 a night.  Note: in literature this ‘really reasonable rate’ would be what we call foreshadowing.  But let me not get ahead of myself.

The apartment was gorgeous – I mean, there was a Tree in the living room.  There were two bedrooms.  The kitchen – all stainless.  And the dining room that overlooked central park?  Forget overpriced restaurants I could host a dinner party for my NY friends at my very own temporary apartment!  I emailed the owner right away – and yes, it was available for the dates I needed.  Great.  And then I got a little nervous – I mean, this deal looked to good to be true and anyway, how did the whole renting-through-Craiglist thing work?  I emailed the owner – his name was Martin Bullock – but he signed his email as Martin Bull (remember what I said about foreshadowing?) – and asked him straight out: was this legit?  Were these pictures (and I provided the link to the ad he had put up) ones of the same apartment that I would rent?  And how would I pay?  And how would I know I wouldn’t get screwed over?  I said I knew I was being overly cautious but I hoped a man of his stature (as he surely must be to own such an amazing apartment) would understand my concerns – and I assured him that I was a responsible adult just looking for a nice place in the city for a few nights.

He wrote back right away and said of course he understood my concerns, that yes those were the pictures of the correct apartment, and that he was a 40 year old man (with grown children) who had been renting this apartment for a decade and had never had a problem, as his reputation would attest. Okay, that’s what I read from his message.  What he actually wrote (unedited except for my italics) was: “I’m a 40 man with two grown up children,  I have also got my reputation to protect. I have being into my agent stuff for about 10 years now and never got myself stained. I will send you the receipt immediately you have the payment sent to the owner of the property as i will be the one to receive the balance of the payment from you on your arrival when i will be handling over the keys to you for check in.Once your confirm your booking Payment, your reservation is guarantee for the choosing date, you will receive a Receipt to confirm,I understand what you are trying to figure out on here and i can assure you that you are on the safer side booking with us.Because we have help so  many people book for an online reservation.”

I for one was relieved – yeah, he gets it!  My traveling companion – not so much. And I hadn’t even told her that he wanted me to wire money to him through Western Union – which certainly seemed reasonable.  Plus he sent me a very official looking contract, complete with a signature that looked like it might have said “Martin Bull” or maybe “Steve Johnson” – but whatever – the contract had one of those multipointed star shaped seals on it – like, how much more official can you get?

“Look at his English Kaila,” my friend said, “this is a scam”.  Now, this struck me as a little racist – what, someone who speaks English as a second language can’t rent me an awesome apartment at an incredible price?  I mean – he is a “40 man” as he said after all.

But no, my paranoid friend insisted that I get his phone number and actually speak to him.  So, fine.  I asked him for his number and he sent it to me, no problem, and the next day my friend called the number and received a message that the “Magic Jack number” that she was trying to reach was unavailable.  So she googled Magic Jack.  This was not good.  Especially since the first thing that came up was some article about how people in foreign countries could use Magic Jack to generate an American phone number.  Great, so on top of being totally racist we were now xenophobes as well?  I still wasn’t convinced.  So she googled the actual number he gave and this came up (it’s a fraud alert scam about someone named Nelson Davies who was renting a vacation property in North Carolina – and it included the contract he sent to the person he attempted  to scam).  “Give me the computer” – I said – and I looked at the contract Nelson sent out in North Carolina and there I saw it.  The exact Contract Martin Bull had sent to me – down to the same ambigious name scribbled in the ‘owners’ section.

And I was pissed.  I was pissed because this fabulous apartment would not be mine for the weekend (in fact, as I later found in my obsessive googling of “craigslist vaction rental scams” that the apartment which was photographed was likely in some other part of the world  – or lifted from the pages of Architectural Digest).  I was pissed because there was someone – or maybe many people as it turns out  – that prayed on those who didn’t have a lot of money (I mean who else is going to look at Craigslist for a vacation rental?).  I was pissed because maybe the websites I thought were racist and xenophobic might have been – at least a little bit – right.  And mostly I was pissed because I fell for it.

Martin continued to email me, and I continually emailed him back and asked him to meet me at the apartment that very afternoon when I would give him cash.  His emails back always failed to respond to that request.  Finally after an insane amount of time spent googling these scams I wrote him a very nasty email.  I was mad – and I got mean.  I called him a thief.  I called him a liar.  I said that he preyed on those without a lot of money – and that I had found him out – as well as his other aliases and that I had reported him to the FBI (which I had). I told him that he had invited generations of karmic retribution onto his family.  I ended my email by saying that his grandchildren would curse his name.

He responded right away.  He just needed my cell phone number so he could text me the ‘booking code’.  He’ll be waiting a long time.  As for NY, I decided to go upstate all the way – no days in the city of liars and cheats and scammers.  I leave tomorrow for wooded bliss.  And for all you would be thiefs out there – I’ve got a house sitter – so don’t even think about it.

