OUR UBER DRIVER must be hard of hearing, because he plays his right-wing talk radio morning show LOUD. It’s not your erudite, intellectual morning show. It’s hosted by Morning Zoo-type personalities: braying, hyper-testicular fellows, as subtle as a Cuban tie.
To illustrate some local New York story about a Hassidic synagogue, they play a nerve-shattering recording of an air raid siren. They talk over each other, like men do when they’re excited, and segue seamlessly into sponsor messages about homes for the aged, and medical recovery facilities for seniors. Then right back to the entertainment portion of the program: the two men, cross-talking in stereophonic sound, sharing revealing fragments of the public and personal between sound effect blasts and explosions of machine-gun laughter.
If you had just one minute to live, you’d want to hear this, because it would make your final earthly moments last longer. Okay, to be fair, I’d toss a coin to decide between this and root canal. My fellow passenger farts silently, which I consider a reasonable response. Soon. Soon I will get out of this car.
We learn that both show hosts live in Long Island. The super-aggressive one tells a story about taking his daughter to soccer practice and then taking his son to soccer practice while his wife borrows the car, but we never hear the denouement, because the dominant guy, who is even more aggressive, keeps interrupting.
The news continues. An unfinished story about taking the subway to eat at a famous pizza parlor in Brooklyn. Something about the Muslim call to prayer. It seems the secret service doesn’t want to protect Hillary Clinton because she is such a nasty woman. The polls are looking up for Donald Trump.
LIZZIE VELASQUEZ, age 25, weighs 64 pounds. Born with a rare syndrome that prevents her from gaining weight, she was not expected to survive. Her parents took her home, raised her normally, and, when she turned five, sent her to kindergarten, where she discovered, through bullying, that she was different.
The bullying peaked when an adult male posted a photo of thirteen-year-old Lizzie labeled “World’s Ugliest Woman” on YouTube. The video got four million views. The uniformly unkind comments included sentiments like, “Do the world a favor. Put a gun to your head, and kill yourself.”
Rather than take the advice of anonymous cowards, Lizzie determined not to let their cruelty define her. Instead, as she reveals in this inspiring video captured at TEDxAustinWomen, Lizzie channeled the experience into a beautiful and fulfilling life.
History professor Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, explains why humans have dominated Earth. The reason’s not what you might expect:
The real difference between us and other animals is on the collective level. Humans control the world because we are the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in large numbers, but they do so in a very rigid way. If a beehive is facing a new threat or a new opportunity, the bees cannot reinvent their social system overnight in order to cope better. They cannot, for example, execute the queen and establish a republic. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of intimately known individuals. Among wolves and chimps, cooperation is based on personal acquaintance. If I am a chimp and I want to cooperate with you, I must know you personally: What kind of chimp are you? Are you a nice chimp? Are you an evil chimp? How can I cooperate with you if I don’t know you?
Only Homo sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. One-on-one or ten-on-ten, chimpanzees may be better than us. But pit 1,000 Sapiens against 1,000 chimps, and the Sapiens will win easily, for the simple reason that 1,000 chimps can never cooperate effectively. Put 100,000 chimps in Wall Street or Yankee Stadium, and you’ll get chaos. Put 100,000 humans there, and you’ll get trade networks and sports contests.
I DREAMED that my friend Jason Santa Maria took a job at a popular new startup that had exploded onto the world scene seemingly overnight. A fascinating visual interface was largely responsible for the popularity of the company’s new social software product. It was like a Hypercard stack that came toward you. A post full of exciting social significance just for you would appear in a self-contained deck with rounded corners. The next post would pop up on top of the first. The next, on top of that one. And so on. In my dream, people found this back-to-front pop-up effect thrilling for some reason.
Having imagined the interface, I next dreamed that I went to visit the startup. There were so many cubicles, so many shiny people running around, holding morning standups and singing a strange company song, that I could not locate my friend Jason’s desk. Someone grabbed me and told me the founder wanted to see me.
THE FOUNDER was an ordinary looking white guy in his late twenties. I was surprised that he wore beige chinos with a permapress crease. With all the TV and newspaper hubub around his product, I guess I’d expected a more stylish and charismatic presence.
