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).

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.