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First, my bona fides: I, of course, am neither a legal scholar nor a project manager. I am but a humble librarian, albeit one who took over a job 2 years ago and has managed to enact a number of sweeping changes in that short time. While the stakes are certainly lower in a small college library than they are on a national stage, I think the guiding principles behind my successes should be scalable. Plus, after the week you just had, I’d think you guys would be willing to try anything.

I. Set a positive goal

Let’s start with some Real Talk:  “repeal” is not a positive a goal, I’m afraid. Not even after you tack “replace” on to the end of it. I know it’s all you’ve been thinking about for the past 17 years, and you really want to do it, but the fact of the matter is that this is not a goal at all – they are actions that you would like to take, but you haven’t defined why you’d like to take them. Repeal and replace, but in service of what?

Instead of framing your entire project in terms of ObamaCare, I would suggest you take some time to figure out what the purpose of health insurance is, and what you want it to be. To make it easier for you, I have come up with the following suggestions:

  1. Health insurance should ensure care for all of a person’s medical needs;
  2. Health insurance should be affordable for everyone

From these two points, we can then build our positive goal: “Inexpensive, comprehensive medical care for everyone.”

Now that our positive goal has been established (and that example you should feel free to use), we can move on to step 2:

II. Document the steps necessary to achieve your goal

Personally, I like to use Visio for all my process-plotting needs. Partly because I’m used to it but mostly because the variety of little people icons serve as a very helpful reminder that the needs of actual human beings are being impacted by whatever plans I make.

However, I understand that there are some budget issues facing the government at the moment (when are there not, am I right?), so you may not be able to afford a premium Microsoft product. Fortunately, there are plenty of open access alternatives available; I’ve heard good things about LucidChart, and probably Google Drive has something, even if I’ve never heard of it. Ask around, try a couple out before settling on one you like. But make sure it includes the people icons; you know, just as a reminder.

Once you have determined the path to your positive goal, move on to step 3:

III. Set a reasonable timeline

I know it feels like you’ve been working on health care for the past 70 years and now you just need that final push to get the ball over the finish line, which is a thing I understand happens in sports. But: have you? I only ask because, having nothing at all to show for all the work you’ve claimed to be doing all these years makes it seem like you’ve just been dicking around the entire time.

Now, I am sure that knowing President Obama would veto any repeal plan you sent him – and with good reason, you have to admit – kept you from really sitting down and doing your best work; it is very difficult to succeed in the face of certain failure. That’s why we, as a culture, have so few stories of people overcoming adversity to persevere. Especially in sports – that never happens. It’s like the underdog always fails, and the town remains dispirited, and the estranged father and son don’t get to share a look of understanding across the field, much less hug. It’s very sad.

But now, you’re it, guys – you’re the overdog. The ball is in your court. Success is practically guaranteed, except for how it keeps failing, but you need to be realistic about how long that is going to take. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and we won’t get to universal health care (see step 1) over lunch, or even in two weeks. Give yourself the time to make sure things are done right.

Once the plan and timeline have been established, we move on to step 4:

IV: Consultations & Feedback

Even with the best of intentions (see step 1), people can be prone to tunnel vision. I myself spent about 3 weeks this summer devising a new workflow for our interlibrary loan services, only to discover, after reviewing my notes to make sure I hadn’t left anything out, that I had already come up with the exact same plan 5 weeks prior. Embarrassing.

But, with something as important as ILL, I needed to be sure that the plan I kept coming up with was actually the best possible plan and not just reflective of my own personal point of view. But how to be certain? By consulting with and getting feedback several groups of stakeholders:

