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Scott Timberg, writing for Salon, with a compelling essay on the financial struggles of America’s creative class:

Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen write anthems about the travails of the working man; we line up for the revival of “Death of a Salesman.” John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson hold festivals and fundraisers when farmers suffer. Taxpayers bail out the auto industry and Wall Street and the banks. There’s a sense that manufacturing, or the agrarian economy, is what this country is really about. But culture was, for a while, what America did best: We produce and export creativity around the world. So why aren’t we lamenting the plight of its practitioners? Bureau of Labor Statistics confirm that creative industries have been some of the hardest hit during the Bush years and the Great Recession. But  when someone employed in the world of culture loses a job, he or she feels easier to sneer at than a steel worker or auto worker.

The U.S. House of Representatives is debating legislation that could fundamentally change what types of content we’re allowed to access over the Internet, and the resulting outrage has sparked a heated ideological debate.  But for some reason the media isn’t talking about it.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (or SOPA, as it’s widely called) was introduced in October by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). It’s a boldly ambitious plan to give copyright holders — and the courts, by proxy — better tools to fight the profligacy of online piracy originating from foreign websites.

In a nutshell: SOPA would give copyright holders the power to file lawsuits against sites that they believe are aiding in the pilfering of their goods, be it music, movies, TV shows, video games, or the distribution of tangible, counterfeit consumables. Judges could file injunctions against Internet Service Providers or individual websites, forcing them to block access to foreign sites deemed in violation of U.S. copyright law.

Included in the bill is an immunity provision for Internet providers that proactively remove “rogue” sites from their registries. In other words, SOPA attacks Internet piracy not by going after sites that create and supply nefarious content, but by censoring ISPs and search engines that enable their availability, knowingly or not. Specific targets include payment providers (like PayPal) that facilitate transactions with spurious sites, and ad services (like Google’s AdSense) that promote copyright infringing content in search results. The bill’s authors are aware that many of the Internet’s biggest bootleggers operate overseas. Because attorneys general can’t round up foreign DVD pirates, they’ll instead punish U.S. sites that facilitate a portion of their profits.

SOPA currently has thirty-one Congressional sponsors. A companion bill in the Senate, the Protect IP Act (better known as PIPA), was passed but is currently on hold and awaiting further debates. Given the noted support that SOPA has received from both political parties, it’s important to mention that the divide over the bill is economic rather than political. Supporters and detractors comprise a who’s who in the supply chain of the digital commerce world: on the former side you’ll find virtually every U.S. broadcast and major media company, as well as manufacturers like Sony, video game giant Capcom, comic publisher Marvel, the Motion Picture Association of America, and the Recording Industry Association of America, to name a few; on the latter is a groundswell of opposition from creators, artists, grassroots advocates, and Internet leaders like Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Wikipedia, Reddit, and non-profits like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the ACLU.

Supporters of the proposed bill believe that SOPA gives copyright holders some much needed legal teeth to curb online theft.  Opponents—and I count myself among them—argue that this is yet another example of the government’s increasing tendency to provision our freedoms under the auspices of safety. It gives the U.S. Department of Justice unprecedented authority to trowel the Internet for content it doesn’t like, in effect taking on the role of content arbiter.

To say that the opposition has been vocal would be an understatement. In January, Wikipedia announced it would shut down the English portion of its site for 24 hours in protest of the legislation. [Happening 1/18, at the time of publication.] Co-founder Jimmy Wales also said he’d pull all Wikimedia content from hosting company Go Daddy’s servers in opposition to their SOPA advocacy (Go Daddy has since rescinded its support of SOPA, claiming it now opposes the bill). Social site Reddit has staged a boycott against pro-SOPA companies, targeting anyone who’s in favor of its passage. Unlikely political bedfellows such as Rep. Ron Paul, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and Al Gore have joined forces to denounce the bill.

Given the historic magnitude of what’s being proposed inside the Beltway, it’s decidedly unusual that these bills — and the deluge of opposition — are being almost completely ignored by major U.S. television news networks. A January Media Matters report claims that SOPA and PIPA have received “virtually no coverage from major American television news outlets during their evening newscasts and opinion programming.” The report, based on Lexis-Nexis database searches that analyzed newscasts dating back to when SOPA was introduced in October, found that ABC, CBS, Fox News, MSNBC, and NBC devoted a sum total of zero time to this issue during prime evening newscasts.

Some networks bore minor exceptions. In December, CNN featured a single snippet on The Situation Room that mentioned SOPA. And while Fox News hasn’t touched the issue, host Andrew Napolitano broached the subject on sister channel Fox Business Network.  Otherwise, major broadcast news outlets have responded to the possible passage of one of the most historic media and copyright bills in American history with complete, unanimous silence.

It comes as little surprise, then, to learn that the parent companies responsible for this blackout are, without exception, noted SOPA supporters. News Corporation (which owns Fox), Time Warner (which owns CNN), Viacom (which owns CBS), Walt Disney Corporation (which owns ABC and ESPN), and Comcast/NBCUniversal are all current advocates of the legislation. The media’s blatant disregard for the issue shifts from coincidental to damning when you consider the obvious relationship between the services these companies provide and what they seek to gain from SOPA’s passage.  Faced with the harrowing realization that their old business models are obsolete, U.S. media companies are attempting to quell hemorrhaging revenues and maintain market share not by adapting to the age, but by stifling online commercial and social behaviors. It’s the equivalent of burning down the house to protect one’s property from theft.

And speaking of theft, it should be mentioned that piracy is indeed a real issue.  Copyright holders should be able to protect their intellectual property and make money from their work.  The problem with SOPA is the means by which it would attempt to achieve these ends.

Here’s what’s wrong with it:

  • First, it’s unconstitutional. Our ability to access information—whether it’s in a book or on a website—is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. Moreover, in its current proposed state, judges can grant a court order against sites if a copyright holder presents evidence regarding a violation, without representation from the defendant. Owners of sites accused of enabling pirated content can have legal action taken against them without even being aware of it. SOPA denies legal recourse and violates the principles of due process.
  • Second, it could prove economically disastrous. Our nascent Internet advertising industry (like Google’s hallmark AdWords program, where sponsored links germane to a user’s Google query appear next to search results) could collapse under this new model. The pro-business rhetoric coming from those supporting the bill is a joke, considering the revenue and job-killing possibilities it possesses in its current form.
  • Third, it’s crudely ineffectual. The practice of “IP blocking” is akin to relocating a store’s address so potential customers can’t find it, but this is a laughably temporary salve. Offending sites can simply create a new domain name or enlist a browser plug-in to redirect users to a new site, practices many of these sites already employ.
  • Finally, it’s sweepingly broad; it goes further than what’s necessary to combat sites peddling counterfeit goods. The specific tactics this bill proposes — pruning entries from the Internet’s library of addresses — threatens important security protocols, meddles with the core infrastructure of the Internet, and ultimately undermines the egalitarian principles upon which it was built. In the end, a few very trivial benefits will come at a huge cost to cyber security and the notion of online expression as we know it.

Both SOPA and PIPA are, at their essence, a matter of bewildering impracticality and gross political miscalculation.  This is underscored by the fact that neither the bills’ authors nor their Congressional supporters sought input from the tech community regarding possible security concerns or how its proposed tactics would affect the Internet’s present ontology. It’s yet another example of Internet law being written not with the interests of the public in mind, but rather to appease the demands of the special interest groups that fund Congress.

Government-imposed Internet filtering is a practice common in countries like China and Iran. If SOPA becomes law, the U.S. will embark on a dangerous precedent. And as extreme as it seems, the likelihood of SOPA passing through Congress in one form or another is actually quite good. Internet law has become a Congressional cause célèbre in recent years; between SOPA and PIPA — and a flurry of incoming drafts currently being written on the Hill — it’s clear this is an issue that isn’t going away. The U.S. is currently one of only seven countries that doesn’t filter Internet access. But if the recent traction of these bills is any indication, that might not be the case for very long.

 

Fighting Fear

By Cila Warncke

Essay

“The thing in the world I am most afraid of is fear,” wrote Michel de Montaigne. Several centuries later Franklin Roosevelt rephrased the sentiment as: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

They lived in dangerous times. Montaigne’s contemporaries were lucky to reach the age of five-and-thirty. Roosevelt was speaking from the depths of the Great Depression. Fear, one could argue, was a legitimate emotion. Yet they diagnosed it as a greater threat than any material problems. Roosevelt condemned the, “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” While Montaigne observes that, “many people… impatient of the perpetual alarms of fear, have hanged or drowned themselves, or dashed themselves to pieces, [giving] us sufficiently to understand that fear is more importunate and insupportable than death itself.” Look at it like that and fear diminishes from a bona fide ghost into a Scooby Doo baddy shaking his limbs beneath a threadbare white sheet. So why do we still hide under the bed when fear skulks into the room?

