Wednesday, August 25, 2010

On the road, again

Since I moved back to Pittsburgh in April, I haven't had much use for a car. Which has been convenient, because I don't have one anymore. Yes, I sold the Red Devil to my parents for a hefty sum of $400, not a bad deal since, y'know, they bought it as my high school graduation present anyway. So it's been to the bike and bus with me to get everywhere. I've debated buying a skateboard so I can traverse short distances conveniently, even while in my suit for work (especially while in my suit for work), but I've been significantly deterred by the fact that they are like a hundred plus goddamn bucks now? Are you serious? Also, I can't do an ollie to save my life.

I prefer biking, but I've got to take the bus to work so I'm not sweaty and gross when I show up to the ninety-four-year-old four-star Grand Dame hotel where I work. The management wouldn't like that very much. They don't even like when I show up with a little stubble. I don't like that I suddenly have to shave every day. What kind of bullshit is that? I still can't grow a full, magnificent beard like I've always dreamed of, and never will be able to--but I now have to shave some dinky little patch on my chin every single day? Adulthood is a crock. Ugh.

But, whenever I've got a day off here and there, I do almost all my travel by bike. Some days I don't even have a place to go, I just make up some pointless errand, invent a need for new socks (I love new socks!) and head out to some far-flung store that might carry them or maybe not, who cares. That's how I almost hit a deer the other weekend. I wanted to get a new copy of FIFA 10 since mine kept freezing up, and the closest available copy was out at the Waterworks Mall in Aspinwall. So I jumped on my bike, directions written down my forearm in Sharpie, and took off. I got lost on the way, but eventually looped and re-looped back around the Zoo before crossing the Highland Park Bridge. Trying to keep up with the flying traffic as I came up on the bridge, I barely saw the dead deer laid out on the median before I slammed on (and popped) my front brake. Inches from face-planting into the carcass, I screeched to a halt. It's an adventurous way to get around, to say the least.

Urban cycling is a life-affirming fucking thing. I've biked through Manhattan and felt like a superman while doing it, but even riding in Pittsburgh, a city where the car-driving populace still doesn't quite get the fact that people use bicycles as transportation and not just to be target practice for their massive 4x4 Chevy Landfuckers, is positively exhilarating. And I can hold my own, I'd like to imagine. As long as you respect that I exist and weigh in at approximately 4% of what you and your tank-sized spaceship on Goodyears does, I get along just fine. Whether you're hurtling down the road or taking up three parking spaces along the curb, just keep in mind that I'm tiny and fragile and we'll be friends. Especially when you're parked, actually, because I live in constant, nail-biting, panic-attack-inducing fear of getting my ass doored into oblivion. All I ask is that you keep from killing me, not treat me like a three-year-old.

You see, over a year ago, I wrote a blog that I titled "On the road" that wasn't, in fact, about how much I hate Jack Kerouac (though I could write an entire, wandering, purposeless, self-involved book about that). It was about terrible drivers, and focused, in the end, on my very least favorite brand of them: the Good Samaritan. You've dealt with him, the driver who gives of himself to help you (oh holy day!) when you plainly do not need any helping, messing up the flow of traffic and being a general nuisance while thinking smugly to himself that he is just such a good guy, gee whiz!

I thought I'd seen the last of the Good Samaritan drivers when I traded my four wheels for two, considering most drivers here are content to just kill you on your bike, rather than give you a cute little wave-on. But yesterday I actually got one again, one who just couldn't help herself from being soooo helpful. She was in an SUV (duh) and two cars ahead of me on Smallman Street, slowing down at a green light with her right blinker on. Naturally, not wanting to get flattened by her veritable locomotive when she turned, I slowed down, coasting up past the cars on my left... which had come to a complete stop, because the woman had braked to a halt in front of the intersection. At a green light. The cars behind slammed on their brakes and laid on their horns as I slowly crept up beside her motionless vehicle, expecting to see what she obviously saw: an ambulance flying down the street, a car zipping through the red light the other way, anything that would have warranted a sudden halt. But as I inched up, I saw her, smiling broadly, waving me on with two fingers. Go ahead, young man, I see you on your little bike and I want to make sure you get home safe!

C'mon lady.

