The wages of science

As my faithful reader knows, I’m skeptical of the whole notion of altruism. People get all kinds of rewards for giving of themselves, from public acknowledgment to private satisfaction to, in some cases, actual monetary gain. While I had plenty of selfless and selfish reasons to volunteer for a study of diet and Alzheimer’s, I might not have signed up if there hadn’t been a modest stipend.

The more I learned about this study, the less altruistic I felt. Here are some of the sacrifices it would require:

  • Consuming animal products
  • Buying and eating frozen meals
  • Being subjected to two (2) lumbar punctures
  • Letting paternalistic researchers get away with learning something about my DNA that they would not share with me

Not to mention the 15 hours of my time that I would be giving these folks. For all my trouble and compromised principles I would receive a grand total of $220—$20 for the screening visit and then $100 for each study visit. Even the paltriness of the pay, however, wasn’t quite enough to deter me. What eventually tipped the scales against participation was not the amount but rather the form of the payment: a credit card that looks and acts like a debit card (although the consent form had specified that payment would be in the form of a check).

I thought this method of payment would be a minor inconvenience. After the screening visit, I took my $20 “gift card” to the Goodwill store, where my $13.89 purchase went right through (after the clerk reran the transaction (after I explained that it wasn’t in fact a debit card)). A week later I returned to the store and tried to use the balance on the card to pay for about $10 worth of merchandise.

“Your card has been declined,” the clerk said.

Hmm. I had thought that if the purchase amount exceeded the gift card balance, the card would be exhausted and then I would pay the overage in cash. But no, this card required that I know precisely what the balance was beforehand, so that the clerk could charge my card for that exact amount. What a pain! It was too late to do anything but pay the total in cash, but I resolved to figure out what the balance was so that I could use that amount next time I had occasion to buy something.

I won’t bore you with the ensuing exasperation of trying to remember the balance, trying to remember to use the card, and then trying to actually use it. (I even briefly revisted elementary algebra to calculate the pre-tax amount I would need to spend to exhaust the balance. Fun!) Suffice it to say that this form of payment turns out to be way more trouble than it’s worth. I also find it offensive that instead of giving participants a check or cash, which they can use to pay the bills that drove them to donate their aging, unemployed bodies to science, the researchers encourage us to spend, spend, spend, and only on items that can be bought with plastic.

Even if the payment had been in cash, I don’t think $100 per spinal tap would have been enough for this non-altruist.

Opportune

I never much cared for the music of Jimi Hendrix. As with many of our so-called musical icons, I really didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.  Of course I would never admit this in polite Seattle society (is there any other kind?), because here Hendrix is a god. The latest temple to him opened officially today, and naturally I went. Naturally, because the park is just a few blocks down the road from my house.

I didn’t stay long. The music (recorded Hendrix hits sandwiched between performances by white-boy blues bands) was loud; the food was minimal; the chalk-art contest entries were mostly lame; the merch was overpriced and inessential (I assume; I didn’t actually look at it). And there was nothing else to do except admire the park’s artistic features and installations, which I didn’t do, because I forget to look at stuff. So after a few minutes I trudged back home.

Yes, I am a blatant opportunist. If an event happens in my neighborhood, I’ll consider going, but if it’s a few miles or buses away, I’ll pass (unless someone I know is going and invites me along). Similarly, if someone offers me food or drink, I will probably take it, but I usually find that it’s way too much trouble to procure and prepare my own. And if someone offers me a job, well, I would be crazy not to take it, right? Especially after years of fruitless searching and interviewing.

Not that this has actually happened to me, but I think it might have, after an interview I had a few days ago, if I hadn’t preemptively squelched the possibility. The job would have been half time, at $16 per hour, which seemed just about right to me. Unfortunately it was in Seattle, where I ostensibly spend just a few months per year, and where I will no longer have a place to live in a couple of months. In consultation with my non-Seattle-dwelling spouse I decided that the nature of the work (managing preliminary lien notices for a law firm) didn’t warrant a complete relocation.

So I told the lawyers not to consider me. Chances are that they wouldn’t have offered me the job anyway, but to take myself out of the running, when the one thing I claim to want is a job, makes no sense. I could have made the situation work; it might have turned into the best possible situation for me. My living and working in Seattle could also be the best thing for George the cat, who, after we all move out of the house in a month or two, may not have a home.

In the last 10 days I’ve also interviewed for two geezer jobs at the EPA. The geezer recruiter seemed to like me after the first interview; she was very  friendly and later invited me to interview for the second job. After my disastrous performance at that interview, however, she was quick to get away from me, and I don’t expect I’ll hear from her again.

When I was 11 or 12 (I think), my family visited a friend of my parents’ in Woods Hole. She lived in a musty cottage in the woods, and there were lots of musty books to read, including one that I think was called Opportunity. It may have had orange binding, and it may have been about the adventures of a young boy. In any case I found it fascinating enough (or there was so little else for me to do there) that I read the whole thing. I identified strongly with the young man who took advantage of whatever opportunities arose as he made his way in the world.

Maybe I’ve made up half this reminiscence out of jumbled bits of brain fluff. In any case the book, or at least its title, made quite an impression on me. To this day I prefer reading and daydreaming about life to actually living it, so maybe it’s just as well that I’m not inflicting myself on yet another employer.

 

 

Let us entertain us

A century or three ago, people had drawing rooms. salons, or other large rooms for entertaning guests in their homes. Even when the room and home were of modest size, there was usually a piano, or at least a spinet, at which members of the household or their friends would play music and sing. People often had gatherings at which amateur or professional musicians would play to an appreciative audience of friends and acquaintances.