The summer before we stole the car from the English electrician, our friend who arranged for us to pick grapes in Southern France, Eve, gushed from her perch in the 107th Street bistro, glass of wine in hand, fresh-faced and rested from what we would later learn was an extended stay at a sanatorium.

“I’ve spoken to the Madame, and her grapes are definitely growing,” Eve’s smoky laugh tinkled imperceptibly in the noisy bar. “She’s very excited to host you girls in Provence this fall. Oh, I wish I were going,” Eve lamented politely. “I’ve got to finish this semester, though. I’ve got to finish something.”

I admired so many things about Eve: her frosty hair and lined face seemed worldly at 20, as did her dry pride in the social nuisance of finishing college in four years. Add the fact that she kept disappearing, keeping my travel partners and I guessing about the grape-picking gig, and she quickly became just the right type of mysterious to me. One week I’d bump into her on the crowded city campus, finishing a blue cigarette by the Pan statue before our creative writing class. “See you upstairs in a minute,” she’d said with a weary smile. But when her empty chair persisted for that day and days after, Eve’s power only grew in my mind. She was living an urban, Cheshire life and I couldn’t think of anything more romantic.

I longed to break out of my suburban girl’s shell. Besides working as a hostess in a dingy, Upper West Side jazz club, I lived a fairly sheltered life for a twenty-one-year- old, commuting by bus from my parents’ house to Columbia University, scrunchies in my ponytail, buried under books in the magnificent library after lectures. I had no social life to speak of since relinquishing my cool magazine internship (I couldn’t afford not to be paid). New York was all around me, but I hardly felt like a city girl.

According to Eve’s pitch, if I was willing to take a semester off and fly to France, I could work the harvest for a few weeks and stay with Eve’s family friend, Madame Beauvert, who prevailed over acres of what would become Cotes du Rhone. My imagination conjured not backbreaking work, but lavender fields and nearby Mediterranean beaches; and Paris. I could live in France instead of read about how Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller did. So I withdrew from the upcoming fall semester and bought non-refundable plane tickets in cash, my first two major decisions made without parental consent. With a few hundred dollars saved from drunken tippers, I boarded a plane with a borrowed backpack and an elevated feeling that I was both finally living and pulling off a stunt meant for other, more privileged people.

But once seated and angling into the air, I felt sweat seep into the armpits of my Putamayo dress. In retrospect this onset of in-flight panic, prompted by fears of a future ruined while sipping free champagne on Air France, stood to reason. I had had no direct contact with Madame Beauvert. Our “plans”, arranged through Eve, had no confirmed dates of beginning or ending. I had no credit card, and of the three of us traveling, my college-level French was by far the best (I had gotten a B- in Conversation).

My travel partner, Mae, shook her head. “We’re in the right place at the right time,” she said, as one who had the glorious trait of worrying about nothing might. Mae was my age but Southern. She waited tables and lived alone in her mother’s Washington Heights apartment, and one of those circumstances made her as fearless as a secret agent.

Kay, our party’s third member, agreed. “Traveling is one of the good things in life,” she soothed, and because Kay was an artist and daughter of a tragically famous New Yorker, I believed she knew more about life than I.

We lugged our bags through the chaos of Orly airport, amid the human-smelling crowds and sexy, overhead announcements. Not one familiar face, sound or scent. Nothing to read, study or intelligently discuss. Someone stepped on my foot, but I didn’t care. I glimpsed a crepe stand and while waiting for a taxi, my fears became small and ornamental. That safe state in which I had lived, that of dissatisfied longing, had gone. I leaned my head out the window, feeling the urge to make a mark strike my face like raindrops on headlights.

For weeks, Paris was wet. We walked over puddles in our black city shoes and red lipstick, exploring old cathedrals and desecrated cemeteries that, while lovely, didn’t match my visions of sun, wine and the Mediterranean Sea. I had imagined there would be an obvious beginning by now, the pop of a cork, a magnanimous “welcome” from Madame Beauvert and ensuing directions of how to get to our new jobs at her palatial estate. Mae tried calling Madame Beauvert once or twice a day casually, as if it didn’t matter, and Kay echoed Mae’s cool calm about money more easily than I, sketching leisurely in the Left Bank tabacs. She had already finished college, and since Mae had no real intention of going back, the two of them shared a drifter’s context perfect for long afternoons in the Latin Quarter. I was alone with my urgency.

In order to not worry about money during the day, I tried evoking what I imagined would be Eve’s demeanor, smoking and ordering water and coffee to keep from wanting to eat more than camembert on baguettes. At night, I counted my remaining francs and dollars, about 150 total, and imagined myself as Eve, sitting by the statue of Pan, Greek God of the Wild, awaiting a change of fortune.

It was as if I had inadvertently said a prayer.

“Hi Madame Beauvert? My friends and I have arrived in Paris.”

“Sorry?”

Mae cleared her throat and spoke loudly into the youth hostel pay phone.

“We came from New York to work on your vineyard? For the harvest? For faire le vendage?”

“You are American?”

“Yes. Our friend Eve said she had spoken to you about our arrival. We’re here to pick–”

“I have men from Spain and Portugal to do that.”

“I see. Eve had said–”

“I am not well. I cannot take care of three girls. I’m sorry. Please enjoy Paris. Tell Eve I’m sorry.”

*

A few days earlier, a nun in a church vestibule where I had waited out a rainstorm had looked at me with pity. I scanned the wall full of nanny job postings, but her stare reminded me I didn’t belong, so I grabbed a few free publications like Libre Paris and France/USA, and covered my head across the street to the post office. In line for postcard stamps, two classifieds had caught my eye.

1. Join a crew of hot air balloon professionals for a two-month race across Europe. No experience necessary.

2. Restore a medieval farmhouse in the Provence countryside. Light construction/electrical experience preferred. Room and board.

My parents’ postcard, Dear Mom and Dad, Paris is beautiful never slipped down the mail slot that day; the line for stamps was too long and the message felt untrue. But now, this morning after Madame Beauvert refused us, the sun cracked through gray clouds while Mae fed the phone franc after franc, finally reaching the medieval farmhouse (the hot air balloon line buzzed a constant busy).

“You can do construction?” the male voice asked.

“Let’s just say I know how to use a hammer,” Mae replied.

“Let me talk to him,” I grabbed the phone. Picking grapes had slipped through our fingers, but a medieval farmhouse in the French countryside, and the grand adventure I now felt entitled to, would not.

“I’ve helped build my grandfather’s shed,” I lied into the phone without the least bit of regret. “I’ve carried wood, I’ve worked in gardens. I’ve even dug a ditch.”

“You did all of this in New York?”

“Upstate New York. It’s very rural. But we can tell you about it when we meet. How do we get there?”

Within one hour, our bags were packed. I amended my parents’ postcard message, Dear Mom and Dad, Paris is beautiful. We’re taking the train to Provence this afternoon but I was so excited, I forgot to drop it in the mailbox.

End of Part 1

I can’t save the world, but I want to save the world. This has always been the case. Many times as a child, I thought I could save the world or otherwise do the impossible. Many times, I was proven wrong.

Money: it’s not the Mark anymore, obviously, but the Euro. It comes with a slew of coins, of which I have countless every evening, because I’m not used to coins anymore. Having lived in the States for fifteen years, I’m also not used to the different-color-and-size bills, which my memory doesn’t accept as German. The other Germans do however, and once called the Euro the Teuro (the Expensivo). They don’t use that nickname anymore. Starbucks Latte starts at $4.50.

Toilets: Few of the truly Teutonic bowls remain, but I happen to have rented one with my apartment. New bowls don’t swirl water the American way but push it, dump it. But they do look pretty much the same. Old bowls however have a step, a throne, on which things rest until the flush. “Good for taking samples,” a friend remarked.

Sports: If you don’t like soccer, you’re out of luck. There’s a bit of tennis in the news, a bit of Formula One (see above; hey, a German is the reigning champion), and the rest is soccer. Oh, there is also handball (soccer with the hands). Every other sport in any other country is dutifully ignored to talk some more about the dismissal of the Bayern Munich coach and the re-hiring of one of his predecessors. I’d rather watch Clippers games.

