Too damn complicated

Anyone who needs to believe that there is certainty and consistency in the world should avoid reading Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods. To begin with, the author is a confessed fabulist, who was fired from The New York Times for passing off a composite character as the sole protagonist of a “true” story. His latest book includes copious notes on the reporting process and sources, but its subject, the man who came to be known as the North Pond Hermit, has been accused by some of fictionalizing his own story.

There definitely was a recluse who committed hundreds of burglaries over nearly three decades. But did he really live in a hidden campsite for all that time, never initiating contact with others, and uttering only one syllable (“Hi”) to another human being? Some of his neighbors were skeptical; they didn’t believe that anyone could have remained unseen and could have survived so many Maine winters.

Neighbors disagreed not only about Christopher Knight’s credibility but also about how and whether to punish him for his crimes. He stole only what he needed to survive—food, batteries, books, etc.—never taking  anything of significant monetary value, but some people said that he stole their most valuable possession: a sense of security. Instead of peaceful retreats, their homes became locked fortresses, where every night they lived in fear of intrusion. Those people believed that Knight deserved the strongest possible punishment. But other neighbors, including the woman on whose property he lived, believed that instead of being imprisoned he should be allowed to continue living undisturbed in the woods; some even said that they would contribute money toward his upkeep, so that he would no longer need to steal.

Knight felt bad about burgling, but he saw no other way to maintain his chosen lifestyle. Once he had resolved to avoid human contact, he couldn’t very well go to the convenience store that was a short walk from his campsite, or knock on people’s doors begging for food and supplies. His reasons for going into seclusion are pretty simple: He wanted to live alone and to make as little impact on the earth as possible. Toward these ends, he was willing to suffer a lot of physical deprivation.

Beyond tending to his basic needs, Knight did not lead a very busy life. He read books, observed nature (he had no pets but felt a sort of camaraderie with a particular mushroom growing nearby), listened to the radio, and drank alcohol (more and more as he got older, which may help to explain the emotional attachment to a fungus). He did not write anything, not even a journal, because that would have implied a connection with eventual others. When asked if his years of contemplation in the wilderness had led him to any great truths, the only bit of wisdom he shared was that it’s important to get plenty of sleep.

Ironically, the hermit’s lawyer is known for ignoring this advice. “Mr. McKee does not sleep,” states his website. He seems like a competent attorney; he got Mr. Knight’s sentence reduced to time served, mental-health treatment, community service, and about $2,000 in restitution. Besides being a prominent lawyer, McKee is a runner, skier, mountaineer, pilot, and violinist, and he has a wife and children to boot (should he have the energy for it).

To summarize, here are some of the questions I’ve been pondering about the North Pond Hermit: Did he really live alone in the woods for 27 years? Was he wrong to steal from people to keep himself alive? Is it really important to get a good night’s sleep? Should more of us consider adopting the hermit lifestyle, in order to avoid doing a lot more damage to the planet? And how much can you trust a journalist who is famous for being dishonest?

Perhaps the most difficult question for me is this: How much human contact do I really need? I frequently get so fed up with people in general that I can imagine never spending another minute in human company. But my dreams of escape rarely involve rugged outdoor living. I’m more likely to consider suicide, although it hardly seems right to punish myself for other people’s annoying behavior.

I generally find comfort and reassurance in the company of people who know me well. I also enjoy pleasant but brief interactions with people who don’t know me at all. It’s the many in-between encounters, with co-workers, acquaintances, and non-immediate family members, that drain my energy reserves and make me long for solitude.

What I find most unbelievable in Christopher Knight’s story is his claim that during the 27 years he lived alone he never spoke at all, not even to himself. When I am alone, which is usually for no more than a few hours a day, I talk constantly—to myself, to the cats, to my computer, to people on the radio (no, I don’t think they can hear me). Sometimes I talk to myself or another object and then notice that another person has heard me. Maybe being truly alone for days or years would break me of this embarrassing habit. There’s only one way to find out.