  1. Peers – in my case, this means librarians, but for you, I understand that there are people besides the male Republicans you’ve had working on this so far? Democrats, Independents, Women and their Lady Parts, may have some crackerjack insight on how to get a health care bill to become law, what with having done it and all. I’m sure they’d be willing to pitch in, if only you ‘d ask.
  2. Experts – Now, I was able to talk to the Director of my library, who is a thoughtful and wonderful human being who really knows what she’s doing in her role. So you’re kind of S.O.L. there vis-a-vis consulting with the president. But may I recommend Justin Trudeau? He’s very approachable, and Canadians are famous for not being rude. I’m sure he’d take your concerns seriously.Additionally, since, as a congressperson you are unlikely to also be a medical professional, you should consider speaking with some medical professionals when making plans that will impact medical care. Doctors, nurses, patient-advocacy groups, even the insurers themselves have had a lot of opinions about this process so far. We can’t say for sure that ignoring them is the only reason your efforts have failed again and again, but we can’t rule it out either; maybe try listening to them and see if you get better results?
  3. Those impacted by the plans- I mean, this seems like a real no-brainer, right? In the library, we even solicited feedback from Faculty before changing the circulation period for books to unlimited, and who is going to object to keeping a book as long as they need? Of course, there is always going to be some jerk who says “But what if people take advantage of this?” But, as part of our positive goal setting (see step 1), we had already determined that we’d rather offer better support to those who operate in good faith than worry about guarding against anyone who might try to game the system.

That’s a good operating principle, by the way. You might want to consider adopting that. It would be especially helpful as you move on to step 5:

V. Consider your mortality

Professionally speaking, you’re not going to be in that job forever. People retire, start new careers, follow a passion, or, sometimes, when they are astoundingly terrible at their jobs and spend all their time dicking around (see step 3), they get fired. Give some thought to the person who will step into your current role in 2018, 2020, or, you know, after a special recall election. Instead of being the bitter jerk who changes all the passwords and takes a giant dump on his desk on the way out the door, make it easier for whoever comes next by keeping things simple – for example, like a single payer system –  and not leaving a big mess they’ll have to clean up before they can start working on their own positive goals.

Personally speaking, remember too that your time here on Earth is short. While you may devote that time to amassing great wealth and great success, and believing that this sets you apart from others, and that in your elevated position you will always be safe, you will still inevitably one day arrive at the end of your life, just like everyone else. Instead of devoting the only time you’ll ever get to attempting to hoard the wealth of the world like a dragon in some dumb story nerds read*, be generous with your compassion and find security in knowing that we’re all facing the unknown together.

Remember, too, that you can help lessen fear of the unknown in step 6:

VI. Keep stakeholders informed of your progress

Remember that transparency is not just for border walls to prevent people from being hit by flying sacks of drugs. Particularly when the work you’re doing will mean that someone has to change their established routine, it is a best practice to give them as much lead time as possible.

Additionally, be sure that you are share the information through as many channels as possible. In-person is very hot right now, and can be a great way to reach out and get in touch with the people who may not be available by the more traditional electronic means. It may be hard to believe, but some people do not regularly check their email in 2017, and I can tell you from personal experience that you’ll get the most negative feedback from the people who are caught off-guard by a change, and the second-most negative feedback from the ones who were perfectly aware of the impending changes but for some inexplicable reason decided to ignore the part where they were affected by them too.

But this step also provides you with an opportunity to pat yourself on the back, as you continue to make steady progress toward your goal, as milestones are reached, and items are checked off your to-do list. This is a level of satisfaction that comes from actually accomplishing something, and once you’ve experienced that (and, if you follow these steps, some day you will), you’ll develop a liking for it. However, as you pat yourself on the back for your small victories, remember the final step, 7:

VII: Only celebrate once the job is done

Premature celebration can prove terribly embarrassing for a gent. Imagine throwing a party – with beer! – in the Rose Garden at the White House because a preliminary version of a bill written without vision or a positive goal managed to get through the House of Representatives, only to then watch as that bill failed over and over in the Senate, despite having an insurmountable majority? Worse, imagine if that beer party had been in part to celebrate the seeming success of Paul Ryan, a person literally nobody likes? And was hosted by a serial sexual predator who takes credit for everything even though his understanding of how government works is non-existent? God, what a nightmare that would be. A person might never live that sort of thing down.

* No shame – I have read a lot of dumb stories about dragons.

When my position at Harvard was eliminated I was eligible for unemployment. Now, I know that, as a former Harvard employee and liberal intellectual elite, no one wants to hear my opinion on welfare or other government services since I don’t know how real people live. But, having collected both unemployment and, briefly, food stamps, I have a few opinions on the newly released Republican budget and its planned gutting of the food stamp program.