Creative Blocks (Part 2): Process Versus Product – Or Why To Keep On Going

drafts…it’s all part of the process

Today I want to talk about another thing that can get in the way of the creative projects we work on: this neat little Cartesian dualism between ‘process’ and ‘product’.  It’s something we all struggle with.  As creatives we are mired in process – that’s the long part, the journey that takes hours, days, weeks, months, years – that sometimes – and I mean sometimes results in a completed product.  For me, as a writer, more often than not the process – the writing, musings, scribbles – do not end up in some polished product but hide out in the recesses of my computer in oddly named documents, or are chicken scratched on post-it notes, napkins, or whatever material that is nearby, ink permeable and (inevitably) able to float down the crevices of filing cabinets, get lost in the wind or more likely turn up as found art in the bottom of the washing machine (no more clear for their cleanliness).  I would say that writing or art making is ‘stops and starts’ but more often it’s starts and starts and starts.

And yet, when we go out into the world – maybe to seek our inspiration – it is not other artists or writers process we see – it’s their products.  The book store is not filled with drafts or unpublished manuscripts filled with revision notes (or stapled to rejection letters).  No, it is filled with pretty words in nice font on appropriate sized paper all bound together into a neat little portable product wrapped with a cover that is shiny and beautiful and perfect.  It makes the writing I do, in contrast, look nearly unrecognizable.  And the same is true with other art as well.  We rarely hear fragments of songs, see half painted paintings or sculptures that still remain partial blocks of clay.  In other words, we don’t see the process.  But that’s where the meat is.  That’s where the heartbreak is and, when we’re lucky, where the all-too fleeting moments of joy reside as well.

I have not published a book.  But I did write a ridiculously long dissertation which some company offered to print and bind for me (at a cost) – and so I paid the ridiculous price (apparently print-on-demand is not cheap) and 6-to-8 weeks later (it is apparently also not fast) I received this tiny, blue, hardcover “book” in the mail that had the title and my name printed down the spine.  It was almost laughable.  This was not the dissertation I wrote.  I mean it was, but in this form, it was unrecognizable to me.  I was used to seeing and feeling the process – in a desk cluttered with drafts and revisions, highlighter color-coding that soon lost it’s meaning, in files and folders and post-it-notes from the field.  In all that I saw my project, my process, my heartache, my joy.  In contrast the product – this book I held in my hands – was sterile.

Was it worth writing it?  Yes.  But in no way did the product reflect my process.  Now, other mediums may be better for that, granted, but still I think that the heart – and heartbreak – of art is in the making of it.  And during that making you will question your project, your ability…your self.  That’s good.  Because maybe if you’re not questioning, your missing something.  Maybe without the questioning, the endless navel gazing and self flaggelation, the process just isn’t the same (okay, maybe we could do with a little less self-flagellation) – but really what we need to do is unhinge ourselves from the dream of the perfect product and just get knee deep in the mud and muck of the process.

A million trite sayings come to mind; “it’s the journey, not the destination”, “if your going through hell – keep on going”, “don’t believe everything you think”.  Yeah, they’re pithy, but they’re familiar, right?  They’re familiar because they resonate with some of us on some level.  But hey, they’re also familiar because someone, somewhere, thought a saying up and decided that it was important enough to share.

Look around you – people are doing it everywhere.  They write something you think is shit – hey maybe even they think it’s shit –  but they did it anyway.  They painted something you think your five year old could paint – and maybe she could – but that didn’t stop them.  They wrote an annoying, shallow song that somehow you find yourself humming.  You can laugh at them all you want, but it’s those of us who get through the process and produce a product that are able to achieve some level of success.  Maybe it is really all about the journey – but there’s also something to be said for parking the damn car, getting out, stretching, and checking out this new place.  Because after all, our next journey starts from our last destination.  Otherwise we’re just doing wheelies in the parking lot.

Creative Blocks (Part 1): You Can’t Make ‘Paintings’ Without ‘Pain’

There is arguably no fresco more famous than that which adorns the Sistine Chapel. And yet, in a poem written by Michelangelo, the painter of that iconic ceiling, we bear witness to the unraveling of the artist – an unraveling written during, and seemingly brought on as a result of, that very painting.  True to form, Michelangelo describes his suffering in poetic detail: his body twisted, contorted, “bent taut” with a “goiter from the torture” of positioning himself in the way necessary to paint the ceiling.  While it is his physical body that bears the (literal) weight of his placement, it is his mind that feels the pain – that suffers – as he says, “because I’m stuck like this my thoughts are crazy, perfidious tripe”.  In the poem (that reads as a letter to Giovanni Da Pistoia) we hear of the treacherous and deceitful ideas that have taken up residence in his supine body – that eat away at his mind until he declares – in the final line, “I am not a painter”.  It is a shocking confession of self-doubt and creative despair.

Thank God.

Why? Because we’re talking about Michelangelo here – one of the most famous painters ever (and now I have to add ‘poet’ to his résumé) and guess what?  As he was painting Adam touching the hand of God (an image so famous it is etched in our collective unconscious and adorns everything from wine labels to IPhone skins) he was not ‘at one’ with the artistic spirit, enchanted by the muses, letting the creative flow use him like a medium.  No, at least part of the time, dude was laying up on the scaffolding in that most famous church in Italy thinking ‘this job sucks’ and ‘I am a big fat phony’.