Cars: I thought I loved Audis. After five weeks in Germany I’m looking forward to seeing Crown Vics. Imagine a school full of Little Princes.

Speech: There’s a strange wordy meekness in colloquial, and now even written, German. What in English would be a hearty “Let’s do it,” becomes a “Ja, das könnten wir schon auch noch mal machen.” It expresses weariness and the not-so-secret conviction that things will not be possible. It’s the same pattern used for complaints about life and work.

Recently, while scouring the sports pages for reading material (I’m not a soccer fan), I came across this sentence, describing the problems Ferrari is having with its Formula One team, its small steps of progress, and the fans’ impatience: “Für einen so vorsichtigen Aufwärtstrend wie Ferrari ihn mit dem Brasilianer Felipe Massa auf Platz fünf und dem Spanier Fernando Alonso auf Rang sechs in Malaysia andeuteten, findet das in größeren Kategorien tickende Temperament Italiens tatsächlich keine wirkliche Nuance.”

Translated, the sentence means, “Ferrari fans were not impressed.”

Heating: It’s hot and dry in German houses, hotels, galleries, and apartments. In the 80s and 90s, old apartments still had large, tiled coal ovens to heat the rooms. They kept rents affordable and every surface dusty-red. If you came home in irregular intervals, you found your home icy-cold and it took two hours for the oven to heat up again. Windows were crappy too, and my flowers always had fresh air, even after I had sealed the frames and cracks for the winter.

Nowadays, central heat rules even the German capital, and only the staircases remain as dark and damp as ever, emanating the dank smell of Protestant churches. Inside it’s hot and dry. In bathrooms, the heaters are ladder-shaped, great for drying towels, socks, etc. The windows are new and airtight. When I wake up in the small apartment in the geriatric district of Steglitz I feel as though I’m having a nosebleed. My tongue can only be removed from wherever it’s stuck with force. I hang wet laundry everywhere. It dries in mere hours.

Complaints: Not even Germans like Germany. Many of the people I talked to have plans on leaving, dreams of leaving (I heard those same comments in Buffalo, NY. Most of the ones who left ended up in North Carolina).

Germans love to complain about life and their country. It seems in bad taste not to take life hard. I fit right in. It’s as though complaining is a way of showing that you’re in on the joke, even though and because you have no idea what that joke might be. However, they do seem certain that there is one. If you don’t complain you’re either an arrogant asshole, or you are just showing how superficial and gullible you are. Saying you’re enjoying yourself is as bad as admitting that you have three nipples or a second belly button.

Berlin: it’s hard to embrace a city that was 70 percent destroyed and rebuilt on a smaller, uglier scale after World War II. What remains of pre-war Berlin is quite beautiful, yet it feels impossible to fully embrace it. You might find a particular building beyond the park fascinating, even beguiling, until you find out it housed the Nazi court that sent political dissidents to their death. The feeling is close to finding out your beloved grandfather was a war criminal. Here, your whole family turns out to have been war criminals. They’re your family. You love them, especially in the spring, which is always fragile and seduces young couples in parks and by the canals. You love them. They are war criminals. You love them?

Language: It’s difficult for me to speak German, it won’t fit into my mouth correctly. People comment on my accent. Then there are sudden bursts of language, old channels opening and releasing idioms, sayings, and TV jingles I haven’t heard or used in fifteen years. These come with discomfort, as though I’ve sworn or eaten a bag of candy.

I love to think that I love Berlin, but there comes a moment when what your eyes find again is not what you remembered. And when I put the old images on top of the new they won’t fit anymore. It’s a delicious moment, full of hidden longings. I’m trying to see how my lover has grown. But maybe the gap between old and new has widened too much, my mind refuses to fall in love again. Maybe I’m in love with my memories of fragile and seductive springs. Maybe that’s what Berlin has become for me — a place without a present.

Why Moneyless?

Money is a bit like love.We spend our entire lives chasing it, yet few of us understand what it actually is. It started out, in many respects, as a fantastic idea.

Once upon a time, people used barter, instead of money, to look after many of their transactions. On market day, people walked around with whatever they had produced; the bakers took their bread, the potters brought their pottery, the brewers dragged their barrels of beer and the carpenters carried wooden spoons and chairs. They negotiated with the people they hoped would have something of value to them. This was a really great way for people to get together,but it wasn’t as efficient as it could have been.

If Mr Baker wanted some beer,he went to see Mrs Brewer. After a chat about the kids, Mr Baker would offer some bread in return for some of Mrs Brewer’s delicious beer. A lot of the time, this would be perfectly acceptable and both parties would come to a happy agreement. But – and here is where the problem began – sometimes Mrs Brewer didn’t want bread or didn’t think her neighbor was offering enough in exchange for her beer. Yet Mr Baker had nothing else to offer her. This problem has become known as ‘the double coincidence of wants’: each person in a transaction has to have something the other person wants. Perhaps Mrs Brewer had discovered her husband was gluten-intolerant and so Mr Baker had been contributing to her lesser half’s irritable bowel syndrome. Or that rather than bread, she really wanted a new spoon from Mrs Carpenter and some fresh produce from Mrs Farmer. This was all very confusing for poor Mrs Brewer.

One day, a man in an exquisite top hat and tailor-made pin-striped suit entered the small town. The people had never seen him before. This new fellow – he introduced himself as Mr Banks – went to the market and laughed as he watched the hustle and bustle as everyone chaotically mingled and tried to get what they needed for the week. Seeing Mrs Farmer unsuccessfully trying to swap her vegetables for some apples, Mr Banks pulled her aside and told her to get all the townspeople together that evening in the Town Hall, as he knew a way in which he could make their lives so much easier.

That evening, the entire community came, jostling with excitement and intrigued to know what this charismatic stranger in the top hat and beautiful suit was going to say. Mr Banks showed them ten thousand cowry shells, each stamped with his own signature, and gave one hundred shells to each of the one hundred townspeople. He told them that, instead of carrying around awkward beer barrels, loaves, pots and stools, the people could use these shells to trade for their goods. All everyone would have to do was decide how many shells their wares and produce were worth and use the little tokens to do the exchanging.‘ This makes a lot of sense’, said the people, ‘our problems have been solved!’

Mr Banks said he would return in a year and that when he did, he wanted the people to bring him one hundred and ten shells each. The ten extra shells, he said, would be a token of their appreciation for how much time he had saved them and how much easier he had made their lives. ‘That sounds fair enough but where will the ten extra shells come from?’ said the very smart Mrs Cook, as he climbed off the stage. She knew that the villagers couldn’t possibly all give back ten extra shells. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll figure it out eventually’, said Mr Banks as he walked off to the next town.

And that, by way of simple allegory, was how money came into being. What it has evolved into is far removed from such humble beginnings. The financial system has become so complicated that it almost defies explanation. Money isn’t just the notes and coins we carry in our pockets; the numbers in our bank accounts are only the start. There are futures and derivatives, government, corporate and municipal bonds, central bank reserves and the mortgage-backed securities that so famously caused the world-wide collapse of financial institutions in the 2008 credit crunch. There are so many instruments, indices and markets that even the world’s experts can’t fully understand how they interact.

Money no longer works for us. We work for it. Money has taken over the world. As a society, we worship and venerate a commodity that has no intrinsic value, to the expense of all else. What’s more, our entire notion of money is built on a system that promotes inequality, environmental destruction and disrespect for humanity.

DEGREES OF SEPARATION

By 2007, I had been involved in business in some way for nearly ten years.I had studied business and economics in Ireland for four years, followed by six years managing organic food companies in the UK. I had got into organic food after reading a book about Mahatma Gandhi during the final semester of my degree. The way this man lived his life convinced me that I wanted to attempt to put whatever knowledge and skills I had to some positive social use, instead of going into the corporate world to make as much money as I could as quickly as possible, which was my original plan. One of Gandhi’s sayings, which struck a chord with me, was ‘be the change you want to see in the world’, whether you are a ‘minority of one or a majority of millions’. The trouble was, I had absolutely no idea what that change was. Organic food seemed (and in many respects still does) to be an ethical industry, so that looked a good place to start.