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Count on me

One day in junior high school (now there’s a strange and possibly oxymoronic term) a classmate told me that she’d recently heard someone compliment me. Being an appearance-obsessed and somewhat delusional teen, I eagerly waited to hear which of my exquisite physical features had garnered praise. Could it be my large, greasy nose? My long, stringy hair? Imagine my disappointment when I learned that this unnamed, insensitive person had called me merely “dependable.” As  everyone knows, dependability is one of the core components of having “a great personality.”

Years later I came to value dependability as one of my few positive traits. I would highlight it in cover letters when applying for jobs. Because writing cover letters was another of the few things I was good at, employers were often persuaded to invite me for an interview. Of course as soon as they saw my greasy nose, stringy hair, and misaligned eyes filled with abject terror, my writing skills and reliability could not save me.

Now I’m in what will very likely be my last job ever, either because I will keep my greasy nose to the grindstone for years or because I will quietly slink away after acknowledging that dependability is no longer valued in the workplace. I’ve always been good at following directions, meeting deadlines, and generally completing any assignment I’m given. But today there are minimal directions, flexible deadlines, and few assignments. In other words, one must be “a self starter” who is “comfortable with ambiguity.”

In today’s workplace you have to figure out what needs to be done and how best to accomplish it, and you’re pretty much on your own, because you can’t count on others to do what needs to be done. I’ve been waiting for weeks for an employee who shall remain nameless to send me a whole heap of information that I need to enter into a database, and she keeps not sending it. In the meantime I try to find other ways to be useful, but accomplishing any task usually requires that I involve some other person, and that person usually can’t be bothered to provide what I need.

And what is it that I need? So glad you asked. Here are some of the hindrances I’ve encountered in the last few weeks:

  • broken mapping tool in a database where I’m supposed to add maps
  • lack of permission to make changes to a website I’m supposed to be changing
  • nonfunctioning online help in a non-intuitive application I use every day
  • boss who’s never in the office to sign forms that will allow me to do my work
  • general unavailability of people whose cooperation I need to do my work

Not to mention the conflicting answers I get to questions when I make the mistake of asking more than one person.

Taking initiative requires a whole different skill set from merely taking orders. You have to be assertive but tactful, persistent but pleasant, independent but collaborative. For an introvert who lacks motivation, all of this can be quite overwhelming. And for someone whose main claim to fame is dependability, it can be demoralizing to feel that you’re letting the whole organization down by not accomplishing very much.

One of my most dependable characteristics is that I’m a quitter. I’ve been known to leave a perfectly good job just because it wasn’t perfect, or because I knew I was a lousy employee and didn’t want to hang around till I was fired. One time I quit because I was too cowardly to stay after blowing the whistle on an incompetent manager of a dysfunctional workplace. I could certainly use any of those excuses to leave my current job.

But if I quit my job, what would I do next? Finish one of the umpteen novels or plays I’ve started writing? Devote myself to a worthy cause? Acquire an actual skill? All those things would require even more motivation than my job demands. So I will thank my lucky stars that some people were dumb enough to hire me, and then I’ll just wait till they realize what a terrible mistake they made.

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, it’s all about me

Less than a year after I ratted out my next-door neighbor for letting his back yard become a weedy rat habitat, I discovered a bumper crop of poison hemlock along my side of our shared fence. It took several hours to eradicate most of the towering plants. Now, a year later, I’ve found a highly toxic member of the nightshade family growing a few yards to the east of the original poison patch.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two killer plants suddenly appeared in my yard. The neighbor, who’s gruff on a good day, has been pretty unfriendly ever since I turned him in to the county health department. Yes, I could have tried to talk to him about his unkempt yard, but I really didn’t think that would have any effect, given both his gruffness and the unkempt condition of everything on his property.

He really should be grateful that I intervened. Not only did he clear away most of the offending overgrowth, but he turned the area into an attractive garden with a brand-new shed. So maybe he isn’t trying to poison me.

And maybe it wasn’t he who slashed my 2-year-old Magnolia and eventually tore it in half, or who left a used litter box (litter not included) sitting in my front yard. Maybe these are just the kind of random acts of vandalism that one can expect when living on a corner lot in an urban neighborhood.

Actually the list of people in the neighborhood who have it in for me has been steadily growing. One woman was angered by some information I innocently posted in our online community forum. Other neighbors may have had unwelcome visits from our cats; the litter box could have been either a well-intentioned suggestion or a subtle “dig” at the cats’ instinctual use of any patch of dirt.