You almost caused an accident, you confused the hell out of me, had everyone slam on their brakes, and I'm not on a goddamn tricycle here. I'm paying more attention to the road than you are, because my life depends on it. The last thing I want to do is come rushing up the side of a massive sport utility vehicle with a huge blind spot and a light that is blinking, saying, "HEY WATCH OUT I'M COMING THE FUCK RIGHT INTO YOUR SHIT!" So when you think you're doing me a favor, stopping up traffic to let me come by you... you're not. That's exactly how my friend Jason got nailed in Philadelphia and the paramedics had to cut his clothes off. His clothes from Urban Outfitters; dude lost like four hundred bucks that day. And almost died. So again, please, you pridefully patient pricks and sons of smug-ass bitches: just drive. We don't want your favors, we don't need your kind gestures. We just want the flow of traffic to... well, flow. Can we just be settled at that?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Onward and upward

I'm constantly looking for something better. I suppose it's the human desire for more that drives me, for something that challenges and surprises at every turn. I don't think it's greedy, or at least I hope it's not. I hope it's just me pining to find something that I truly want to do for the rest of my life. Ultimately, I'd love to be a professor of English, a job will allow me to educate while educating myself, constantly changing, looking for and learning things new. I'd also love to live in the Scottish Highlands, own a vintage Jaguar and have a seasoncard for Manchester City, but those are just for fun. I don't know how realistic these things are, or how far away they are if they even are realistic, but this constant desire for upwardness and onwardity makes it hard to be satisfied, no matter how satisfied I am.

It's why I can't stay in a job for very long. And I don't mean that I quit and stomp around lazily, wishing the world would present me with better opportunities. I certainly do the latter, but I work toward it. I am always attempting to get promoted, or move into a job more in my field, in my interest, or just plain more interesting. But that's difficult. Especially in writing, or in radio, or in tv. I've picked a bunch of winners to have as passions--jobs that, more than any other, you are judged less on what you can do than who you know. My last tv job was working as Master Control at a small cable studio--but my younger brother had to get the job for me because he knew people and I didn't, despite the fact that I'd done that kind of work for four years in college.

My most recent attempt to move upward was with Apple. It has always been a dream of mine to work for Apple, whether selling, fixing or desiging their computers. Two out of three of those possibilities are highly improbable, seeing as I know virtually nothing about the computers other than that I quite enjoy using them and prefer them to PCs. But selling I could do, and Apple offered me a position to do just that about a month ago. And after six years of pining and three of trying, I did the impossible and turned them down. They couldn't pay enough, and for probably the first time ever, I didn't make a step toward my constantly changing definition of Satisfaction. It was a hard decision, a lot of weighing of options and discussing with Carly before they called me to schedule a training session and I said, "I'm sorry, I just can't accept the offer." They were not as disheartened as I had hoped. And now, even if a better-paying, more advanced position ever becomes available, I'm sure I've been blacklisted through infinity and beyond.

Did I make the right decision? The hotel industry isn't the place for me, but I keep finding myself in it, trying to weasel my way upward despite my utter indifference to it all. I like people, I love hotels and travel, but it's just not my passion. At all. Computers are a lot closer, but still nowhere near. Plus, the busiest the hotel gets has nothing on how crazy the Apple Store in Shadyside is constantly. The thing I hate most about working at the hotel is the overwhelming crowds with their overwhelmingly stupid questions; that's all working at the Apple Store would be. And yet, there would have been upward mobility, which borders on a narcotic for me. But no. I stayed put. If not a little bit because I like the kickbacks that roll in for me here, from the cash tips to the restaurant gift certificates to just people really honestly enjoying when I help them out.

And now, most recently, the biggest kickback of all. The reason I ultimately decided I should stay at the hotel, just stay put a little bit longer. I figured, of all the places to be, with all the elbows that need to be rubbed, staying here should offer me more opportunities than wearing a blue shirt and selling myself to a cult of personality (as delicious as that Apple-flavored Kool-Aid might taste). So it has.

I'm not talking about Paul McCartney (who just left here) or the cast and crew of One for the Money (who has been here for months). The other weekend, a man was staying here while touring the United States to look at colleges with his daughter. He came to me wanting to know how long it would take to drive to JFK Airport in New York, and whether, with his less-than-reliable rental car, he should make the trip in two legs. We decided that was best and I set him up with a hotel room in Harrisburg for the night, about half-way there. When I gave his information to the agent at the hotel, I finally said to him, noticing his address, "Oh, so you are from Germany!" to which he responded, "You could tell from my outrageous accent!"

"Deine Englisch ist besser als meine Deutsch," I said, and he looked surprised: "Du sprichst Deutsch!" We spoke a bit in German, then I wished him luck with his trip and he left. Excited, as I always am to speak German, especially with someone from Germany, I began telling one of my co-workers how great the man was when he came back. I had forgotten to give him the address of the hotel in Harrisburg, but he also brought with him a piece of paper with his name and email and the website of the school where he teaches, and informed me that I should email him on Monday when he is back in his office, because he was so impressed with my German (particularly, my accent) and he would like to take me on as a teaching assistant, to help his students with economic case-studies in English.

Onward and upward.

For the last week, we've been in touch, trying to hammer out the details to such a deal. He likes me a lot and is trying his best to find a place for not only me, but also Carly, so that we can move to Kaiserslautern, just east of the French border in Rhineland-Pfalz, where my family emigrated from in the late 1600s. I don't know what will happen, if we'll be able to come to a solution that works out. But it's a possibility. It's a start. Moving to Germany would be a far bigger dream coming to fruition than just tooling around with computers. Teaching, in Germany makes that dream even bigger. And I'd get a free Master's of Science out of it too. So there's that. An M.S. in International Finance, in fact; a degree that should, theoretically, help me with the even bigger dreams that I've got.

