Give it away

Supposedly it takes an “extraordinary altruist” to donate a kidney to a stranger. I call bullshit on this assumption. Having frequently donated my body and time for medical research, I suspect that many kidney donors (and I may be among them soon, now that I’ve been reminded again of that opportunity) have decided that they aren’t worth much except as spare parts for others. Of course they have to convince the medical staff that they don’t have a “psychiatric condition requiring treatment.” But that should be a no-brainer (or no-kidney) for a psychopath who’s desperate to downsize his organs.

Heck, I convinced an Alzheimer’s researcher last week that I’m not only compos mentis but also mens sana. This just a day before I began treatment with yet another psychotherapist. Luckily the question about suicidal tendencies on the PHQ-9, an instrument designed to diagnose depression, was phrased so that I could honestly answer it in the negative. Had I had “thoughts that you would be better off dead or of hurting yourself”? Absolutely not! My fear of hurting myself is a big deterrent to commiting suicide. And “better off dead”? That’s nonsensical. It’s other people, and the planet itself, that would benefit from my death. I won’t be around anymore to care.

So meanwhile I have a new therapist, one who isn’t afraid to take on someone who hopes to die sooner rather than later. Maybe I should be concerned about her lack of concern, but it probably stems from her being “neuro-atypical” (her word) like me. When our time together is up, I will probably know more about her than vice versa. It’s the first time I’ve had such a logorrheic therapist. I figure that none of the others helped a whole lot, so I’ll try listening instead of talking for a change.

But enough about my favorite subject. What I really meant to write about was altruism, a condition from which I clearly don’t suffer. Yes, I volunteer to help people with their various problems and projects, but I do it so that I will feel useful, not out of any degree of selflessness.

The hottest new concept in philanthropy is effective altruism, which posits that one should determine which charities are quantitatively better, e.g., how many lives or trees they save. Seen in this light, donating a kidney isn’t altruistic at all, let alone extraordinarily so. Effective altruism requires that you spend the same amount of time, money, or body parts to save dozens of other lives, not just one. Even donating both kidneys wouldn’t increase your numbers by much, though it might qualify you for sainthood.

One tenet of the effective altruism movement is expressed in this slogan, which you may recognize from NPR underwriting credits: “All lives have equal value.” I disagree that the life of a hard-working, useful individual has the same value as that of a useless eater, but that’s not what Bill and Melinda mean. Rather they exhort us to value a child we don’t know in Equatorial Guinea as much as we do our neighbor’s kid (or, presumably, our own). That definition of equality, which I have no quarrel with, makes it easier to compare charities quantitatively, but I still think that wihin every community, whether near or far, there are some people who contribute more than others.

Of course “all lives” doesn’t include animals. The Gateses don’t seem to care much about them except insofar as animal health and productivity affect human welfare. Which is kind of sad considering that some species of animal, e.g., humpback whales, are probably the only true altruists among us.


Cut to the chase

I’m not sure I believe Wikipedia’s exposition of the origin of this phrase. I would have thought it’s older than filmdom. But if we’re going to cut to the chase, it doesn’t really matter why people say it. The important thing is to just get on with it. (In movies I actually prefer that people cut out the chase, as that’s always my least favorite part. Further proof that I am out of sync with most people, who apparently prefer nonstop action.)

Three years ago, when I was negotiating with the sellers of the house I now own, “cut to the chase” was a stock phrase in my broker’s sometimes inscrutable repertoire of realtorisms. Now I’m trying to decide whether to sell the house, and if so to whom and for how much and with what preconditions. In this predicament, cutting to the chase means getting to the part where I actually know what I want and set about achieving it. It basically comes down to five possibilities:

  1. Get some kind of menial job in Seattle so that I can afford to keep the house and all the loud, messy stuff that comes with it. This would mean actually living in the house pretty much full time.
  2. Get an even more menial job in the Bay Area so that I can afford to keep the house, but just not visit there very often.
  3. (a) Notify the tenants that I intend to sell the house in 3 months, requiring them all to find new homes. (b) Sell the house. (c) Take the proceeds and move to someplace pleasant but cheap (relative to Seattle and the Bay Area), bringing the cats with me.
  4. Same as 3 (a) and (b), but (c) continue living in Oakland, having found another home for the cats.
  5. Continue trying to work a deal with someone who would pay me a low price for the house in exchange for agreeing to let us all continue renting here.

