Thinks


I like those dogs that are so huge and fluffy they could pass for bears.

I think chili is delicious, nutricious, and surprisingly easy to make.

Burritos from the Taqueria the form to which all other burritos aspire.

I’m a fan of the floor-to-ceiling windows on the second floor of the library at Whitman College.

I enjoy waking up earlier than usual, surprisingly refreshed, and enjoying the extra time in the morning.

Erasing completed list items from the whiteboard in the squad room.

Grinning at strangers.

Showers with the water turned up slightly too hot.

Clean sheets.

Feeling the expanse of infinite possibility.

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John Lennon once said that “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” It’s horribly cliche now, but I’m sure it was novel, deep, and profound when he said it. I think he was wrong, however. In my experience, life appears to be much more cause-effect oriented than Lennon seemed to think. So far, my life appears to be the sum of a series of plans enacted, more or less effectively, with rather predictable results.

I spent most of high school, for example, planning to go to college. My grades did restrict those options a little but the basic plan was go to college, get a degree. I followed the plan, and now I have a degree. Senior year of undergrad, I started looking for a job. The plan was to find a good “transition to the real world” position. Check. It goes like this: Plan>>>Execution>>>Result. I find this pattern troubling.

The problem with this outlook is that puts a hell of a lot of pressure on the individual to make good plans. In Lennon’s worldview, it doesn’t really matter what you plan to do. You can count on life to just sweep me up and carry you where you’re supposed to go. Sure, that’s a problem if life decides to carry you over a waterfall but it’s also liberating. Don’t worry about what to aim for–just chill out.

The cause-effect model is much more stressful. If your plans actually matter, than they’d better be good because if life ends up sucking you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.

I often complain that I hate buying things like pens because there are just too many options. Rollerball? Gel ink? Fine point? What brand? Making plans for life presents the same dilemma with infinitely higher stakes. Law school? Travel the world? Get a real job? What city? There are too many questions, and not enough answers.

Yesterday was election day in Washington, where I’m living these days. I usually don’t get campaign calls because, as a young person, I don’t fit the standard profile for a likely voter. On Monday, though, I got a surprise phone call from a campaign volunteer urging my to get my ballot in (I did) and vote against a domestic partnership measure in Washington (I didn’t). I’m guessing the caller I heard from was not a volunteer. I could here the strain in her voice–it’s an unmistakable sound if you know it. A call center worker’s voice has this tortured quality to it, a product of florescent lighting and brain cells offing themselves to escape the boredom.

I have worked for a lot of call centers over the years. My first real job was doing telephone surveys for a political polling firm in Oklahoma. I’ve done cold calls for an insurance agent, I’ve made thousands of phone calls recruiting volunteers for campaigns, and I’ve taken thousands of phone calls reporting car accidents for a different insurance company. I *get* what it’s like to work in a call center. Here’s how a typical day goes:

  • 5:00pm: Log-in to the automated system that keeps track of your phone time down to the second. Make sure to go to the bathroom first, because once you’re logged-in you can’t leave your headset until your federally mandated 15 minute break three hours later.
  • 5:01pm:   The automated computer dialer connects your first call. It’s almost definitely an answering machine.
  • 5:02pm: Surreptitiously sneak your book out of your bag and into your lap. With good concentration you can get threw two or three pages before you have to actually talk to someone.
  • 5:07pm: Your first angry answer. If you’re lucky, they hang up before yelling at you. If you’re really lucky, they use offensive language and you get to hang up on them.
  • 5:15pm: Your first confused, elderly answer. Either due to dementia or hearing loss, poor old Mrs. Beale has no idea what you’re talking about, but she’s also too lonely to hang up on you. This conversation will last until exactly the last question on the survey, when Matlock will come on and she wanders away.
  • 5:16pm–6:45pm: Read a paragraph out of your book, talk to an angry middle-aged person or a confused elderly person, repeat.
  • 6:46pm: Manager spots your book. Sheepishly put it away and wonder whether or not you’ll be downsized.
  • 6:58pm: Particularly rude respondent puts you in an even worse mood. Begin smiling into the phone while you give your spiel to hide the seething hostility in your voice.
  • 7:10pm: Entertain yourself by leaving random movie quotes on strangers’ answering machines.
  • 7:14pm: Jesus…still 16 minutes till your break.
  • 7:30pm: Break time! Buy a diet coke and try not to make eye contact with your coworkers–you don’t have the emotional strength to see something so pitiful right now.
  • 7:45pm: Back to the auto-dialer. First call up is invariably the worst of the evening. You’re working so hard to contain the seething that tiny blood vessels in your eyes start popping. Careful…if you go blind you’re fired.
  • 8:11pm: Guy answers with an obviously fake Indian accent and starts talking about random nonsense. He thinks his clever prank is getting you back for interrupting his night, but really it’s the most amusing thing you’ve heard in four hours.
  • 8:53pm: Seven minutes before your shift ends, you get a doddering old man on the phone. Disaster. You can’t leave mid-call, which means you’re stuck at work until the old guy finally completes the survey. Hopefully he won’t take so long you miss you bus.
  • 9:07pm: Call with the old guy ends just to early to justify rounding up to an extra quarter of an hour, and just too late to make it to your bus on time. Have fun standing in the rain for an extra half hour. At least you don’t have to make any more phone calls…today.

Fortunately, my call center days are probably behind me. Please remember, though, the next time you get an irritating phone call, that the person on the other line has a much more soul-crushing, mind-numbing job than you do. It’s not their fault. And the “Do Not Call” list doesn’t apply to political communications.