I think, just maybe, I made the right decision.

And here's to making more.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Gimme yo' shit

As those of you who read my blog regularly already know, especially after long droughts in my writing here, it usually takes something that makes my blood boil to get me to write again. It's been a few months (May and June being the first and second months I've missed completely since I started this blog, actually) since I've last written. In that time I've moved to Pittsburgh, got re-hired at the Hilton, abruptly quit the Hilton (no two weeks notice, just a two-page-long hand-written letter of grievance on my manager's desk the night I left), got the same job only better at the Omni, moved to Lawrenceville, and am now attempting to get a new job at one of the three Apple Stores we have in Pittsburgh (for the second time). It's been a busy month, and fittingly so, I haven't had much of a chance to blog about it. Especially because my new place just off of Butler Street only recently got internet. And also, frankly, because I haven't been angry enough about anything to sit me down here with venom in my fingers. Life's been pretty good lately.

So what got me going? What's got my knickers all in a twist? My panties all in a bunch? My hats... on my head?

I got mugged, of course!

Lacking internet at my new house, I decided to do what any forward-thinking young buck would do and I rode my bicycle down Butler, finding a few park benches only a couple of blocks from my house: what luck! And seeing a number of bars and apartments all around me, I sat down and opened up my laptop to find a veritable smorgasbord of unsecured internet options. I did this one evening after arriving home from work, and all was well; I took care of some emailing and talked to some friends, checked on the status of my impending internet (when would they finally turn on the ol' internet hose, and how long would it take after that for the juices to start flowing down the pipe?), and packed up and went home. Slick.

But two days later, when again, I had to check how life on the webternets was progressing (silly me), things did not so smoothly go. It was about 9pm and I was in the middle of doing exceptionally important Facebook reconnaissance when two youths passed by ne. I didn't pay them much mind, in their long t-shirts and baggy jeans and crisp baseball caps that had (apparently, right?) just been bought that balmy evening at a fine local habberdashery. They crossed 42nd Street, and there conversed for a spat as I leisurely eyed my surroundings, enjoying the cool night's breeze, thinking of how wonderfully convenient the economic geography of my new home was. Then, one of the young gentlemen crossed back over in front of the park benches, and in one quick moment, grabbed the screen of my laptop!

Instinctually, I grabbed the body of the computer as I leapt off the bench. Obviously surprised, the gangsta-ass-mothafucka growled: "Gimme yo' shit." But in and of itself, such a request was not the most convincing argument to bring to the table. He did not, in so many words, have a very captivating debate presence. Upon failing to flash "a piece," and considering that he was no larger or scarier than me, I responded in turn: "No."

Even more confused now, he twisted at the screen, trying to yank it away with force. I said, in an admittedly rather pathetic voice, "Dude, my whole life is in here. What the fuck?" And with a half-hearted last yank, he finally let go and sort of... moseyed away. Across the street at Hambones, two drunken men shouted after the rapscallion and his comrade as they made their way up 42nd Street and disappeared. A hippie crossed Butler and asked if I was okay, and I had to confess that I was more confused than anything. At 9pm, with people across the street, with others on the benches but ten feet away, in the middle of one of Pittsburgh's busier nightlife streets, some fuckin' kid tried to pull a grab-n-run?

I wished, if anything, that I'd thought faster. I would have wanted to have a little philosophical discussion with him. "Gimme yo' shit," he had said. But why? In that little directive he admitted to all involved parties that it was, in fact, my shit. Why, without an outstandingly convincing nine-millimetre argument, would I surrender my shit? Even if I had been more willing to part ways with my entire digital life; what gave him the right to take it? Just because he wanted it? I wanted it enough to spend $1300 on it and more. Because he was scary? I, frankly, am scarier than he was. Because of his immaculate fashion sense? True, my clean white MacBook would have quite matched his spotless Air Force Ones. But that's not really cuttin' the mustard for me.

Given not enough time to have such a discussion, however, I wish I had punched him in the mouth.

Cuz fuck that guy. That was my shit, goddamnit. And when he twisted that motherfucker, the asshole broke my screen. I had to take it up to the Apple Store, who tried to charge me $750 for the repair until I explained to them that I actually got mugged, I didn't just drop it while trying to eat a giant bowl of spaghetti on a ferris wheel. I wish that I'd punched him in the mouth, but all I did was talk about it on the internet and report it to the police who didn't seem to give much of a fuck at all, despite the fact that this kind of shit has been happening all over the East End. Despite the fact that there are apparently CCTV cameras over the tiny park where I was sitting, trained directly on the park benches where the whole thing went down. I haven't even gotten a call back from the detective who was assigned to my case. Whoever he is. If he is.