Of course, “get a job” is shorthand for “apply for 100 jobs, interview for 20, and get really, really lucky with one (probably because no one else wants it).” In other words: easier said than done. I do have an interview in a couple of weeks for a menial, low-wage job in Seattle that’s open only to geezers, but I still have to beat out several other geezers who probably have less sketchy employment histories than mine.

And getting a job is no guarantee that I will hold onto the house. Really, I’m tired of subsidizing people who spend their money on pot, booze, and Uber instead of rent. There are much better avenues for philanthropy. I think a clean break is really what’s called for. And if they have three months to put something together, surely they can all find good situations.

The trouble is that I kind of enjoy being the benevolent and sometimes annoying landlord. These cool, creative, accomplished people have to pretend to like me, because if I don’t feel welcome in their house, I might sell it. Yes, I am buying their make-believe friendship (pretendship?). That’s a little creepy, and perhaps it’s time for it to end.

There, I’ve done it! Or have I? Stay tuned for more endless rumination and pointless monologue with no chase in sight..


Funny and die: a Mother’s Day tale

Although not generally known as a funny person, my mother did contribute the occasional pun or witticism to family conversations. She even made some clever nonverbal contributions, like the time when we kids were playing a card game and she stood behind one of us helpfully humming “We Three Kings.” She was never so hilarious, however, as on her deathbed.

During her last few days of delirium, I transcribed a collection of what seemed at the time to be very funny remarks. Now I wonder if we laughed so hard just to distract ourselves from the unpleasantness of being about to lose our mom. These are some of the comments I considered worth preserving:

I don’t want to burnish something just to have to drop it.

Behold, behold, behave, behold, behold.

I’m going to make sure that Tillie gets the remnants of this thing.

Just remember that you have certain legal rights.

The last one shouldn’t have struck us as humorous, coming from a lawyer. I guess it was because these were all unprovoked comments, spoken to no one in particular, that we found them so amusing. For the last week or so she didn’t interact with, or even recognize, most people.

One exception occurred just a couple of days before she died. By that time the three of us were taking turns staying overnight in her room. Luckily there was no other occupant assigned to the second bed, so we could catch a few winks there between nurse visits. Late one night, when I thought she had no idea who was in the room with her, I was surprised to hear her call my name.

“Yes?” I said.

“Have you looked at yourself in the last 24 hours?”

“Uhhh, yes.”

“What do you think?”

“I think I look OK . . . Do you think there’s something wrong with how I look?”

She gave an exasperated sigh and asked, “Do you have any common sense at all?”

“I think I do.”

“Well, you’re certainly exhibiting a lack of it.”

At the time, I saw this exchange as yet another product of her failing, disoriented mind (albeit one that included a conversation partner) and added it to the list. Only months later did I start to find the dialog disturbing. The tone and content were just too similar to some of the conversations that I’d had with my younger, healthier mother, and in the three years before her death I definitely felt that I wasn’t exhibiting much common sense.

Which brings me to the deathbed exclamation that we probably laughed at the hardest: “Stop knocking me up!”

We assumed that this was pure nonsense, until we thought about it for about a second. After all, this was the woman who suffered from severe postpartum depression (lasting for six months after I, the second child, was born). This was the woman whose career was put on hold for years while she stayed home with three small children (though it wasn’t so much the staying home as having to take us all out that really seemed to annoy her). And when we were all finally out of diapers and my father commented in dismay, “We have no babies!” she was quick to reassure him that this was perfectly OK.

Aside from the times when we needed reprimanding, her usual attitude toward us was one of inattention and (mostly benign) neglect. We would joke about how you could get her to agree to anything while she was reading the newspaper. (“Mom, can we get a pony?” “Mm-hmm.”) When I was 8, a family friend had a baby, and I watched in astonishment as my mother played with and showed affection to this other child. I had certainly never received that kind of loving attention.