After six years deeply involved in the organic food industry, I began to see it as an excellent stepping-stone to more ecologically-sound living, rather than the Holy Grail of sustainability I had once believed it. It had many of the problems rife in the conventional food industry: food flown across the world, convenience goods packed in too many layers of plastic and large corporations buying up small independent businesses. I became disillusioned and began exploring other ways to join the growing movement of people worldwide who were concerned about issues such as climate change and resource depletion and wanted to do something about them.

One evening, chatting with my good friend Dawn, we discussed some of the major issues in the world: sweatshops, environmental destruction, factory farms, resource wars, and the like. We wondered which we should dedicate our lives to tackling. Not that either of us felt we could make much difference; we were just two small fish in a hugely polluted ocean. That evening, I realized that these symptoms of global malaise were not as unrelated as I had previously thought and that the common thread of a major cause ran through them: our disconnection from what we consume. If we all had to grow our own food,we wouldn’t waste 40% of it (as is done now in the US). If we had to make our own tables and chairs, we wouldn’t throw them out the moment we changed the interior décor. If we could see the look on the face of the child who, under the eyes of an armed soldier, cuts the cloth for the garment we contemplate buying at the mall, we’d probably give it a miss. If we could see the conditions in which a pig is slaughtered, it would put most of us off our BLT. If we had to clean our own drinking water, we sure as hell wouldn’t shit in it.

Humans are not fundamentally destructive; I know of very few people who want to cause suffering. But most of us don’t have the faintest idea that our daily shopping habits are so destructive. Trouble is, most of us will never see these horrific processes or know the people who produce our goods, let alone have to produce them ourselves. We see some evidence through news media or on the internet but these have little effect; their impact is seriously reduced by the emotional filters of a fiber optic cable.

Coming to this conclusion, I wanted to find out what enabled this extreme disconnection from what we consume. The answer was, in the end, quite simple. The moment the tool called ‘money’ came into existence, everything changed. It seemed like a great idea at its conception, and 99.9% of the world’s population still believe it is. The problem is what money has become and what it has enabled us to do. It enables us to be completely disconnected from what we consume and from the people who make the products we use. The degrees of separation between the consumer and the consumed have increased massively since the rise of money and, through the complexity of today’s financial systems, are greater than ever. Marketing campaigns are specifically designed to hide this reality from us; and with billions of dollars behind them, they’re very successful at it.

In our modern financial system, most money is created as debt by private banks.Imagine there is only one bank. Mr Smith, who up to now has kept his money under the bed, decides to deposit his life savings, 100 shells, in this bank. Naturally, the bank wants to make a profit, so decides to lend out a proportion of Mr Smith’s shells, let’s say 90 of them, keeping ten in their coffers in case Mr Smith wants to make a small withdrawal. Another gentleman, Mr Jones, needs a loan. He goes to the bank and is delighted to be given Mr Smith’s 90 shells, which he’ll eventually have to pay back with interest. Mr Jones takes the shells and elects to spend them on bread, bought from Mrs Baker. At the close of the day, Mrs Baker takes her newly-acquired 90 shells to the bank. Do you see what’s happened? Originally, Mr Smith deposited 100 shells in the bank. Now, in addition to Mr Smith’s 100 shells, the bank has Mrs Baker’s 90 shells. One hundred shells has become 190. Money has been created. What’s more, the bank can now lend out a proportion of Mrs Baker’s deposit! The process can start again.

Of course, the physical number of shells hasn’t changed. If both Mr Smith and Mrs Brown wanted their shells back at the same time, the bank would have a problem. However, this rarely happens and if it did, the bank would have shells from other depositors to use. The problems start when the bank lends out 90% of all their depositors’ shells. The result is that of all the shells in all the bank accounts of this fictional world, only 10% exist! If all the depositors wanted more than 10% of the total amount of shells at the same time, the bank would collapse (a bank run) and people would realize that the bank was creating imaginary money.

This system may seem ridiculous but it is what happens today, every day, in every country of the world. Instead of one bank, there are thousands. Instead of shells, we have the world’s myriad currencies. But the principle is the same: most money is created by private banks’ lending.Our most precious commodity doesn’t represent anything of value and the figures in your bank account are mostly someone else’s debt, which itself is funded indirectly by another person’s debt, and so on. Neither are bank runs fictional. Recent bank crises, from Northern Rock in the UK to Fannie Mae in the US, show the inherent instability that comes from basing our financial system on an imaginary resource. The edifice is built on pretence and, as shown by 2009’s bank bail-outs across the world, tax payers inevitably have to subsidize with billions to keep the pretence alive when the system implodes.

DEBT FORCING COMPETITION, NOT
CO-OPERATION

In the current financial system, if deposits stay in banks,the banks make no interest and therefore no money. Therefore, banks have a huge incentive to find borrowers by whatever means possible. Whether by advertising, offering artificially low interest rates, or encouraging rampant consumerism, banks share an interest in lending out almost all of their deposits. The credit this creates is, in my opinion, responsible for much of the environmental destruction of the planet, as it allows us to live well beyond our means. Every time a bank issues a human with a credit note, the Earth and its future generations receive a corresponding debit note.

It seems we can’t get enough of it. According to the US Census Bureau, there are now almost 1.5 billion credit cards in the US; the US has more than four times as many ‘flexible friends’ as people. The average household debt (excluding mortgages) is $17,510 and to compound the situation, at the time of writing the US’s national debt is growing by an astonishing $4.5 billion every second. Payback time, in both economic and ecological terms, will inevitably come. While all this money creation is great for the economy, it is not so good for the people that the economy was originally intended to serve. An estimated 77 million Americans struggle to pay for their medical bills, with credit card debts averaging $5,000 per household. Every year, almost 1.5 million people are declared bankrupt or insolvent, and approximately one million houses are repossessed.

In the end, the process of money creation inevitably means the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Banks lend out money that, by any objective measure, they didn’t have in the first place and at every stage, accrue interest and keep the right to repossess real assets if loans are not repaid. Is there any wonder that huge inequality exists in the world?

Let’s return to our little town. In the past, at times such as harvest,it was common practice for the people to often help each other out on an informal, non-exchange basis and the people there co-operated a lot more than they do today. This co-operation provided them with their primary sense of security; indeed, a culture of collaboration still exists in parts of the world where money is deemed less important. However, the pursuit of money and humans’ insatiable desire for it has encouraged us to compete against each other in a bid to get ever more. In our little town, competition replaced the co-operation that once prevailed. Nobody helped their neighbors bring in the harvest for free any more.This new competitive spirit was partly responsible for many of the town’s problems, from feelings of isolation to a rise in suicide, mental illness, and anti-social behavior. It has also contributed to environmental problems, such as the depletion of resources and the climate chaos that currently go hand-in-hand with relentless economic growth.



If I gave you $1tn dollars right now would you accept it?

Not a chance. Except maybe to use it to light my rocket stove with, or to redesign our social and environmental infrastructure in a way in which money was no longer needed or relevant. Almost certainly the latter.


Why not just earn money and give it organizations to help those in poverty?

That would be almost as ridiculous as a major oil company polluting the oceans and then throwing some of the profits to an environmental agency to attempt to clean it up. My perspective is that it is best not to create problems in the first place.

We maintain class structure within national boundaries, and we maintain it between nations. Without a poor, there can be no rich. If the poor were also rich –- as many of the rich pay lip-service to achieving –- the inflationary effect would be such that the rich would no longer be rich. And if all were financially well-off and educated, who the hell would wake up on a Monday morning and spend forty hours in a tinned bean factory? Who’d supply our supermarkets with one dollar pineapples in winter? You? Me?


Do you see money as ‘the root of all evil’?

No. First of all, I don’t believe in good or evil. And even if I did, I wouldn’t see money as such. It’s just a tool that allows humanity to benefit from economies of scale. But it has some seriously destructive and inevitable consequences, outcomes that have been exacerbated by the advent of cheap energy. And we need to be aware of these: up to now we haven’t been, and that is what I aim to bring awareness to.

Until we address our almost complete disconnection from what we now consume – something only a global currency allows us to achieve – then symptoms such as environmental destruction, sweatshop labor, factory farming and resource wars will continue ad infinitum, or at least until we, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “die of civilization”.


What books have most influenced you?

I read a passage from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet every day, and every time I see an extra layer of depth to it. I think that it should be essential reading in schools, but I won’t hold my breath. Other than that, I read anything from Chomsky to Thoreau, Hesse to E.F. Schumacher. Anything that asks me to question everything I’ve been conditioned to believe from the moment I was born.


Got a loan of a couple of Benjamins?