Yet again, my hate of police bubbles through this whole thing like bile, making me almost as mad as a guy trying to steal my laptop. Ineffectual? Uncaring? Just plain lazy? I don't know, but the streets of Pittsburgh have erupted into this kind of crime this summer, and I have yet to see an effort to quash it, and for that I am scared and appalled. I, for one, am shopping for a billy club online; something that I can carry openly, hanging from my belt, a bright neon "Fuck You, Don't Fuck With Me, Thanks." Someone's got to do the job. It sounds like such a ridiculous cliche, but we need to take back the streets. We shouldn't have to be afraid to use our computers at sidewalk cafes after the sun goes down; we shouldn't have to be afraid to walk around listening to our iPods. What's mine is mine and what's yours is yours. It's a matter of respect--and when that falls short, it should be a matter of broken fingers.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Box

There's a box on the table. It's got no hinges, no top or bottom--it's completely impossible to open. Solid steel faces; no seams, no cracks. But when you knock on the side, you can hear it's hollow. Not necessarily empty, but hollow. In fact, that's the whole debate.

What's inside there? It could be nothing, but why would anyone even make a box to hold nothing? That doesn't make sense. So something must be there. Never mind how impossible it would seem to have gotten anything inside there in the first place. Something must be inside, but what? When you shake the box, it doesn't make a sound. Perhaps it's filled with cotton balls. Or helium.

Those would be the logical answers, at least. Of course there are others who say what's inside is a baseball. But you'd hear that bouncing around, wouldn't you? Still, they insist it's a baseball and always has been. It's an immutable fact, they say, so why even argue? But others say it's a cat. Some say it's a dead cat, others say it's alive. Some philosopher says you can't ever know, but no one is listening to him anyway. One person insists it's a piece of lapis lazuli, the biggest ever. Another insists it's a gun. Both of them have conviction unwavering. They're certain. The lapis lazuli people say the gem is inside there to represent peace. The gun people say it means war. Each lives according to their self-prescribed philosophy, and if you question what they've got to say, they'll both be ready to throw down with you at the drop of a hat--even the pacifists.

They'll tell you all about how they know, when plainly it is impossible to know at all. They'll give you their facts, their reasons--a cocktail of half-truths, assumptions, interpretations, ambiguities and outright lies--and expect you to come over to their side. If you don't, they'll spit in your face. It will be bad enough if you decide there is a cat inside there, because then you'll have to decide whether it is alive or dead, of course. And what color it is. And whether its name is Jingles or Tiger. Because not only will the people with their gems and the people with their guns be angry with you, but the thousands of different iterations of cat people will be even angrier. They'll be so frustrated that you have the right idea, but you've just got these details wrong, why won't you just open your eyes? His name is Mr. Skeeter and he's a grey tabby, goddamnit.

But worse than all of those would be to choose nothing. Because then you are denying the idea that the box is important at all. You're saying that it's just a box. Maybe it's not important at all. You can't know what's inside it, but the simple fact remains that we can get along well enough without knowing, and that all this fighting we're doing over a completely unsolvable variable is downright barbaric and just as silly. But that's pushing too many buttons. That's calling into question the very existence of some of these people who have put their entire lives campaigning for the lapis lazuli, the gun, or the thousands of different cats. And so if there is anything that those disparate groups can agree on, it's that you are the scum of the earth and should be strung up out in front of town hall.

And yet, all signs point to that box just being empty. It doesn't make a sound when you shake it, it hardly weighs anything, and there's not even a way to get something inside it as far as we can tell. Of course, you couldn't say for certain that there is nothing there. It could be those cotton balls, but there's no real way of knowing. It might be that helium, or even a compound of hydrogen and oxygen. Just air. Would that really be any different from nothing at all? Even if you somehow could open this impenetrable box, the contents that had been so hotly contested for so long would just disappear undetected into the rest of the air around us. And we'd never know or appreciate it, because all along we've been surrounded by that air and we didn't even notice it anyway.

So what's the point of fighting about it? I have no idea what's in that box, but what's more: I know that I can't possibly know. As convinced as I may be that there is nothing in there because all of the empirical evidence points in that direction, I still can't say for certain, just for pretty sure. What I know most is that I refuse to fight about it, kill about it, even get angry about it. I just don't care about your weapons, or your gemstones, and I don't care about Mr. Skeeter, no matter what you think he can do to me with his all-encompassing knowledge and command of fate. Plus, if he really does have everything in his paw, completely under control... he's kind of a dick. He's definitely at least not the embodiment of pure goodness. Seriously now.

There is enough of world outside of that box for me to worry about and try to take care of while I'm on this planet, so I'll stick to worrying about that. You can fight over a stupid fucking box.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Burning down the house

Your house is on fire. What do you do?