It isn’t a stretch to assume that she always resented at least two of us, and that she blamed our father for subjecting her to repeated bouts of pregnancy. She really should have nipped us nippers in the bud, as I did when I found myself knocked up a second and third time. (I actually would have been happy to keep at least one of those embryos, but their father insisted otherwise.) Had she stopped after the first child, her life might have been even more accomplished and fulfilling than it eventually was. She should have at least skipped the middle child, who, despite having a low burden of motherhood herself, never amounted to much.

If you’re so smart, think of your own damn title

Many people today assume that if you can do anything at all, then by golly you must be able to write. Heck, it isn’t brain surgery or software engineering, or whatever you do for a day job. Surely you can knock out a few blog entries per week (or per day if you suffer from blogorrhea, a condition that afflicts even some legitimate professional writers). Easy-peasy, right?

Here is some writing that people actually got paid for on one website:

“The nature of our business means we have a dearth of external resources who states we can not accurately predict at all times meaning we have to code with that in mind (ie. defensively).”

“If you’ve been recruiting developers for a few years, you’ll agree to this stat that referrals is still the most powerful way to recruit developers.”

“Below, I identify the ways in which software development today is far more different than ever before.”

Each of these writers was allegedly paid $150 to “impact the market with higher-value blog content.” Surprisingly, the publishers have a copyeditor on staff, or so they recently told a bevy of wannabe developers and budding bloggers at an elite, cutting-edge coding academy.

I learned about this scandalous website from one of those coders-in-training (who happens to be my latest in a series of unfortunate husbands). One of his foundational principles is that it’s the really hard stuff in life that is most worth doing. Applying this principle to writing, the people behind the disgraceful site cited above could have urged the audience of self-doubting learners to view blogging as a difficult and rewarding challenge, one that anyone can master eventually—unlike coding, of course, which only those with the coding gift can do. In fact, the application to become a blogger specifies, “No prior blogging experience required. DevOps and/or Coding knowledge is.”

Ah, if only it were that simple. Even some of us who have a reputation for being pretty good at writing find that it’s an incredibly difficult chore, even after decades of practice. And if you want to remain good at it, I don’t think it ever gets easy. Choosing the right words and making sure they fit together in a way that’s both enlightening and entertaining, rather than misleading or annoying, takes a lot of work. That’s probably why I do less and less of it as life gets shorter and shorter.

But don’t just take my word for it. The eminent Sir Harold Evans, according to an NPR interview, complains that “the Internet makes it easy to write now, ‘and that’s why you get so much garbage.'”

‘Conscience does make cowards of us all’

I’m with Hamlet on this one, though I think we have different understandings of what “conscience” means. What he had in mind (I think) is more like consciousness, i.e., of what lies ahead after we die. For Hamlet death is a bit of a Rumsfeldian known unknown: We know it’s a thing, but we have no clue what sort of a thing it is. In a sense then, Hamlet’s “conscience” is really fear of the unknown. Better the devil you know—life—than the one you don’t—death (perhaps with actual devils).

My own interpretation of “conscience” has more moral overtones. I’m pretty sure I know what comes after death, at least for the dead person, and that is basically nothing. More concerning is the aftermath (or afterlife) for those left behind. And that’s whence my own cowardice arises. While I’m skeptical that my death would cause much consternation, I can’t rule out the possibility that two or three folks would feel pretty miserable for a while. And I don’t want that misery on my conscience, even if my conscience no longer exists.

There are certainly cogent economic reasons for shuffling off this mortal coil sooner rather than later. What struggling musician wouldn’t want to inherit a house worth more than half a million dollars? Especially when the alternative is having the house sold out from under you, with a portion of the proceeds going to the bomber-in-chief as capital gains tax. Sure, there’d be an appropriate amount of mourning and self-flagellation, but after a few weeks or months people would realize that this was the only sensible course.

Or would they? And there’s the rub: I can’t predict other people’s suffering any better than Hamlet could predict his own. The fact is that about 7.5 billion people wouldn’t give a hoot about my death, and about a dozen others would probably breathe a sigh of relief or be downright ecstatic. It’s that middle ground of 8 or 10 people who would find it disturbing, at least for a while.

I’m with Rick Nelson on this one. “You see, you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.” If only I knew what would please my self.