Er, no, but I could tell you how not to even need them.



When I was young, my family lived quite comfortably. We traveled often and well and, as I got older, our standard of living increased. Although I was not spoiled and had a job from age 16, I was able to experience a lot of things and didn’t often want for anything – activities, clothes, education, travel; all were, if not freely available, put on a wish list to a highly reliable Santa Claus.

I’ve been on a diet now for three years, during which time I have lost a net amount of zero pounds. My technique is flawless. For me, dieting has always consisted mainly of eating all the things I usually eat anyway but then feeling really bad about it. Still, counting calories is the perfect hobby for me, combining as it does my love of simple accounting with my natural tendencies towards obsessive self-scrutiny and needless unhappiness.

Late last year, I discovered Fitday.com, a website that allows you to enter all the foods you eat every day and track their nutritional values. You can also subtract calories by adding common daily activities like brisk walking, kickboxing, and crying. Fitday is a great place to learn some disturbing facts about a lot of disturbing foods, like the amount of riboflavin to be gained from chasing a handful of quail eggs with 36 ounces of human breast milk. You can then use these facts to construct miserable imaginary lifestyles (combine “Food: 2 boxes, Frozen corn dogs” with “Activities: Lying quietly in bed, awake”). Fitday also taught me the utter futility of trying to burn two slices of pound cake with 45 minutes of yoga. With Fitday I still eat more or less whatever I want, but now my guilty indigestion comes aided by full-color pie charts.

Since it was obvious that Fitday wasn’t getting me very far, I decided to start tracking my progress at the gym instead. There are dozens of sites that allow you to track how many miles each week you run and at what speed. I spent the first week feeling extraordinarily fit and proud until the day I realized my treadmill was set to kilometers, not miles. Then I had to go back and change all my Fitday calorie scores for the previous week, including an extra 350 calories for consolation cake.

This led me to wonder, exactly how much money am I spending each week on consolation cake? My spending patterns have always been a little erratic, coming in alternating bursts of shamed asceticism and FICO-be-damned indulgences. I wouldn’t dare spend $90 on a new sweater I don’t really need, but six small dog sweaters at $15 each are a bargain not to be missed. This past spring I decided to tackle tax time with the aid of Mint.com, a comprehensive website that pulls together your financial data across the globe, allowing you to see at a glance the amount of money you spent last month on things like dog sweaters and novelty paperclips. So far my level of spending remains unchanged, but I have created dozens of different categories to label my indulgences, including “pet necessities: apparel” and “business expenses: decorative office supplies.”

Logging every thing you eat, spend, and do becomes very time-consuming. In order to improve my overall efficiency, I started reading the Lifehacker blog, an efficiency-maximizing website that now deposits more than 20 lengthy new entries into my inbox every day. It takes me awhile to keep up with them, especially as I’m also reading blogs on diet, fitness, finance, and cake recipes. Many Lifehacker entries suggest you become more efficient by keeping track of things. I now keep track of everything, in dozens of different notebooks, including wine logs, recipe collections, gifts ideas, weight training statistics, interesting quotations, design ideas, and pet vaccination schedules. Then I enter them all under “misc. expenditures: notebooks” on Mint. Number of calories burned for 2.5 hours of data entry = 74.

It’s been six months now since my latest root canal was started, and the painful procedures, the crowning of the tooth followed by its de-crowning, followed by an endodontist’s re-evaluation and an encore performance of the root canal, have proved more disruptive and distracting than even the upstairs neighbor’s teenage kids playing Rockband all afternoon.

Over at Big Other, Roxane Gay–author, and editor at Pank Magazine–ruffles some feathers with her investigation into author payment among literary markets. That is, the lack thereof. Is exploitation too harsh a word?

At least one commenter seems to think editors are all but demonized by a readership sharing too much overlap with a community of authors wishing for publication from the same venues they’re trying (failing?) to support. It’s a contentious issue, as the comment thread suggests.

This writer has no realistic expectation that he’ll be paid for publication by smaller markets, but maintains fantasies about lucrative book contracts against all better judgment.

Is remuneration contrary to the purity of artistic ambition?


The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

From "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop


So, I had this toothache. It was in a tooth that I knew had a cavity. I knew there was a cavity because the last time I went to a dentist, which was about eight years ago, I had noticed a dark spot on my lower right molar. I noticed it because I am the type of person who compulsively looks in mirrors and inspects everything. Everything. I opened my mouth wide to check out the fillings in the back teeth, and I noticed a spot on one tooth, and I mentioned it to the dentist and he goes, “What, this?”* And at the time, it wasn’t even enough of a spot to call it a cavity, so he just said be sure you brush good, and it’ll be fine, and he suggested that perhaps I should tone down the self-inspections.

Which would’ve been fine, right? Except that this was my last dental checkup before going off to college, and though I’m ashamed to admit it, there were many nights when I drunkenly went to bed without brushing, and many mornings when I stumbled out of bed just barely in time to make it to class, and several other times when I mostly just failed to care because I was 18 or 19 and figured my teeth weren’t going anywhere. And for a while, they weren’t, until I was long past my college partying days, making a sincere effort to brush at least once a day, and getting regular medical checkups. The little spot on that back tooth had grown. I was still in the habit of checking out those back teeth. It had developed into the habit of looking mournfully in the mirror, knowing that eventually I’d have to make a dental appointment to get that filled, and wondering how complicated the insurance was going to be. Foolishly, I waited. It didn’t hurt. No need to go to a doctor for something that doesn’t hurt, right?

But then, one day it did hurt. Something was stuck in it. I gave it a good brushing, rinsed with salt water, and it stopped hurting for a couple days, but it started again. I went through this cycle for a few days until it became clear that I would need to see a dentist.

Appointment One:

After calling my insurance company to verify that I did indeed have dental coverage with a $5 copay for office visits, I had the company fax my insurance information over to the only dental office in town that (a) had openings and (b) accepted the particular insurance plan I had. Obviously, when everyone else in town is telling you they can’t get you an appointment until the end of next month and this office says, “Well, I have several openings this week,” you should consider whether you could stand to wait a month. But when there’s a crater in your molar and you find yourself compulsively picking things out of it with the aid of various improvised tools (tooth pick, paper clip, safety pin, earring hook), waiting a solid month just doesn’t feel like an option.

But when I arrived for my appointment, it wasn’t to get a filling or even have a tooth pulled. Since the tooth was not actively hurting at that moment (I had successfully rinsed all the food bits out of it for several days in a row), they gave me a cleaning. A good, 45 minute scrubbing, a painful scrubbing, too. And when I told the hygienist I hadn’t seen a dentist in eight years, she said she’d have to split my cleaning into two visits because there was “so much tartar build up that we won’t be able to get it all in one visit.” Oh, but your insurance will only pay for this type of visit once every six months, and we really can’t wait six months for this, so lets try and get you back in a couple weeks. That’ll be $75 today (you get the discounted rate), and you just pay your $5 copay next time. Oh, yes, I know it’s an unexpected expense and everyone is under pressure in this economy, but this is an investment in your health. You really need this, and you’ll be glad once you’re done. Granted, it’s completely your call. We could just do everything we can for now and then see you back for another regular cleaning in six months, but you will look sortof pathetic if you admit to being bothered by this unexpected yet entirely manageable expense. No pressure, of course.

All this was explained to me as I sat in the dentist’s chair, feet in the air, with what amounted to a small, sharp-edged, dual-action, vibrator-sprinkler jammed into the crevices between my teeth. This went on for 30 minutes before I found myself very briefly the object of attention of one Dr. B, who looked and sounded frighteningly like Ben Stein but with whiter hair and an eerily younger face. He glanced at me, then at my x-ray, made scraping noises with metal objects in my mouth, and told me I would need a root canal. Oh, and those wisdom teeth? They’ll probably need to come out (even though your dentist back home said to leave them alone as long as they’re not bothering you, and they aren’t). But we can talk about that later. After the root canal. For now, give her a treatment plan and schedule a root canal, and I’m out of here because I am a busy man, and it’s not my fault you didn’t brush your teeth enough in college, ya floozy.