The founder told me he was concerned because his mother, apparently a cofounder or at least an officer of the company, was of the belief that I had contempt for their product and disliked her personally. I assured him that I liked the product. Further, I had never met his mother, never read or heard a word about her, and felt only goodwill toward her, as I bear toward all people in the abstract. I don’t hate people I don’t know.
“It would be cool if you told mom that yourself,” he said. And suddenly two assistants were whisking me off to speak to her directly.
THE AUDITORIUM-SIZED waiting room outside the founder’s mother’s office was filled with at least a thousand people who had come to talk to her before me. They seemed to have been waiting for hours. There was an air of boredom and rapidly thinning patience, mixed with excitement and the kind of carnival atmosphere that surrounds things that blow up suddenly in the press. It felt like the jury selection room for a celebrity murder case. Only much, much bigger.
The two assistants escorted me to the very front of the auditorium, to an empty row of seats abutting the door to the founder’s mother’s private office. “Special treatment,” I thought. I was thrilled to be cutting to the front of the line, apparently as a result of the founder’s directive to his assistants. The front row chairs were reversed, facing back to the rest of the auditorium, so I was put in the somewhat uneasy position of staring out at the mass of people who had been waiting to see the founder’s mother since long before I arrived.
After a while, Ian Jacobs of the W3C was brought to the front of the room and seated near me.
We waited as other people were shown into the founder’s mother’s presence.
AFTER FIVE or six hours of drowsy waiting, I realized that the room was set up to mirror the software’s interface: people from the very back of the auditorium were first in line, and were shown into the founder’s mother’s presence first. Gradually, the hall of applicants emptied from the back to the front. Those of us in the very front of the line were actually the last people of all who would be admitted to the holy presence. It was a smart marketing touch that apparently permeated the company: everything real people did in the building in some way echoed the characteristics of the software interface — from the end of the line coming first, to the way the rounded conference tables echoed the shapes of individual news posts in the software’s back-to-front news deck.
What a smart company, I thought. And what a good joke on me, as I continued to sit there forever, waiting to see someone I’d never met, who held a baseless grudge against me, which it would one day be my task to talk her out of.
I WAS SOBER SIX MONTHS when my Uncle George took me to lunch and told me he believed his sister, my mother, had Alzheimers. She was 60. Via frequent short visits to Pittsburgh and more phone calls than we’d shared in decades, I helped my dad accept that he needed to take her to the doctor for tests. Then I helped him accept the results.
She declined over ten years. It was like a plane crash in slow motion.
At my Aunt Ruth’s funeral, my mother cried and cried, with no clue who she was crying for. When I joined my parents at the grave site, my mother turned excitedly to my father and pointed at me. “I know that man!” she said.
When she couldn’t talk any longer; after all the in-home nurses had quit; after the cousin who’d come to care for her committed credit card fraud while my mother wandered the house unwashed and raving; after that, I helped my dad accept that mom could no longer live at home.
Oh, and I stayed sober.
The final two years she spent in a facility. It was like visiting a statue. My dad would get her an ice cream and wheel her around the nursing home garden. She ate the ice cream. I’m not sure she saw the trees.
She had a little CD player in her room, and when we visited, we would put on music she liked – that is, music she had liked when she liked anything. Once, I swear I saw her shiver at the melancholy sax riff on a Frank Sinatra ballad. As if someone was there.
Then there was the day her hair turned white. I suppose it had probably turned gradually during the few weeks since I’d last seen her. My career was taking off and I couldn’t visit Pittsburgh as often. For that matter, maybe her hair had turned white a decade before, and the attendants at the nursing facility had just one day decided it wasn’t worth coloring her hair any more.
Alzheimer’s can only be proved via autopsy; it can’t be diagnosed with 100% certainty while the patient lives. My dad’s insurance company used that loophole to avoid covering a dime of the cost of the last ten year’s of my mother’s care.