I admit that my impression of homes of yore is based mainly on literature and movies. But I have also known actual live people who hosted concerts in their homes for friends and family. In fact, there’s a whole house concert industry now. Unfortunately though, most houses no longer have space to devote to music. Living rooms are dominated by so-called entertainment centers, for consuming electronic media. With no performer-friendly home venues, what’s a mediocre musician to do?

Luckily, public music performance has gotten easier than ever.  There are dozens of bars and other music venues in any medium- to large-size city, and many of them book performers for almost every night. Tonight in Seattle, for example, The Stranger list 93 music events. Some feature big-name performers, a few are outside the city limits, and some offer DJs rather than live music. But there are still several dozen venues where one can hear local acts. And if you aren’t lucky enough to book a show at a venue, there are plenty of street corners and other busking locales.

You may be wondering, “Who goes to hear all this music?” Having been to many sparsely attended shows in the course of my music-fan life, I can tell you that in most cases the crowd consists primarily of the band’s friends and family. In other words, it’s as if people had temporarily converted a public establishment into their own private listening room.

Last night I attended a show where three bands played in succession. Two of my daughter’s friends made up half of the the middle band. During their time slot the audience numbered about 30. If you subtract the members of the other bands on the bill (say 8 people) and the few friends of those bands that cared enough to pay attention to a band they didn’t know (say another 8), that leaves maybe 14 people who had come specifically to see the second band, or about 3.5 friends or relatives per musician. And most of those 14 audience members are musicians whose own bands may be playing at a different venue tonight.

Not that there’s anything wrong with this scenario. The democratization of music, writing, and other forms of expression is the new normal, even while it’s a throwback to the days when people confined their amateur efforts to private drawing rooms. As robots and computers take over our less creative jobs, we’ll still have these occupations all to ourselves, for a while anyway.

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.

I’ll be brief

The other night I attended a talk by Richard Wolff, who did a decent job of delivering the “lucid economics and caustic wit” promised by the event’s organizers. After describing the circumstances that led U.S. businesses to send jobs overseas, he said, “And that is why all of you are sitting there in foreign underwear.” (Or words to that effect.)

At the time I was indeed wearing cotton briefs made in China. Over the last decade I have bought at least a dozen units of similar quality. They stay in good condition for at most two years; after another two they’ve become so holey and shapeless that even I wouldn’t be caught dead or injured in them. However, I do own two pairs of made-in-USA underpants, and after 17 years they show no sign of failing.

I know it’s been 17 years, because I bought these briefs at Lamonts in Port Angeles, and Lamonts went out of business in 2000. I remember that shopping experience very well. After noticing that a style of microfiber brief came in two versions, foreign and domestic, I spent about 20 minutes pawing through hangers, finding the briefs in my size that weren’t foreign-made. Eventually I found three pairs, two beige and one light blue (one of the beige briefs got lost somewhere a few years ago; I mourn it still).

At that time I don’t think I knew that “Made in the USA” can mean made in a sweatshop in the Northern Mariana Islands (though I certainly should have known). Nor had my consciousness been raised about the pollution caused by microfibers. Despite the downsides that I’m now aware of, I’m still happy with that purchase. I just wish that the briefs and my memory hadn’t faded to the point that I no longer know the brand or style.

Speaking of keeping stuff around for decades, I’ve been listening to a book about compulsion. Here are a few things I’ve learned so far:

  • The point of all compulsions is to relieve some sort of anxiety.
  • In the 19th century there was an epidemic of people (mostly men) wandering off for parts unknown, often unknowingly.
  • Hoarding is actually more common among men than women.
  • My husband, who I thought was the healthiest person on the planet, probably has obsessive compulsive personality disorder. But then so probably do I.

Familiarity breeds content (and contentment)

Most people who know me would not call me lazy. They would be wrong. The fact is that I assiduously avoid hard work; I haven’t had an actual job in nearly eight years. In all facets of life I gravitate toward the easy stuff.

Right now, for example, I should be cramming for the first day of Tax-Aide tomorrow, but instead I’m searching for animals in the jungle. While this task may be more fun than studying tax law, it isn’t always easy to tell which species appear in the 15-second video clips. Some animals dart through the underbrush at a distance, some appear mostly outside the frame, and in some cases the image is poorly illuminated or out of focus. But the biggest impediment to accurate identification is ignorance. No previous activity in my life has required me to tell a warthog from a giant forest hog, a red duiker from a small gray duiker, or even a chimp from a gorilla. So I spend many minutes comparing images, replaying clips, and squinting at the screen.

The one species that I can effortlessly ID without fail is humans. (Well, there was one clip where I wasn’t sure if I was seeing a person’s sleeve or an elephant’s trunk, but as long as more than half a human limb is present, I can be confident of my annotation.) This makes perfect sense, because I’ve seen humans every day for nearly 63 years. I can even distinguish individuals with some accuracy, a feat I haven’t yet mastered with chimps.

Language proficiency is a lot like animal recognition. The more time you spend immersed in a language, the more fluent you become. The lazy option is to speak only your native language and feel perpetually perplexed by all others. Instead of IDing African animals I could be studying Hebrew, Spanish, or French. But languages, like tax law, are just too hard. I will never get the hang of calculating ACA affordability or the seven conjugations of Hebrew verbs, whereas I have some hope of learning the quirks and features of some species.

Plus I would much rather contribute to saving species than to saving taxpayers a few dollars. Yes, even now, when our tax dollars are likely to be so thoroughly squandered (and  maybe that’s the real reason I want to escape to the jungle).