Everything around you is burning up. All of your belongings are melting, bursting into flames, turning to ash before your eyes. If you don't act fast, everything you've ever loved will be gone. You reach for your cellular phone in your front pocket as you burst out the front door, escaping the smoke-choked building just in time. You punch in the digits 9-1-1 and the phone begins ringing. The line picks up, a voice: "Hello, 911 Emergency Service. What is your emergency?"

"My house is on fire, please send someone to help!"

"Right away, sir. What is your credit card number?"


"Your credit card number, sir. We accept Visa, Mastercard or American Express."

"I have no idea, my wallet is inside! Send the fire department! My house and everything I've ever owned and loved is burning away!"

"I'm sorry sir, but without verifying your credit card, we can do no such thing."

"You have got to be kidding me!"

"Well, unless you happen to have your checkbook. I could use your routing and account numbers to verify your information with your bank."

"What the hell are you talking about? Just send a fire truck!"

"I'll tell you what, sir. You seem to be a pretty nice guy, and I really do feel for you, I do. Do you know who provides your homeowner's insurance?"

"State Farm, I think--"

"Okay, I am going to forward your call to State Farm and you can talk to a representative about this. See, what they'll do is call us back then, and between the three of us we can all work out a payment plan. You know, figure out how you'll get this all taken care of."

"What? A payment plan for what?"

"Well, for our services, of course. It's rather expensive to run a fire department, you know. Bake sales don't cover all of our costs after all."

"Isn't that what taxes are for?"

"Indeed they are, sir. But President Palin abolished all taxation, don't you remember? In February, her first order of business. You mustn't watch the news much. Just like the police department, road repair and the hospital system, the fire department has been privatized. Sure, it provides a service (and a well-needed one at that, considering your situation), but it's still a business. And businesses are in it to make a profit, sir. Surely you can understand that."


"That's just how the free market goes. Honestly, you should have been saving up for a situation like this. It's no one's responsibility but your own to take care of such matters, sir. Who else should be held accountable for you wasting your money elsewhere and not having enough to save your poor house from burning down now?"

"I have cancer! All of my money goes into paying for treatment! Thousands of dollars every month!"

"An unfortunate situation. I'm sorry to hear that, sir."

A horrendous crash sounds as the second floor of your house collapses. A plume of smoke puffs out from a hole in the sagging roof as flames lick higher, hungrier up the walls.

"Sir, are you still there?"

"I... yes. I'm here."

"Alright, I'm going to forward you to Erie. I hope to hear back from you soon, and we'll get that fire taken care of right away."


A click, the voice is gone and you're on hold, waiting for the insurance company to pick up and negotiate what is left of your life. In its place is music, an upbeat song that you recognize as Talking Heads, the last song in the world you could possibly want to hear right now.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Domestic abuse

Yesterday an American software engineer named Joseph Andrew Stack flew a plane into a government building in Austin, Texas after leaving his personal and political manifesto/suicide note on his company's website for the world to read. What are we to make of this news? His rantings against the government, against health care reform and the IRS? This boiling anger and hatred that ultimately lead him to have no other choice but to do something that "has been coming for a long time"?

If you're the newest United States Senator out of Massachusetts, Republican Scott Brown, you shake your head sadly and say it's a real shame. He was just frustrated with our government--how can we blame him? "No one likes paying taxes obviously," said Senator Brown on Fox News following the tragedy. It is sad. It's a real shame that someone felt that this was the only thing they could do, to kill themselves in the process of attempting to kill other people that they did not even personally know, to send a message to the United States of America. But you know what else it is? It's fucking terrorism.

Before 9/11, the largest terrorist attack against the United States came in the form of one Timothy McVeigh when he bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people. Timothy McVeigh was a terrorist, and at the time, everyone pretty much agreed. A domestic terrorist; one of our own, gone rogue. Hmm... I wonder where I've heard that word a lot lately? At these Tea Party rallies I've been seeing on the news, the sorts of sentiments the protesters are voicing are scarily close to what McVeigh acted upon. In fact, at more than one rally, I've seen people toting signs with the Thomas Jefferson quote that was printed on McVeigh's t-shirt in his mugshot after the bombing.

Like McVeigh before him, Stack is a terrorist. He isn't wearing a keffiyeh and he spoke no Arabic, and that's where Senator Brown seems to be getting confused. And confused is hardly even a strong enough word after Brown called his former Senatorial opponent, Martha Coakley, “naïve” on terrorism, saying she possessed a “deeply troubling lack of awareness and understanding of the threats facing our troops and on our national security.” A lack of awareness and understanding, indeed. For the last eight years, we've been able to point at dark-skinned people with turbans and scream, "TERRORIST!" And it's felt pretty good for those who have to be able to classify what is going on at all times--we've got a "war" on "terror" now, a ridiculous classification for what we are attempting to quell: a series of unconnected-but-similarly-minded gangs the world over. Terrorism doesn't have a face, it is not easily recognized and fought by the very nature of what it is. It can be executed by anyone--that's why it's not a war at all. There aren't organized fronts.