Then there’s the resentment that many locals and activists feel toward the white majority now living in this historically black neighborhood. The “Black Lives Matter” sign in our yard may come across as infuriatingly hypocritical. (“Take that, you white person’s tree!”) Maybe even having a black cat is seen as thumbing our noses at longtime residents.

I admit to being a lifelong paranoiac who thinks everyone has good reason to be out to get me. If you’re thinking, “That’s no way to live,” you’re absolutely right. In fact I have seriously considered suicide for the last couple of years. Or at least I thought I was serous—until I was given more than enough poisonous plants to do the trick, and instead of harvesting them I destroyed them. My excuse is that I might have made myself unpleasantly ill instead of dead.

The most sure-fire way to get oneself killed may be suicide by cop, but it’s only guaranteed to work if you’re a young person of color. Someone with old-white-lady privilege would need to be either extremely threatening or well disguised, preferably both.

Dog bites man, again

The last couple of weeks were the perfect time to commit the perfect crime, or even an imperfect one. While the “news” focused on “natural” disasters, who knows what mischief was being wrought by the Tr*mp administration or by countless stock and/or power brokers?

Occasionally there’s some actual weather-related news, about people who really screwed something up, but mostly it’s the same old combination of heart-wrenching and heart-warming stories of disaster, discomfort, rescue, and resilience. Sure, it’s terrible. Sure, we feel for the victims. But that’s not news.

Yawn. Wake me up when something happens that’s worth reporting.

Week 7 as a nonemployee of the nongovernment

(With apologies to the nonauthor of a nonblog.)

The week ending on 8 September was my seventh as an enrollee in the EPA’s Senior Environmental Employment program. It was a peaceful interlude after several fast-paced weeks of reviewing FOIA documents. Now that I have demonstrated my utter unfitness for that task, and now that a contract paralegal is on board to do it right, I’ve been mostly left alone in my cubicle.

I spent about 37 of my scheduled 40 hours trying to appear busy while ignoring decades of deferred file maintenance. A few times each day I would take the elevator six floors up to the file room, crank the compact shelving back and forth, rifle through some of the folders, throw up my hands, and then walk back down to my cubicle. After completing that exercise routine, I was refreshed and ready to explore the records database, where I managed to find some bugs and human error but not a whole lot of enlightenment.

The trouble is that I really don’t understand yet what the people in my unit do, much less how they’re supposed to document it. Or so I tell myself as I keep putting off the inevitable plunge into the nightmare of records management. Had I known that dealing with actual paper would be a big part of the job, I would not have agreed to interview for it. Now I understand why the director of the program that hired me keeps thanking me for taking the job.

My proudest accomplishment for the week was the creation of two new records in the database and two corresponding paper folders of contract files. I suspect that if I ever got the nerve to ask someone for feedback, I would learn that I mislabeled those records, and I would have to redo them. Luckily this will not happen, because there’s a very short window of time during which one can reasonably ask for help. If you wait too long, people will realize that you’re both incompetent and neurotic, plus you will have done so much damage by then that it’s best to keep your ignorance to yourself.

I was 11 years old when I first learned about this statute of limitations on seeking help. After my first day at a new school, I stayed on the short bus (really a large station wagon) until long past my stop, because I didn’t want to remind the driver that she had forgotten me; I eventually snuck out the back window at a stop light. Had I said, “Hey, we passed my house two miles ago,” she would have wondered how I ever got into the gifted program. Later, as a teenager in France, I couldn’t figure out how to operate the shower in the bathroom I was supposed to use. After about a month of not asking—and not showering—I started sneaking into the master bathroom and using that shower when the parents were out.

I like to think that the unruly state of the files can be blamed partly on people’s exponentially growing reluctance to ask for help. But I expect that my predecessors, most of whom didn’t stick around long enough to learn how to do the job, suffered from garden-variety incompetence, not the pathological kind that I exhibit. In any case, it will be years before anyone discovers my mangled record keeping, thanks to the disarray of the physical and electronic files. By then I will have moved on to wreak havoc elsewhere.