Appointment Two:

My tooth started to hurt again, even when I brushed, and using my improvised cleaning tools didn’t help, either. I was rinsing with Listerine several times a day. When the small bottle I carried in my purse ran out, I stopped by Walgreens on the way home from work one day and couldn’t stop myself from taking a swig in the parking lot. Immediately I was confronted with the problem: Where to spit? I couldn’t just lean out the window in rush hour traffic and spit on a neighboring vehicle. I couldn’t open the door and spit on the ground and risk looking like a drunk or a tobacco chewer or both. So, I wedged the full Listerine bottle between my thighs, removed the cup/cap, and spit into it. I drove very carefully the rest of the way home, breaking gently, slowing to a crawl to go over the speed bumps, and merging ever-so-politely in order to avoid upsetting the shot glass of spit and mouthwash that was threatening to ruin my pride and the upholstery of my car.

I called the dentist the next day.

“I have an appointment for a root canal, but I want to know if I can come in sooner. My tooth is really hurting.”

“You don’t have an appointment for a root canal. Your appointment is for a cleaning. You have to go to the other side of the office to make an appointment with the doctor.”

“No one told me that. I thought I was making an appointment for my root canal.”

“Nope. But I can get you in for a root canal … next week?”

“Well, no one told me that was an option. I really need to think about this, but let me make the appointment now, and I’ll at least get to talk to the doctor when I go in.”

I made a lunch time appointment because I don’t like to take time off work when I can avoid it, and they didn’t have any evening appointments available soon enough. In the interim, I sought advice from people I knew who’d had root canals. Everyone seemed to think it’s best to save the tooth if you can, I chose to proceed with the root canal rather than extract the tooth. I arrived early for my 11 a.m. appointment but sat in the waiting room until 11:15 anyway. By the time I reached the dentist’s chair,  I had made up my mind that I was there to have a root canal. I told Dr. B as much, he administered anesthesia, and began drilling away. The procedure was painless, Dr. B put a temporary filling in my tooth and told me to schedule the second half of the root canal at the front desk.

At the front desk, the receptionist told me I didn’t owe anything since the procedure wasn’t finished yet, however the total cost would be $580 at the end of the next appointment. What happened to the $5 copay? my inner voice screamed, but all I could say was, “They didn’t tell me that.” Then the tears began to flow. An old man who had been sitting the waiting room across from me earlier appeared to smirk at my tears as the receptionist said something about a treatment plan — the treatment plan, yes, that was supposed to explain what was involved in this root canal business. That was supposed to explain all the costs. What happened to the treatment plan? I never got a copy.

I put down $50 that day, left the office sobbing, and left my husband a voice mail in which I could only choke out the words, “Hey, it’s me. I need you to call me, okay?” He called me 30 minutes later, afraid I’d been too drugged to drive back to the office. I did drive, though. I stopped off at Smoothie King to get a liquid lunch, and as I sat in my car, in the rain, in the parking lot,  I struggled to get it together enough to go inside and order a medium Angel Food. I stopped crying and heaving hysterical sighs long enough to get inside, but before I could order, I realized my wallet was missing. I ran out to the car, got the wallet, and came back. The other customers applauded, but one woman looked at me and saw how distressed I was.

“You have too much going on,” she said. “You just need to slow down.” I took a deep breath, nodded, and tried not to cry.

“Are you ok?” She said.

I nodded.

“Do you want a hug?”

I nodded again.

She walked right up and hugged me.

“Ah jeeze,” I said. “I’m really going crazy. I’m hugging a complete stranger … but that’s OK.”

“I’m not a stranger. My name is Tanya.”

Tanya was amazing. She gave me hope. She told me to take care of myself. Don’t make myself sick. She had been a victim of sickness, she said. She was diagnosed with breast cancer just a few months before losing her job. She was living off savings, and she would have her last radiation treatment in a few more days.

“You’re amazing,” I sobbed. “I want you to get better.”

“I am better,” she said. “I have claimed my healing.”

I couldn’t believe I was crying over a root canal. I didn’t tell her. I thanked her profusely and went back to work with a sinus headache (the inevitable result of crying). I tried to tough it out through the day but ended up going home at 4 p.m., at which point I slept, whined, and apologized to my husband for being a burden. The only food I managed to stomach that evening was about four spoonfulls of some kind of mediocre soup and a slice of a baguette.

Appointments Three and Four:

At appointment three, I received the second half of my cleaning, which was far less painful than the first. It was unremarkable.

By appointment four, I had figured out that my extreme emotional reaction was more likely due to the anesthesia than being told the cost of the root canal. I knew I could afford the procedure, even though it was an unexpected an inconvenient expense, so it had to be the drugs. Not to mention that loss of appetite is not at all how I normally cope with bad news. I asked to be treated with a different type of anesthesia if possible. The doctor’s assistant explained that the usual anesthesia actually contains adrenaline, which causes some people to have nervous reactions. Only then did I realize exactly how bad for me that particular anesthesia had been — we’re talking about someone with an anxiety problem, panic attacks, and trouble spending extended periods in groups of people — even if those people are close friends and family. Giving me an extra dose of adrenaline before telling me I owe nearly $600 just doesn’t go over well.

As I sat in the chair pondering all this, the doctor and his assistant prepared and administered a different kind of anesthesia, one which they said was slightly less potent and might wear off more quickly (not a problem, I figured, since the last one had left me numb for much of the day). I few needles to the jaw later, I was numb and just waiting to get the drilling done. Perhaps they didn’t realize how quickly the drugs took effect because Dr. B walked away for a good ten minutes, and in the mean time, my face got droopy, and his assistant remembered something.

“Oh, has anyone given you one of these yet? She said, handing me a form.”

“No, what’s this?”

“This is just a release form giving us permission to do the root canal.”

Should I have stopped her at this point? Should I have protested? Should I have said, “What the hell? You already started the root canal last time I was here. You didn’t give me a treatment plan, didn’t tell me what was involved, didn’t tell me how much it would cost, gave me drugs I wasn’t prepared to cope with, drilled the center out of my tooth and suckered me into a long, drawn-out, multi-visit process, and NOW you’re giving me a release form?” Yeah. I probably should’ve said that. But I didn’t. I signed the form and let them drill into my tooth again because realistically, what dentist would take a patient who was half way through a root canal someone else started? Then they strapped a humiliating device on my mouth. It involved a rubber sheet and something like an old-fashioned head-gear, and I couldn’t stop the mental images of disturbing pseudo-medical porn from flooding my brain. I stared into the blindingly bright light overhead, and decided I would need to see a different dentist as soon as humanly possible.

As the anesthesia wore off, I began to twitch and squirm, and eventually even to moan and jerk away from Dr. B, who administered more anesthesia and soldiered on. Still, he was unable to finish the root canal. I learned later that it was at least in part due to the fact that the root of my tooth formed a 90 degree angle at the bottom, which made it particularly hard to drill. Had I known this earlier, I might have chosen to save myself the pain and extract the tooth right off the bat. But there I was: tooth drilled, root canal nearly finished, thinking if I could just finish this mess, I would reward myself at the end by finding a better dentist. Knowing that at least another $700 in dental fees lay ahead, I paid what was left of my nearly $600 root canal bill although the procedure wasn’t finished. This would allow me to space out the payments and make the $700 seem slightly less painful when it came due.

Appointment Five:

I made my appointment to finish the root canal and to start to post-core and crown process, and in the mean time, I sought out recommendations of dentists. I explored every possible option, and I even considered flying home to Louisiana to see a dentist I trust so I could end this charade with the local dental office once and for all. But within a week, the tooth broke. I swear to God, I was following all the rules, but there you go. The side chipped right off while I was eating French fries, and I must’ve swallowed it by accident. It left the temporary filling exposed. I called the dental office, which was closed. The answering service woman explained that the dentist on call doesn’t respond to anything after 11 p.m., and as it was 11:15, I could choose to either go to the emergency room or just wait until the following morning. I wasn’t bleeding out, so I chose to wait. As I lay in bed that night, I coached myself on what to say the next day. I would tell them to pull the tooth. I would never go back. I would find a new dentist. And if anyone tried to make me feel bad about removing the tooth, I would tell them, “I’ve lost more important things than this tooth.” Silently, I enumerated the many things I’ve lost.

It was the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, and I got a 9:15 appointment with a Dr. M. I was expecting another Ben Stein look alike but was surprised to meet a young female dentist not much older than myself. She had a brunette bob with near-blond highlights. It was apparent that she put some effort into her make up that morning. She looked like someone my age who I wouldn’t be likely to be friends with because we had nothing in common even though she was, by all accounts, a really nice person. She didn’t look like a dentist. She didn’t look like Ben Stein. I had a brief feminist experience in which I came face-to-face with my own ingrained sexism as I realized I wasn’t 100% confident in this young, attractive, friendly and well made-up female dentist. I made a conscious decision to trust her because (a) at least she was nicer than Dr. B, (b) she was my only hope to get rid of this damned tooth, and (c) I needed to get over that sexist bullshit because I wouldn’t have let anyone else get away with saying the same things I was thinking. Be the change you want to see and all that.