But the Tea Party movement, or at least parts of it, will no doubt herald Joseph Stack as a hero, proud that someone had the guts to tell it like it is. To show the government that we're in charge, not them. And other assorted catchphrases that have made it onto their t-shirts and signs. They want our government to fight the threat of terror, while at the exact same time condoning terrorist actions of their own. And they still can't see the irony in that.

And with their newly crowned king, Scott Brown, weaseling out of using the T-word for what had happened--despite the scene looking eerily familiar to events from less than a decade ago--mark my words, the more extreme of the Teabaggers are going to take this as a call to action. They've got more in common with the "enemy" than they'd like to admit. Both groups want to destroy America as we know it, have an affinity for airplane attacks, and make shitty videos for the internet. The only difference is their names and skin color. If Stack's last name had been al-Habib, Ahmad or bin Kasim, we'd be playing a very ballgame right now. And that ballgame would be called "torture"--consequently, another thing that isn't what it really is when white Americans are the ones doing it. Funny how that works.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

ChatRoulette: Welcome to the End of the Internet

Last spring I discovered and blogged about a website called Omegle (Parts I and II) that was still relatively new to the internet. On it, you are randomly connected to a stranger somewhere in the world and invited to chat with them. At the time, I thought it was one of the most novel and brilliant ideas that had hit the web in years--a place for bored (and more often than not, horny) people to go and find someone just as bored (though unlikely as horny) to entertain themselves with. But as great as the site still remains for what it's worth, we have officially reached the end of the internet.

Enter: ChatRoulette. I found out about this site last night, and a subsequent article from New York Magazine (that managed to move seamlessly from talking about porn to referencing Walt Whitman--impressive) hot on its heels. It seems the site has only been around for a few months, launching just earlier this winter. But last night when I logged on around midnight, there were over sixteen thousand other users--more than triple what Omegle averaged at any given moment. But why? What could possibly bring people in the droves to this brand-new site (that translates, accidentally of course, to "CatWheel" in French)?

Much like Omegle, it randomly connects the user to a stranger somewhere around the world. Completely unlike Omegle, it engages your computer's microphone. And webcam. As you cycle through random people all around the world, you find yourself staring right at them. In their rooms. Often without pants. That part I can't exactly figure out. See, the users of ChatRoulette are overwhelmingly male, and there is a cross-section of them who are eternally whackin' it on screen, showing off their man-meat to anyone cycling through. I just don't understand their approach. Just like in Omegle, this service can easily be used for pornin'--but guys, if you wanna get your jollies with some sexy lady from across the sea, you might not want to introduce yourself with a paw around your yogurt-slinger. You gotta schmooze! This is like a virtual bar! Buy her a drink, don't just saunter up to her and unzip!

ChatRoulette is the most surreal experience on the internet--quite possibly in my entire life--that I have ever had. I only lasted fractions of a second with most other users, owing to the fact that I am not a girl, but on the ones where I'd last longer, and actually start talking to the people on the other end, it was almost more weird. I quickly became desensitized to the hundreds of penises and tens of frat guys flipping the bird that populated the site, and my brain all but turned off as I was cycled through by bored looking guys and the occasional junior high-aged girls who had nothing to say to me. But when I lasted more than the typical half-second with a couple of hipsters from Alabama, I wasn't even sure what to do. My parents were asleep, so I had my microphone off and I typed with them for a little bit. But it all felt so intrusive that I finally hit the "NEXT" button myself, sending me back into the maelstrom of dicks, sad-faced college kids and giggling girls who just weren't that into my face. Apparently.

Of course, there are some normals on there. I talked to a guy who was originally from Pittsburgh who thought I looked like Matthew Broderick. And a girl from Australia who was in college and liked Air and might even be reading this blog right now. They might be few and far between, but they make it all worth it. To connect with people like that. It's amazing. It's everything the internet is and should be, and at the same time, everything we've been warned about the internet becoming. The NY Mag article asks if this is "the future of the internet, or its distant past." I think neither. This is the end. This has achieved all that the internet has ever hoped for, but done so in the most frighteningly intriguing way possible. I am only glad that I got to witness this kind of thing in my lifetime. It's brilliant and horrifying, and one of the best things I've ever seen.

Maybe I'll see you on there. Don't worry, even if you don't know me, you'll recognize me. I'll be the guy with his pants on.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Charles Templeton - Farewell to God **

My father is always buying religious literature, littering our bathroom and dining room with it, trying to get me to read it, to just "understand where he's coming from." So I picked up Charles Templeton's Farewell to God in retaliation, more for him than for me. I was hoping to pass it along to him after I finished it, to finally see "where I was coming from." Of course, my dad isn't much of a reader, and is already steeped in his own library of works, so it might be a while until he gets around to this one.