 

I’ve been compulsively checking the finals schedule at Willamette the last couple days. I keep convincing myself I’ve forgotten to go the exam and I’m doomed. This whole graduation thing is very surreal. It feels a very long way off, like a few months at least, probably more than a year. It’s this Sunday.

After tomorrow, my undergraduate education will be complete. The next time I walk into a class, I’ll be teaching it.

Whenever I’m confronted with dramatic change, I tend to focus my mind on the distant future or the distant past. Lately I’ve been reminiscing about high school proms and muttering answers to positions we lost this season. And thinking about the future, about law school or grad school, making piles of money, maybe writing the Great American Novel, etc..Really, though, my mind should be in the present. It’s all happening.

My university’s sporadically published bathroom stall periodical,cleverly called either Toilet Talk or Toilet Paper (memory escapes), presented a particularly infuriating fiction in it’s last issue. It repeated the popular sentiment that no two countries boasting McDonald’s restaurants had fought each other. Though the bathroom posting didn’t mention the source of this gem, it’s presumably Thomas Freidman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree, in which the economist states that “”no two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s.” I say states and not “argues” or “contends” because it’s an objective, falsiable claim, not an argument. The paper’s failure to attribute the quotation was probably did Freidman a favor, because the quotation is also dead wrong. For example:

  1. Russian Invasion of Georgia (2008)
  2. Israel-Lebanon (2006)
  3. NATO Bombing of Yugoslavia (1999)
  4. US Invasion of Panama (1989)

The first two postdate Friedman’s book, so he gets a pass. The toilet rag should have known better, six months after the most blatant counterexample. Now, some one really dedicated to defending this nonsense might try to say that the above examples aren’t actual wars because they weren’t formally declared or other such nonselse. But that would prove fruitless because a) I’ve already charitably excluded CIA black wars in Latin America and several civil wars from the list to preemt this semantic farce of an argument and b) this is the same tack high school sophomores in LD debate employ to defend democratic peace theory, and it doesn’t work for them either.

Some might point out that the point of the statement is to illustrate that capitalism and globalization work to reduce conflicts between nation-states. That capitalism reduces war is arguable. Arguing the point with blatantly false soundbytes glorifying a multinational corporation serving up billions of tons of mechanically seperated chicken is deplorable. Check your facts.

I had an Ipod Shuffle for years, but never used it aside from long flights or road trips. This Christmas, my parents gave me fourth generation Ipod Classic with a 160 GB hard drive. While I’m not a habitual user, I have been carrying it around a few times a week. I’ve noticed a few unexpected consequences:

  1. Plugging my ears with music fosters a strange disconnection from the world around me. It makes me focus in on whatever I’m working on like a laser beam. Normally in a coffee shop or walking around campus I’m constantly looking around. I notice ducks, people with odd facial hair, the time, etc…When I’m plugged in, I get swallowed up by the noise. I don’t just stop hearing the rest of the world, I stop seeing it, too.
  2. If the quiet time between songs is unusually prolonged, I snap out of it in a fit of self-consciousness. I suddenly realize that I’ve been missing loads of interesting stuff. The cast of extras around my table in the Bistro has completely changed. The chess game ended, and now a gaggle of freshmen are recounting last weekend’s encounter with the police. I start looking around, visibly startled.
  3. The ridiculous amount of space on my hard drive makes me want to buy loads and loads of content from Itunes. When I see my bank statement, I rethink my unwillingness to subject my new laptop to the ravages of LimeWire.
  4. Podcasts are a fantastic, untapped medium. I subscribe to seven, and would add dozens more if anyone else produced reliably high quality content that interests me. My guess is that no one has figured out how to turn a buck out of podcasting, with a few notable exceptions.
  5. I have a very, very small music collection compared to my peer group. Serously, like 800 songs. I used to have more, but it’s all trapped on my now defunct Acer.
  6. Party Shuffle doesn’t work for me. I need songs that fit my mood and, even more important, the pace I’m walking at. Bill Evans is fantastic, but right after Green Day it just feels wrong. I’d be interesting in looking at data on how many times per hour people click the “>>|” button, because I’m sure I’m way over the mean.
  7. I fret about the condition of expensive things I own, but not enought o preemptively protect them. For example, I constantly examine the case of my Ipod for scratches or imperfections but I’ll probably never buy a case for it. Same goes for my laptop.

Okay so we all know nuclear war is pretty weak sauce, but to me it’s a very abstract concept. This isn’t the 60’s and there isn’t an imminent treat of Russian ICBMs crashing down on little girls. But there are still thousands upon thousands of these things scattered around the world, and nobody really seems to care any more. I have rarely heard an argument in the mainstream media for ending, limiting, or even reducing nuclear stockpiles in the US. I think the reason that our own magnificent collection of giant, world-ending phalli have slipped off public radar is that no one remembers how horrible they are.

When discussing atomic weaponry, the blast tends to steal the show. It’s big and loud and colorful and just captivates your attention with its awesome destructive power. But the really nasty part about nuclear war is the radiation. Truth be told, if an A-bomb goes off in your city you want to die in the blast. If you don’t, you’re likely to have skin burned off by radiation. And if you’re unlucky enough to survive the burns, you’ll get to wander around for 1-2 weeks as a walking ghost while you wait for irreparably damaged cells overwhelm you with agonizing pain until you die. And you WILL die.

Unless you don’t…if you survive the blast and your dose of radiation isn’t sufficient to completely kill you, you’ll have the privilege of wandering around for a dozen or so years, carrying the memories of the torturous deaths of your friends and family until you succumb to any number of rare and incurable cancers.

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