At an awards ceremony last week, about half the people who are still employed in the region got special recognition for their efforts. Awards tend to be arbitrary, unfair, and generally a waste of time, but maybe the rah-rah festivities helped to boost morale, at least for those who won. For those who didn’t (and for the many who were ineligible due to being nonemployees) there were doughnuts.

EPA blues

For the last couple of months I have refrained from a shameful activity that I had engaged in compulsively, if sporadically, for more than 40 years. I refer, of course, to the act of job seeking. I don’t expect that I will ever take it up again. Not because I am resigned to never again having earned income, but rather because someone apparently didn’t get the memo about my unemployability.*

The clueless organization for which I now work is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. I am not, however, a federal employee. The EPA has a grant-funded hire-a-geezer program called Senior Environmental Employment. Enrollees in the SEE program have an EPA “monitor” who supervises their work, but they are paid by the grantee organization that recruited them. And when I say “paid” I mean that in the most minimal sense, as in minimum wage (at least that’s what I get; some higher-skilled workers make a bit more). Luckily the city where I work has legislated a $15-per-hour minimum wage, but in general these positions pay less than half of what the people in them should be getting for the education and experience they bring. I, of course, am an exception; I should probably be paying the EPA for the opportunity to learn on the job.

What am I learning? In addition to mastering the various programs, activities, systems, and software that constitute or facilitate the day-to-day work of EPA staff, I’m expected to become proficient in what is arguably the most crucial activity of any government agency: records management. As the official Records Contact for my unit, I need to learn what a record is, which records exist, how they are organized, how to add new ones, and when and how to transfer or dispose of them. Most of this learning is ad hoc and self-directed; there are resources I can consult if I have questions, but, as with much of what I’m expected to do in this job, there’s no real step-by-step guidance.

Luckily I’ve been so busy with other assigned activities that I’ve happily ignored my record-management duties. Once the staff figures out that the records have remained unmanaged for months, I will probably be fired. By then (as early as next month perhaps) the novelty of having regular hours and a paycheck will have worn off, and I’ll be ready to go back to being a full-time flâneur. (Actually the firing could happen even sooner: Last week I learned that I had shipped a blank disc to someone who was expecting it to contain hundreds of documents responsive to a FOIA request.)

I have never understood why organizations tend to give their most critical jobs to non-employees. When I did temp work, many of my assignments involved answering phones or greeting visitors. There I sat, essentially the face of the organization or department, and I would frequently misdirect calls, hang up on people unintentionally, claim that Dr. So-and-So didn’t work there when in fact she did, and give out copious amounts of other misinformation. It made no sense that someone with virtually no knowledge of the organization would be asked to speak for it. Similarly, the EPA uses low-wage contractors verging on senility to make sure that the agency records are properly managed.

In fact the EPA (or at least the region where I work) outsources many of its essential activities, including the oversight of its records management program and the operation of its library. About half of its IT workers are also supplied by a contractor. I don’t get the logic of using non-employees for these roles. Maybe it just looks better politically to be able to say that the federal workforce is shrinking, even though the federal budget is not. Of course at the EPA the budget is indeed shrinking, as the new administrator implements his (and his boss’s) war on the environment.

Needless to say, this is a very strange and demoralizing time to work at the EPA. The most awkward task I have is to examine documents that are responsive to one of the hundreds of FOIA requests the agency has received. I need to determine which exemptions we can use to keep from releasing each document, i.e., look for any excuse not to reveal the nefarious deeds of this reprehensible administration.

I try very hard to follow prescribed procedures, both in the law and in the instructions I’ve been given by the attorneys in charge of this endeavor, but I find that I sometimes disagree with how they’ve coded and redacted the documents. I’m just a superannuated law school dropout in a minimum-wage job, so I must defer to my superiors on such things. Luckily it won’t be too long before the whole agency is dissolved, not to mention the whole planet, so my missteps and misdeeds will have little long-term significance.

 

*Actually I have a theory that the temporary manager who hired me did so to spite the permanent manager, who returns next week. I performed abysmally during the interview, and felt absolutely no rapport with the manager, so I was genuinely perplexed when the interviewing team expressed interest in hiring me.

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.