After she died, after months had elapsed and my dad was still living among all her old things, my then-girlfriend and I volunteered to weed through my mother’s possessions, giving nearly everything to charity. In my mother’s desk drawer, we discovered a note she had written to herself at the onset of the disease, acknowledging that her mind was going. She feared the passage into darkness.
April 24th would have been my mother’s birthday. I think of her with some regularity. Sometimes I wish my mother could have lived to know my daughter, who is now seven. And sometimes I indulge the thought that somewhere, somehow, she does.
THE DREAMS YOU HAVE when you’re withdrawing from narcotics make David Lynch look like an After School Special hack. How I got on narcotics was outpatient, noninvasive surgery on a double hernia. I got the double hernia from a mistake I made in the gym, or maybe I slipped in the bath and caught myself funny and ripped open my abdominal wall in two places without knowing it.
Doctors dump all this useless data on you and tell you nothing you need to know. Before the surgery I was given a 40 page disclaimer about my privacy rights and how hospitals use and share my medical information. I reckon I was given this because someone sued someone else once. Flash to the medical community: I want you to share my info. That’s what databases and XML and the internet are for. If I fall down a staircase in Katmandu, I want the emergency medical team that rescues me to know I’m allergic to penicillin, and I want the doctor who attends me to know what medicines I take. Thank you for the lovely 40 page disclaimer.
And no thank you for what I left the hospital with: a prescription and nothing else. After all that upfront paperwork, the hospital didn’t even bother giving me my surgeon’s name and phone number. (I had to look them up on the web when my painkiller prescription ran out.)
Here’s some information the hospital could have given me: your peas and carrots are going to swell up and look more like eggplants and cauliflower. That’s normal and you don’t need to call in. For at least five days, you’ll feel like someone just cut you open with a street knife. That’s normal and you don’t need to call in. Your sleep will be fitful, with wild dreams. You’ll wake up at 2:00 AM and 5:00 AM, unable to sleep. If you take the prescription pain killers, your sleep will be even more disrupted. The pain killers don’t so much take away the pain as move it slightly off-camera. You’ll want to take more than we give you and your digestive system will resemble that of a hardcore junkie within two days. All of this is normal. After five days, we cut off the pain killers and provide no way for you to get more. But you’ll still be in terrible pain. This is normal.
If they had told me that in the hospital and written it down somewhere, I wouldn’t have worried so much when parts of my body started resembling clubbed baby seals and seemed to be undergoing racial transmutation. While they were at it, they could have left me a card with my surgeon’s phone number and asked me to call in after four days for an evaluation.
They wanted to evaluate me next week, but I’m taking my daughter to Disney World next week, so instead they’ll see me when the surgeon returns from vacation on August 15. Meantime, I guess I muddle through.
I’m not on narcotics today and the pain is bad but manageable with Advil. I haven’t had that shit or any shit in my system for nearly 20 years, and I don’t like how close it brings me to the old days. I can get my prescription refilled by begging the surgeon’s answering service until eventually he calls the pharmacy, but I think maybe I’ll stick with Advil.
Saw Cameron Diaz on her way to the gym. I was wearing the shirt I’d slept in, walking my dog, holding a bag of shit.
Now, here’s the rest of the story:
My dog, a mangy old rescue Shih Tzu named Emile, had finished his business and was investigating a sidewalk gum wad. He loved sniffing filthy things on the street, and Midtown Manhattan was always happy to oblige. As was my routine, I monitored his activities closely, partly out of horrified fascination, and mainly to make sure he didn’t choke or poison himself.
Typically this activity required my full attention, or at least that part of my attention that wasn’t lost contemplating family and business anxieties, petty resentments, and the recollected snippets of imagery, music, and dialogue that pass for thought. But today, for some reason, I looked away as Emile tackled an apparently sumptuous abandoned cigarette filter. As if spellbound, my eyes crossed two streets to hone in on a couple that was briskly heading my way.
The man in the couple wore gym clothes, and seemed to be speaking quickly, with huge animated arm gestures. But it wasn’t the man who had made me look up from my dog’s debauchery.