Dr. M took a look at my tooth and noted that the break looked rather superficial and she could probably still cap it, and I’d be able to go ahead with the post-core and crown. She took an x ray to make sure the break wasn’t worse than it appeared. She offered to cap the tooth for me, but — and this was my moment of triumph, strange as it may seem — I looked her in the eye, willing my tears back into their ducts, and said, “I really just want to pull the tooth. I want to be done with this. I’ve been round and round with this tooth. I can’t keep taking time off work for this, and I honestly can’t afford it, and I just want you to pull it.” She patted my cheek and said she would do it. She conferred with another doctor about that 90 degree root. She numbed me up with my preferred anesthesia. She worked quickly with her assistant, who happened to be the same person who dealt with me sobbing embarrassingly at the receptionists’ desk a few weeks before. She warned me before doing things that might hurt, “You’re going to feel a lot of pressure here.” And she stopped when I raised my hand to ask for a break. he was everything I wished my first boyfriend would be. It crossed my mind to stay at that dental office as long as I could only make appointments with her. I was in love with Dr. M.

After much pushing, prodding and pulling, I heard and felt a crack somewhere beneath my gum line, and Dr. M produced a tooth.

“Cah ah heee?”

“Huh? Oh, sure, just let me get this cleaned up quick. Once we get the root tips out, you can get a look at this.”

There was more digging around in my mouth, then the application of a suction tube to remove the blood, then Dr. M and her assistant left my side briefly. They wanted to take an x ray to be sure all the bits of root had been removed. While they were gone, I lifted my head just enough to see the paper napkin on my chest. It was stained with blood. I felt a little sick and a little proud. Dr. M came back with good news. The x ray showed no pieces of the tooth remained. Dr. M put stitches in my gum; told me how well I’d done; gave me instructions for caring for the wound, 800 mg of Ibuprofen and a prescription for Percoset, which I ended up never taking. She sent me off with a firm warning to eat something before taking any medications. I didn’t get to look at the tooth. I really wanted to see that 90 degree root.

Through the next few days, I poured over the instructions for caring for the extraction site. I meticulously avoided acidic foods and beverages. I did not eat turkey or cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving but stuck to stuffing and other foods soft enough to be mashed with my tongue or chewed on one side. I texted a friend in a tizzy when I found a piece of noodle slouched in the hole where my tooth once was. The noodle did not respond to the “gentle rinsing” described by the dental assistant. My friend texted her mother, who was also a dental assistant. Word came back: I could rinse, but no spitting, sucking, or sneezing was allowed. The noodle was defeated. On Friday, I sneezed. By Saturday night, I allowed myself beer, the effects of which were heightened by several days of a mostly liquid diet. We had a party, and at 1 a.m., we went to the Double T Diner, where I had baklava.

Nearly a week after the extraction, I sat dully tonguing the stitches in my gums, trying not to interfere with the healing yet unable to resist my compulsion to fidget. I suckled my beer gently. The stitches were coming loose, and the thread dangled in the back of my mouth like the lose yarn on an of an old sweater. I ached to pull on that thread, to unravel it just to see what would happen. In two days, I would have an appointment to get the stitches removed, but I worried about the loose thread. I simply couldn’t cope with the prospect of complications — infection, abscess, dry socket, which I nearly had panic attacks avoiding — I had been cautious for a week, and I didn’t need a reason to spend even more time and money on my floozy teeth. But that night,  I pictured all the beer I’d had over the weekend, how I’d heard the effervescence from soda could dissolve or dislodge the blood clot and cause dry socket — how much worse could beer be? I lay in bed imagining my stitches coming undone and my precious blood clot washing away in rivers of beer until I fell asleep. In the morning, I worried that the final checkup would result in the doctor conjuring up some other issue for which I would require some other expensive treatment. I considered cutting the last remaining stitch with nail scissors and skipping bail.

Appointment Six:

On the day my stitches were to be removed, the husband and I had to carpool because his car was in the shop. Despite a frantic day at the office, I spent much of the day imagining finally being free of my unraveling stitches. I tried not to fidget, and while standing in line at the Indian buffet where I went to lunch with my coworkers, I had just enough self-control not to say, “Today,  I’m getting the stitches out of my gums from that tooth extraction I had last week.” After work, my husband dropped me off at the dentist’s office and went across the street to get himself a cup of coffee. I warned him: They always run at least 15 minutes late, so even if we get there on time, they won’t see me till 5:30. He planned to be back by six. I walked up stairs, signed in at the front desk, and by the time I finished hanging my jacket, a dental assistant was there to call me back. She sat me down, snipped the one remaining stitch from my gum, and rinsed the wound with salt water. It didn’t hurt at all. It felt instantly better, in fact, as the temptation to fidget was removed. When she went to get the dentist, she left the little wad of thread on the tray beside me. It looked like a small dead bug with a bit of mush (probably rice pudding) caked on the wings. Or like something you might find in the bathtub drain.

Then my Dr. M returned.

“How are you?” She said cheerfully.

“A thousand times better than I was last time!”

“How about the day of the extraction? That was one hell of an extraction, huh? Did you have a lot of pain?”

“Not really. I turned in the prescription you gave me but I never ended up taking it. I just took Ibuprofen for a couple days.”

She was enthusiastic about this news. I gazed into her green eyes (enhanced by colored contacts, but beautiful nonetheless) and noticed how much she resembled one of my heroes, Carlin Ross.

Dr. M leaned me back in the chair one last time. She swiped her finger along my gum line, looking for swelling and irritation, commenting that the healing seemed to be coming along fine. She said it would heal even faster now that the sutures were out of the way. Sutures, I thought. Yes. I had forgotten that word. She reviewed my chart, saw that I had no need to come in for any appointments any time soon, and encouraged me to take a break, rest up, and enjoy the holidays. And that was that. On the way out the door, I checked in with the receptionist about my refund for the root canal. In the car on the drive home, I took a photo for posterity. I wondered if I would ever see Dr. M again. Then we went out for hamburgers.



*Please note that all dialogue in this piece is paraphrased. I wasn’t taking notes in the dentists’ chair as I was hoping all along that this would not be the type of medical experience that merited an essay, especially one of this length. If I had known it was going to be so dramatic, I would’ve brought a tape recorder.


If one loves language, if one loves its power and beauty, isn’t it pretty stupid to spend all of one’s time reading writing that butchers it? That steamrolls it, shoots it a hundred times, hacks it to pieces with machetes, and then napalms it? And wouldn’t it destroy one’s spirit to repeatedly subject it to this torture?

By this torture, I mean this torture:

“Anyone who has seen or not seen a building can always enjoy looking at one.”

Or this:

“Our bodies enable us to get out of bed every morning, build ancient pyramids, or even watch our children play a game of soccer.”

Or this:

“When art was first exposed to the world, it was used to portray the significance of the Roman Catholic Church and slowly evolved to a tool to recapture events and emotions of the artist.”

After a couple years of teaching writing to first-year college students, I began to doubt my fitness for my job. It was far and away the best job I’d ever had, but at the end of every semester I had to fight the urge to quit. Sometimes it was the glacial pace of faculty meetings that got to me. One can only tolerate so much discussion of Program Learning Outcomes, Program Assessment Practices, and the results of the Assessment Committee’s Assessment of Program Assessment Practices, before one wants to start an ad-hoc committee to banish faculty meetings forever. But mostly what got to me were the papers I had to grade. By the time I handed them back, they’d be splattered with wine or whiskey and creased and torn from my throwing them across the room.

My girlfriend Karen says I dwell too much on the negative. I should try my best to help my students, and I should be proud of any little good that comes of it, even if that little good is just that I feel I’ve done my best. This is called “Success Beyond Success.” It’s about focusing on the things you can control and leaving the rest of the world to do what it will do whether you try to control it or not. She learned it at Communication College. I don’t really know what that is, but she works at Google, and they sent her there.

Karen reminds me that I like teaching. I like talking about stories and essays and trying to explain exactly why I love a piece of writing. I like hearing what other people think about it. But it’s hard not to be disappointed when you look up from the book and see people texting under their desks or nodding off, or, on some days, glaring at you like the sound of your voice is driving them slowly but inexorably insane and they’ll probably have to cut out your larynx to get that sound out of their heads.