As for my own read of the book, as much as I agree with each and every of Templeton's points, I can't help but think I could have argued them more convincingly, given the chance. Templeton is a former minister, and a famous one at that, old friends with Billy Graham. He worked in the ministry for quite a few years, but the glaring disparities he saw between what Christianity was and what it loved to say it was ate away at him slowly until he could no longer bring himself to say the words he was being paid (on television by that point, no less) to say.

Templeton attacks Christianity from a stance inside the religion, a different approach than famed atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens who come from scientific and philosophical backgrounds. What Templeton's book does is pick apart the Bible and the greater doctrine of the church, piece by piece, holding each story and each consequent inconsistency up to the light of an inquiring mind. He does not claim to know more or be smarter than others, just to have come to understand the horrors in the faith he'd dedicated his life to. It's really a rather sad tale when you step back from it, and I applaud the man for finding the strength enough to write such a book.

But as it goes, the writing is pretty pedestrian. It's hardly even a book for the Beginning Atheist; it's much better suited for someone who is finding themselves confused about the religion they've been raised in, looking for answers to why things just don't quite make sense. Farewell to God a simply written book, and it gets its point across expertly, so I can't knock it for that. But for someone as angry as me, it comes off a little soft. Templeton doesn't even classify himself as an unbeliever--he's a vague agnostic who insists that he still believes in "something." Perhaps he is referring to the god of Einstein, the ultimate power of the universe. Or of the aether, in its ever-flowing, almighty ambivalence to mankind. Or so I can hope, because to look for more would unhinge his entire argument, whether it came through a church, a mosque or a synagogue.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The truth of the matter

Back in November, my mother ran for tax collector of Clay Township as an unopposed write-in, and naturally she got the position. Despite her support of free choice. What does a tax collector have to do with women's rights? Nothing, of course. But while my mom stood outside the township building and talked to voters, a man apparently approached her and asked her if she was pro-life. My mother's surprisingly level-headed response was that she herself could never live with getting an abortion, but she felt there were situations in which the procedure was acceptable. The man considered this, then went inside to vote; on his way back out to his car, he stopped with my mother again, informing her that he did not vote for her, because she supports the murder of innocents. As tax collector.

But it didn't matter because my mother, the baby-killer, won anyway with an overwhelming majority of votes (seriously, like eighty-four or something), and so last week she had to go to the Lancaster County Courthouse and be sworn in as a civil servant. My dad went with her, and at her swearing in ceremony, he was appalled. Why? Because she was given the option to swear on a Bible. The option. Meaning she was not compelled to, she could have sworn on anything, or on nothing.

My father was incredulous. What could just plain swearing achieve? If you didn't swear on a Bible, then what was the point? That made it so you had to tell the truth. Apparently. Or what? Be struck by a lightning bolt and sucked straight down into Hell? It was a sign of where our country is headed, he told me, shaking his head. And I agreed; we are growing more and more diverse and less and less superstitious with every generation. What would the point of me, as an atheist, swearing on a Bible? If I'm not going to tell the truth on my own, putting my hand on a book that I don't put an ounce of faith into isn't really going to influence me to do any better. What about a Muslim or a Jew or a Zoroastrian? They might as well swear on a ham sandwich, I said, for as much good as it would do to swear on a Bible. To which my mother's friend who was over responded that an adherent to the Jewish faith probably wouldn't go for the ham sandwich thing. Touché.

I've never really understood the whole swearing on the Bible thing anyway. Especially for people who are being accused of murder or embezzlement or just about anything that involves dishonesty, hate or violence to have done in the first place. As if they'll have a moment of clarity when they see the book; it sends a shock up through their arm to remind them that the Ol' Surveillance Camera in the Sky has, indeed, got its red light on. If you need to touch the Bible to make you tell the truth, you've got some bigger issues at hand to deal with first. Because you are a sociopath. And you probably shouldn't be on the stand for anything.

As for me, if I ever need to take any kind of oath, I think I'll bring my own book for the ceremony. You can have your Bible or your Qur'an, but the only thing that is going to make me be a little more truthful is Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. What book would you swear on? Let's make this interactive.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Why do horrible things happen to good people?

In an effort to waste no time whatsoever in becoming the most insensitive fucking person in the world about the massive earthquake that leveled much of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, infamous hate-mongering televangelist, Pat Robertson, has spoken up. Who is to blame for this horrible tragedy? Well, the Haitian people, of course. But not because they're harboring homosexuals (they're not) or because they are filthy heathens (they're Catholic, close enough), two things that Pat has been quite outspoken about his God's distaste for in the past. No, you see, to understand the reason God is punishing the tiny island nation of Haiti, you have to have a bit of a history lesson. Stick with me here, I promise it pays off.