At least a head taller than her companion, wearing skimpy gym clothes, the woman appeared athletic and radiant, even from this distance—too far away to see faces. Instead of moving on to discourage Emile from his sidewalk shenanigans, I stood rooted to the spot, waiting as the couple came closer and closer. A fancy gym was nearby, I knew—not from going there myself, but because a friend did, and it was a magnet for activity on this block.
As the couple came closer, the woman lost none of her allure, and I became self-conscious about staring. Not because I felt fat, old, dirty, and tired—a middle-aged man holding a bag of shit, walking an ailing Shih Tzu with a penchant for street turds and candy wrappers—but because it’s rude to stare. It’s rude to stare at the unfortunate: their hand-me-downs, their hopeless haunted eyes. It’s also rude to stare at the genetically blessed, the gorgeous, the toned, the fertile, famous, and wealthy. I still had not recognized Cameron Diaz, but she radiated fabulousness.
So I did what any eldest son raised by my late mother would do: as the couple came closer and closer, I focused my attention on the man. So as not to make the lady uncomfortable, you see. (From this fragment of mental DNA, you should be able to reconstruct me completely.)
So here they were, now on my block, now halfway up the block to me, now almost within arm’s reach.
And there I was, with my dog and my shit bag and my eyes firmly trained on the male half of the couple.
Who was either a gym buddy or personal trainer but definitely not a boyfriend, I gathered from their body language with respect to each other, and especially from his smiling quick speech and big sweeping arm gestures, which vibed “consultant meeting an important client” and perhaps Italian-American and maybe also gay. If I was right about that last bit, my staring at him for the past five minutes didn’t worry me, but it might be freaking him out. At any rate, that was my cover story to myself for what I did next.
For the couple was now an arm’s length away, about to pass out of my sight forever. And while I had been working hard to respect the lady by not telegraphing waves of hopeless lust, if I didn’t steal one more glance right now, I would never see her again, never even know what she really looked like up close.
My eyes slid toward her of their own accord, and as they landed, I saw that her smiling, knowing, superior but also playfully flirtatious eyes were locked on mine. She had been watching me studiously avoid looking at her, waiting for the inevitable collapse of my will, the moment when I could no longer resist. “Busted,” her eyes said. “You didn’t fool me for one minute. Yes, it’s me. Nice meeting you. Bye.”
And then, with a taunting but also pleasing smirk, she was gone. And two things hit me:
When I was twenty, Barbie was a symbol of oppression with obvious food issues. No way would a future child of mine identify with that.
When I was twenty, “princess” was another word for “child of oppressor.” Monarchs went with pogroms and capitalists.
If I ever had a daughter, she would be one of the people. Or a leader of the people. Or an anarchist. Or most probably an artist. Art was problematic because it also went with corporate capitalism (when not going steady with poverty) but at least the few artists who made money disdained it, if only publicly.
Twenty wasn’t easy.
When I was twenty, when I considered bringing a child into this world of wrong, I pictured her enjoying organic produce and healthy ethnic cuisines.
Decades and chameleon lives later, I was married and we were expecting.
After our daughter was born, I suggested raising her vegetarian. It seemed wrong to feed an angel on the blood and limbs of slaughtered animals. Her mother said she’d go along with the vegetarian angle as long as I did the research and committed to preparing fresh, nutritionally balanced meals that supplied every nutrient our child would need.
So she eats meat.
Mostly she eats french fries.
She sometimes eats at McDonald’s. Also she eats candy and plays with Barbies. She says she is Barbie’s biggest fan. Soon after learning to say Dada and Mama, she asked if she was a princess. We said yes.
What used to be my elegant teakwood dining table is now the staging area for a Barbie apartment. The Barbie pool, Barbie camping van, and Barbie salon that comprise the “apartment” barely leave room for the Barbies, Stacies, and Kellys who make use of these facilities.
The princess turns six in September. She’s working on the party guest list and we’ve already decided on her birthday present: a Barbie house.
Barbie is now fifty. But fifty is the new 49. There’s a reason she’s stuck around all these decades. Turns out it has nothing to do with theory and everything to do with girls.