After my fourth year of teaching, I finally quit and moved to L.A. I was just starting to worry about how to make a living when I learned about a job at a private Jewish middle school. I am Jewish, but I’m not very good at it, and I had little interest in teaching middle school. From what little I remember of seventh and eighth grade, I spent most of my time applying acne cream and masturbating. But I needed a job.

On the morning of my interview, standing nervously in my only suit in the cramped middle school office, I plastered a smile on my face and vowed to keep it there for as long as it took. Students bustled in one after another, begging the receptionist to staple their papers for them. When she finally got around to me, without returning my smile she handed me a thick folder and told me I should fill out the application.

I scanned the forms while students whirled around me and bumped me with their backpacks. Why were they all so short? How do you talk to someone that short? Why, when they have your resume, do employers still need you to copy out your entire work history on their form?

I negotiated with myself: I’d stay, but I would not fill out my damn work history. Sometimes you have to draw a line in the sand.

The form had a box for me to fill in my minimum salary. I had no idea how much this job paid. I wrote down “50K.” Papa’s got expenses.

The receptionist said to me, “You’re still here? You should go to your class.”

“OK,” I said. “Where is it?”

With a sigh she dropped her pen and led me down the hall and opened a door. There were banners on the walls. Paper streamers. Posters with words on them in upbeat font. About fifteen kids sat scattered along the back of the room at individual desks. I squeezed into an empty one and listened as the teacher talked about the huge increase in income disparity in the U.S. “If you use the Washington Monument as a scale,” she said, “the average CEO’s pay is at the very tip-top, and the average worker’s pay is only 14 inches off the ground.”

When she introduced me, I stood up and made my way through the desks to the front of the room. “So,” I said, “since you all have been talking about immigration, today I thought we’d talk about the ethical issues that come up in the immigration debate.” You all? Ever since I lived in Arkansas and people constantly said to me, “You’re not from around here, are ya,” when I get nervous I start talking like I’m from Arkansas.

The kids stared blankly at me for a few minutes, but once we defined “ethics,” and talked about real-life ethical questions, they seemed to perk up. In no time they were talking to each other, getting in little arguments about what was right and wrong. I was thrilled. None of my college classes ever went this well. I bounced from one group to another, smiling, interjecting, joking, answering questions while grimacing thoughtfully. I even rested an ass cheek on one of the desks, affecting casualness, until I noticed a swath of my hairy leg showing between black sock and slacks. I stood up.

Things started to go wrong. The discussion became an argument. The talk became shouting, and quickly the class descended into chaos, with kids leaning over their desks, getting up in each other’s faces. The noise was deafening. It was like a prison riot. I watched paralyzed, half-expecting someone to lob a burning roll of toilet paper at me.

Finally I shouted, “Everybody, be quiet!”

Nothing happened.

Then the teacher shouted, “Everybody, be quiet!” and everyone was quiet.

At the end of class, the principal introduced herself to me. She was younger than any principal I’d ever seen, but it was clear she was in charge. She told me I’d be having lunch with a few students, the assistant principal, and the rabbi. The rabbi was not an old guy with a beard, but a youngish woman with wet looking curls.

Lunch was in another classroom, where some desks were arranged in a circle. The kids got pizza, but I got a salad with a scoop of tuna salad on top. Tuna salad is an odd thing to just hand someone for lunch, especially when you know he’ll be spending the rest of the day talking pretty closely to people.

I opened up the napkin the rabbi handed me and found two little plastic forks tucked inside. I looked at the salad: big pieces of lettuce, thick slices of cumber and tomato. It was clearly the kind of salad that requires a knife. And I had these two plastic forks. Was this some weird interview mind fuck? Was I being videotaped? As I wondered this, the kids began firing their questions at me.

“What do you think makes for a great middle school teacher?”

“How will you adjust to teaching middle school after teaching college students?”

“What’s your position on extra credit?”

“How might you handle working with students of different abilities from various backgrounds?”

I stuffed a Texas-sized leaf of lettuce in my mouth only to have it catch in my throat as I tried to answer a question. It was stuck there, and they’d given me no water.

“Where did you grow up?”

“Are you married?”

“What kind of car do you drive?”

The assistant principal asked me if I had questions for the students. I didn’t, and I couldn’t think of anything, so I fired their questions back to them.

“What do you think makes for a good middle school teacher?”

After lunch, I was given a fifteen-minute break, which I spent on the playground, staring longingly through the chain-link fence at my car.

Then, my meeting with the principal:

“So, how did you feel the class went?”

“I thought it went pretty well,” I said. “They participated more than my college students ever did.”

Her mouth said, “Uh-huh,” but her face said, “Nuh-uh.” Then her mouth said, “Can I tell you what I thought?”

No?

“Sure?”

“I thought you had pretty good rapport with the class, you had a creative and interesting lesson plan. But –”

“I know, I sort of lost control at the end,” I said.

“Yes. And, you lost a few students. They shut down, started staring at the floor. One of them put her head on the desk.”

She elaborated further on my shortcomings in the classroom, my lack of experience with this age group, my need — if I worked there — to read up on middle school pedagogy over the summer. She asked me why I wanted to work there.

I said, “Well, I’m not sure that I do.” A true statement, but I followed it up with some serious bullshit. I told her how disheartening teaching writing to college freshmen could be, how it seemed too late to reach many students, and how I thought I could make a great difference in the lives of middle schoolers, how I could use my humor and empathy to really touch them. I stopped talking when I realized I sounded like a pedophile.

After that meeting, I waited in the upper school office for the assistant head of the school. There was a kid waiting next to me, a hipster in training with tight pants and Twilight hair checking out some record he’d pulled from his messenger bag. A guy walked out from the back. He looked like a gym teacher, with gray buzz cut, goatee, white polo shirt, and black pants. He said to the kid, “Vinyl? Sweet!” and I decided I didn’t like him, and therefore he must be the assistant head of school.

He was.

He led me back to his office, sat me down at his round table, and asked me the same questions the principal asked me. He asked me if I had any questions for him.

“Well,” I said, “nobody’s mentioned anything about pay.”

“Oh, no!” he practically leaped back in his chair. “It’s way too soon for that. Pay is based on experience and education, and that’s something we talk about much later. Much later!” He leaned over the table, conspiratorially, “It’s a good thing you asked me that, and not the Head of School. Any other questions?”

Yes. Does being the assistant head of school make you feel like a big man, or just like an assistant to a big man?

When he was done making me uncomfortable, the assistant head escorted me back to the waiting room to await my meeting with the head of school, the Emperor to the assistant’s Vader. I stewed in my seat. How uncouth of me, asking about money when applying for a job.

I waited for 45 minutes, long enough to decide that I didn’t want to teach at this school. I texted Karen, “can i just leave?” She texted back, “no.” There were negative vibrations all around me. No doubt some came from the 405 freeway, which was in spitting distance and backed up to hell on both sides. But plenty came from the school itself.

Finally, I asked the receptionist if the head of school was in his office. She left and another lady came back in her place.

“I’m sorry, but he had a family emergency and he had to leave.”

Thank God! I take back all the negative things I thought about You. You totally exist!

I raced back to the middle school office to meet with the teachers who’d be my colleagues. They asked me the same questions the others asked me. They asked me if I had any questions for them. At this point, with my mind made up and my grin a rictus from this long day, all I could do was turn all of their questions back on them:

“Why do you want to work with middle school students?” I asked.

“How do you think it’s different from high school?”

“Do you want a glass of water?”

When it was over, I didn’t stop by the office to turn in my application, which I hadn’t filled out anyway. It didn’t seem important. What was important was that I take off my coat and pull my shirttails out of my pants. The sky was blue. Dappled sunlight fell through the trees that ringed the parking lot. On my way home, I crossed a bridge over the clogged freeway and felt strangely ecstatic. Why? I still had no job, no prospects. But I’d shown up when I said I would, and I stayed until the end. It wasn’t exactly success in worldly terms. But who cares about the world? This here was success beyond success.

(A Helpful Guide)

Step Number One: Figure out what the story’s about. Try to have it not be about bears. No one likes bears; they’re big and stinky. Animatronic bears are even worse.

Two: When you’re done, write your story down. Try to make it about ninety pages. These ninety pages are your screenplay. Congratulations! It’s done!