The island of Hispanola, the narrow landmass that makes up Haiti and the Dominican Republic was once populated by the Arawak Indians, a culture probably most famous for being enslaved by famed world explorer, Christopher Columbus in the late 1400s. In the centuries that followed, the island became a stopping place in the international slave trade and was eventually divided into the basic regions that we see today, amongst the French (Haiti) and Spanish (Dominican Republic) military forces that occupied it. However, there were still some indigenous Haitians hanging around (how troublesome!) and in late 1700s, they started to revolt against the French for independence. The fighting would not cease for over a century, and the French military, led under the control of Napoleon Bonaparte, and on the ground by his brother-in-law, General Charles Leclerc, eventually fell to the rebel forces of the slave rebellion.

A pretty amazing story, not? A handful of slaves revolt against one of the most powerful militaries in the world and come out with the upper hand, emancipation, and liberation. Really a story of hope, that the downtrodden can fight back their oppressors and find freedom and liberty of their own. Inspirational, really. How could have such a rebellion succeeded? It's almost like they'd have needed a divine hand to assist them.

Well, I don't believe that, because hate and vitriol and fighting for one's life can do quite a bit for your morale--but Robertson certainly does believe it. But not how you'd expect. See, the Haitians got a divine bit of help... FROM THE DEVIL! That's right! They made a pact with the Devil, and that is how they defeated tens of thousands of French slave-traders and military men! And that, of course, is why now, three hundred years later, God decided he was pretty sick of the nation of Haiti just being poverty-stricken, illiterate, and constantly harassed by missionaries--it was time to take it up a notch and toss them a big ol' earthquake to show them he really means it. It's not God's style to just forget all about a Satanic pact to defeat the French and gain political and civil independence. Not Robertson's God anyway.

But why listen to me, a silver-tongued liberal who is twisting around the words of such a good man to make him sound horrible? Let's let Robertson do his own talking:

"True story." I couldn't have said it better, Pat. Thank you for answering my question, of why such terrible things could happen to a country of people who already are living in absolute squalor. I'm glad your God has a plan and that he sticks to it. It's an admirable trait. But I have one other question to pose to you, Reverend Robertson. Or maybe it's more of a request: Why can't horrible fucking things happen to you?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The price of kindness

Working at a local television station that does a live news broadcast twice a night, I hear a little bit about what's going on around me every once in a while. Usually a week or two late, because it's a very small, under-funded television station--but when I'm not engrossed in catching up on Lost or reading a book or just trying to entertain myself in any way other than actually watching the news in front of me... sometimes I watch the news.

Such was the case this evening, and again during the replay, and again during the late broadcast, and again during that replay, and with every reiteration of one particular story, I found myself getting angrier and angrier. A few months ago, Akron Borough, a small town adjoining my hometown of Ephrata to the southwest, was in talks to build a Christian-based drug and alcohol rehabilitation center within its jurisdiction. If you've ever read my blog before, or worse yet, met me in real life, you'll know how I feel about attaching that "Christian" word to such a venture, but all things considered, I was pretty excited that Akron was going to have a chance to build a center to help so many people. You might think a cute little town like mine would be immune to the problems of drug and alcohol addiction, because that's exactly what cute little towns like mine would love to have you believe. However, in the Nineties we had quite a heroin epidemic on our hands. So much so that our cute little town of just around 20,000 inhabitants had a clean needles program.

No matter who was to run it, this rehab center would no doubt provide a much appreciated positive influence on my town and surrounding communities--and an even better influence on the people it would inevitably help. So of course, the residents of Akron jumped at the opportunity to help out their fellow man, even threw in money to help bet the center funded and built... right?

Of course not! In fact, the organization that was working on the center has now pulled out in disgust, because the residents of Akron completely shot the whole project down. They refused to have such a thing built in their neighborhood because of: decreased property values. That's right, sons of liberty, the goodwill of mankind and the chance to help out some people sorely in need has been commandeered, yet again, by the Almighty Goddamn Dollar. Not even by money itself, but by the very idea of it. We can't have dirty drug addicts coming into our town making it "unsafe" while they work out their troubles and maybe Find Jesus to boot! Think of what that'll do to the resale value of our townhouses! Putting in that above-ground pool out back won't have done a thing!

It saddens me. I'm hardly even angry, really. I'm just so frustrated that this kind thing, when our greed overrides our empathy (if we even have any of that left at this point). It's the same thing that put a boot to the throat of our health care reform. You've heard that bill was going to get passed, right? Not in its original form--but not with a public option, not even with an early Medicare buy-in like they talked about when the bill was sounding its swan song. Let alone what should have been in the bill and wasn't, like what Congressman Kucinich included in his H.R. 676 which I really can't even say was swept under the rug when it didn't even make it to the floor. We care more about what's going on in our bank accounts and our wallets than what is going on in the bodies of our neighbors and friends. And much more than we do about the people we don't even know. They're not our problem. They'll figure something out, they just have to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. They're just lazy and if they want health insurance they'll figure out a way to get it--and if not, we'll fine them for it. No seriously, we will. Somehow, that made it into the Senate health care bill.

Money > People. Learn it, live it, love it.