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).

Author du mois

My recent interest in alcohol consumption (sparked by the concern voiced by clinical researchers regarding my own consumption) led me to a book called The Wet and the Dry by Lawrence Osborne. Equal parts travelogue, memoir, and cross-cultural study, it recounts the author’s adventures during two years of drinking in the Islamic world. At times the drinking is easy; at others he goes for days unable to get his 6:10 p.m. fix (which often lasts for many hours and sometimes starts much earlier in the day). Toward the end, during a sojourn in Cairo at the height of the Islamist revolution, he writes that “what one does in a bar” is “contemplate death and the inconsequential things that come just before it.”

Briefly fascinated (all my fascinations are brief) by Osborne, whom the author note described as leading “a nomadic life,” I sought out an earlier book of his, called American Normal: The Hidden World of Asperger Syndrome. Although the book was either poorly written or poorly edited (probably both), I found it somewhat interesting. Asperger’s and autism have become even more fashionable in the 15 years since the book was published. One thing that Osborne points out is that the boys Hans Asperger first identified as having the syndrome exhibited a “primitive spitefulness.” Today’s American Aspies have a gentler, sanitized version of the condition, or so they and their families and supporters would have us believe.

Having read as much as I care to in both these books, I will now return them to their respective libraries and wait for the next fascination to strike.


Not my sisters

Today’s reason for feeling particularly morose: my failure to participate in the worldwide protests against the new POTUS. I couldn’t muster the outrage, solidarity, or commitment to go out and march. The whole thing just seemed too unfocused and antagonistic, and it seemed to take Trumpery way more seriously than I think it deserves. Now, of course, I’m berating myself for being a bad woman—or bad human—for staying home.

In 20 years will I regret not joining the feisty, playful, caring, ideological throng? Probably no more than I regret wearing a skirt to high school on the day in 1969 when many girls wore pants to protest the restrictive dress code. As I recall, it turned out to be something of a non-event, with the administration pretty much shrugging and saying, “OK, you can wear pants.” If the Trump administration similarly capitulates, I will definitely regret not marching.

Now what?

Whom am I kidding? (Not English teachers.) Here I sit, full of ambition and excitement, all ready to launch my new career. What career is that? Well, it doesn’t matter, and it changes at least three times a week. Today, for example, I’m evaluating law schools and studying for the LSAT; a few days ago I took a typing test and almost applied for a job as a medical scribe; in between I’ve dreamed of being a lab technician, a singer-songwriter, a barn mucker-outer, a beer brewer. The point is that I’m rarin’ to go. Heck, I’m only 62. I have my whole life ahead of me.

But then I picture myself in the thick of the job, or the classroom, or the barn, or performing before an audience, or interviewing to do any of these things, and I realize that it ain’t gonna happen. Aside from crippling indecision as to which of these things to do, there’s really only one thing holding me back: an inability to take myself seriously as a competent, functioning human being.

In fact, the depths of my self-deprecation are matched only by the heights of my hubris. When I think I’m right about something, I don’t question it at all, and at least 40 percent of the time it turns out I was wrong. Yes, my lack of self-esteem is well supported by the evidence, which has included some rather embarrassing comeuppances.

For instance, there was the day circa 1985 when I was typesetting a brochure about jury selection and came across a clearly made-up word: “peremptory.” The first time I saw it, I figured it was a typo and instinctively changed it to “preemptory,” not realizing that my substituted word was in fact the imposter. When I saw this error about a dozen more times, I did not think, as any thoughtful human being would, “Hmm, maybe I was wrong about that. Better look it up.” Instead I thought, “Whoever wrote this brochure copy is just plain ignorant. I’ll do them a favor and correct the error.” In my defense: looking stuff up was a lot harder back then. You actually had to have a dictionary (which I’m sure we did, but maybe it didn’t include legal jargon).

The “corrected” copy made it all the way back to the client, because I convinced my boss or another employee that I, a law school dropout, knew more about jury selection than the attorney who wrote the brochure. Why I was not fired for this egregious display of arrogance cum ignorance remains a mystery.

I quit that job one day when my boss wouldn’t let me add an apostrophe to “rock ’n roll” in a client’s ad copy. (Of course I was absolutely correct in that case, right? Wasn’t I? Of course I was.) Then I returned to the job a few months later. I can’t remember if our punctuation tiff occurred before or after the brochure debacle, but the boss’s intsistence on apostrophizing only one of the missing letters suggests that he had learned not to trust my tinkering.

This was only one in a lifelong series of embarrassing gaffes, faux pas, and other missteps of French origin (some of them actually in French). Maybe I’ll start using the blog as a place to test the theory that if you share the shameful details of your life, they lose their shaming power. Extra points for transforming the shame into humor, a skill I definitely need to work on. Maybe if I work hard enough at it, humorous oversharing could be my new calling, for a few days anyway.

Predictably unpredictable

Today I wrote to both my state representatives about an issue. On the official form for sending email to legislators, you have to choose whether or not you want to receive a reply. “How is this up to me?” I wondered. I want to hear from them if they have something to say. If they have nothing to say, why would I want to hear from them?

Stymied, I decided to have it both ways. I told one legislator that no reply was needed, and on the other message I checked the Yes button. In a postscript to both messages I explained that of course I wanted to hear from them if they had something to say on the subject, but that otherwise no reply was necessary.

About 20 seconds after I submitted the no-reply-needed message, a staffer replied, telling me basically nothing and adding that “we do read all constituent messages and strive to respond to all in a timely manner.” I wrote back, suggesting that she ask to have that useless option removed from the email form. She did not answer.

I got no reply to my email requesting a reply.

Out here on my own

The appointment with Dr. C, the psychiatrist I saw more than three months ago, did not go well. I hadn’t realized that we would have only 37 minutes to talk. I barely managed to tell her how wrong she was about her previous diagnosis and to fill her in on my diagnostic and therapeutic adventures since our last meeting. When I finally asked if she could prescribe an antidepressant for me, she announced that there wasn’t time for that and that I should make another appointment.

So I got no prescription, no useful advice, and pretty much no respect. Leaving her office, I decided that it was time to give up on the mental-health establishment and seriously work on healing myself. I may be able to manage with just the levothyroxine that my PCP prescribed for me last week (as soon as it stops making me anxious and sleepless). Or maybe I’ll go back to taking escitalopram, perhaps at a higher dose than the one that left me suicidal.

Of course I would prefer to stay (relatively) drug-free. I hate making my fellow creatures ingest chemicals they never asked for. But I must face the fact that the best years of my life were the ones when I was artificially stabilized. Sorry, fish. Just be glad I no longer eat you (hmm, maybe if I did I could get the benefit of drugs without a prescription).


I’ve always felt mildly superior to people who have a worse case than mine of whatever is bothering me. Recently, for example, I wondered if “ear picking” was a common phenomenon, and one of the first hits I found for that phrase was a message board in which people confessed to torturing their ear canals to the point of bleeding and infection. “I’m not that bad (yet),” I thought, with mixed feelings of relief, compassion, schadenfreude, and superiority.

But maybe I would have a richer life if I were a little more extreme in some ways. Maybe my real problem is that I take moderation to the extreme. If I never hit bottom, how will I ever recover? And from what?