And I’m so glad.  Because I think these things too.

I mean, not about Michelangelo obviously, but about my own work/endeavors/projects. And as it turns out (hold your breath here) – we. all. do.  And when I say all I mean all – every last one of us.

If you’re not convinced of this by myself or Michelangelo (man, how often have I written that sentence?) hop on over to your favorite search engine and type in ‘writers block’ or ‘creative constipation’ (I’m not even kidding about that one) and you’ll get literally millions of hits.  The quotes and articles and websites and blogs (what? nothing…) that search will bring you are not from would-be authors or artists.   Nope it’s the most familiar and famous, the most successful opining on how hard it is to write or make art or do anything – with some familiar tropes, two of the most common being:

1. the ‘tortured artist’ that Herman Hesse speaks to when he says “I know that today just as at any time in the past, every true poem or painting, every measure of true music is paid for with life, with suffering and blood.” Okay Herman, tone it down a little bit – the whole ‘paid for with life’ and blood thing is a little creepy coming from the guy who brought us Siddhartha. But I get it.


2. the hyperbole and a half that writers pull off so well – especially when speaking of their own artistic medium – like when Jessamyn West says that “Writing is so difficult that I often feel that writers, having had their hell on earth, will escape all punishment hereafter.” Fingers crossed!  But seriously, this is a good example of the woe-is-me/‘I have the hardest job on earth’ kind of meditation on writing that is really common.

Rarely are these two themes that separate, usually they team up, strengthening their power – and their ability to sap yours – by working together.  Like many, I am of two minds about these themes – half the time I’m like ‘alright there Mr. Tortured Writer, back it up, it’s not like you’re mopping floors or working outdoor manual labor jobs…in Texas…in August.’  Writing is fun, and anyone who gets to do it for their job is blessed and privileged.  I can get really high-horsey about this (trust me).  And then it comes time for me to actually write something, and suddenly I’m beset by those creative demons that whisper (or more often yell) at me that I can’t write, which becomes the rationale for why I shouldn’t write, and then becomes the excuse for why I don’t write.  It’s a fabulous cycle.

But what I’ve learned is that it is also a common cycle.  In fact, any bookstore with a section on writing is often filled to the brim with a plethora of books by so many authors that all promise (what amounts to) variations on the same theme, which is essentially the following: If you want to write, write.  The only thing standing in your way is you and your anxiety that what you’ll produce isn’t good enough (or good at all).  So, what these books and blogs and articles tell you, essentially, is that every writer struggles with their craft but ultimately the only way to write is to write through those blocks/demons/anxieties or whatever term a given author uses to explain this universal experience.

Now, rarely will a cultural anthropologist describe something as a universal experience – so don’t take this lightly.  If you are a writer, an artist, a ‘creative’, heck – if you have anything you want to do but are scared, listen up:  Anybody who has ever gone out on a limb has questioned a) the ability of that limb to hold him and b) his ability to hold onto that little limb.  That’s good.  If you don’t ask those questions you are likely to be the kind of person who checks to see if the water is boiling by putting your fingers in the pot.  It’s good to be cautious and it’s good to ask questions, but you’ve also got – at some point – to think less and do more.

Nike, it turns out, had it right all along – just do it.

But if you’d rather not take inspiration from a corporate ad campaign, listen to John Gregory Dunne when he says, “[t]he professional guts a book through…in full knowledge that what he is doing is not very good.  Not to work is to exhibit a failure of nerve, and a failure of nerve is the best definition I know for writer’s block.” If that’s too long of a mantra, how about this one from the awesome Lisa Papa, “Just make art, and good will take care of itself.”

Still not convinced?  Then take it from the ultimate tortured artist (the one, the only) Mr. Vincent Van Gogh:

“If you hear a voice within you saying: you are no painter, then paint by all means, lad, and that voice will be silenced, but only by working.”

Just do yourself a favor and skip the self-flagellation and, for goodness sake, the self-mutilation.

But if inspirational quotes aren’t your thing then let’s think through this issue in a different way.  Let’s go back to the Italian Renaissance, back to that famous fresco and imagine a different outcome.  What if Michelangelo had had the thought he describes in his poem: “I am in the wrong place – I am not a painter” and had actually listened to it?  What if he thought it and was like ‘okay, I’m done’ and packed up his supplies, untwisted his body, climbed down off the scaffolding and just…gone home.  What would we have missed out on?

The reality, of course, is that we have that amazing piece of art precisely because he didn’t listen to those voices.  He didn’t succumb to that anxiety, to those demons.  Instead he finished the darn painting and then took his self-doubt and turned it into a poem.  Damn, Michelangelo.  Now that’s raising the bar – or, in this case, the ceiling.

Up next: Creative Blocks Part Two: On Process versus Product…(stay tuned)