First, saying my position was “eliminated” is a bit of an overstatement. It was from the outset a term position, and though it had the possibility of being renewed at the end of the year, that was certainly no guarantee. I was still taken by surprise, of course – it’s difficult to believe that an institution as august as Harvard (which I still lovingly refer to as “the center of the universe”) would not be interested in retaining the lack of ambition and general know-it-all attitude I bring to my work. But in the year that I was there, the Harvard Libraries implemented digital book plates, and therefore no longer needed someone to spend 17.5 hours a week gluing physical plates to the front inside cover of new books.

(Yes. That was my job at Harvard. People are often very impressed when they hear I worked at Harvard, forgetting that even Harvard – the center of the universe – has entry-level work that needs to be done.)

Despite working only 17.5 hours a week and having been there only for a year, I’d been a fully benefited employee. I got health insurance through Harvard, and tuition reimbursement for graduate-level classes that would help advance my career, even though that advancement would not happen at Harvard. And so, when my position ended as scheduled, I was qualified to collect unemployment.

I am sure there was an option to register for these benefits online, but I registered by phone. When I called, I spoke with a woman whose name I don’t remember. In fact, I remember almost nothing about her except that in addition to unemployment payments, she automatically signed me up for food stamps. This, she explained, was because the approval process for food stamps could take several weeks; if it turned out I did need them, it would be better if I did not go without them during the approval process.

That is not actually the reason I started writing this post. It did not stand out to me as at all remarkable at the time because of course the priority would be ensuring that hungry people did not go without food during the lengthy approval process. Of course the very purpose of these systems is to make sure that people in need do not, even temporarily, fall through the cracks. And of course this unnamed and probably underpaid public servant would immediately send me a SNAP card; she was just doing her job.

I don’t to this day know if her actions were unusual or not. I do wish I could remember her name though, because I have a feeling that, in addition to being a dedicated and hard-working public servant, she is a god-damned American hero for making that effort on my behalf.

Food stamps were different than I expected. First, there were no actual stamps; instead, I received what was basically a pre-paid debit card, which I could swipe in a card reader just like any other card. It couldn’t be used for certain prepared foods, but other than selecting ‘SNAP’ on the pin pad at the register, I did not have to declare to anyone at the store that I was receiving government assistance.

Second, and I cannot state this strongly enough, I loved getting food stamps. LOVED IT. I feel like I saw a lot of ‘very special episodes’ back in the ‘80s where a family was offered food stamps, but ultimately turned them down because they were too proud. Gimme a Break, maybe, or possibly Just the 10 of Us? Like, there’d be a scene where the cute kid would roll in this giant wheel of government cheese and everyone would be super excited at the bounty of food they’d received, but eventually, by the end of the episode, the dad – that dumb killjoy – would decide that the family, his family, didn’t need charity, they’d buckle down and sacrifice and pull through. Food stamps are fine for some people, of course, but better his family of precocious children should go hungry than his pride suffer, seemed to be the message.

That message, of course, is bullshit; food stamps are the best. Because not having a job is obviously extremely stressful, and food stamps help alleviate some of that stress. They are a net good. I mean, think about it: you get to eat without having to spend money on food! It is amazing. And that means the money you would have spent on food can be spent on something else. Like an internet connection so you can search for and apply to jobs. Or laundry detergent so that if you do have an interview you can show up in clean clothes. Or, you know, rent and other basic necessities of life that are not food, for reasons that should be obvious.

So I was very happy to receive food stamps. And I imagine that there are some you reading this who, because you know me, are coming up with reasons why I am different than what you imagine to be the ‘normal’ recipient of food stamps. Before expressing those reasons, I would encourage you to consider instead how those people are like me: they are former coworkers, former classmates, friends of a friend someone met one time at a party who post a lot of cat pictures on social media; who have fallen on hard times and need a bit of assistance. And if their need is more long-term than mine turned out to be, well, that certainly is unfortunate, but I would suggest that the tragedy of that situation is not that you are in a position to be of assistance.

Because, it turned out that, as much as I loved them, I did not actually qualify for food stamps. Fortunately, I lived within walking distance of a very inexpensive grocery store, so I bought what I could and made a lot of soup during those months while job searching. (I also listened to a lot of This American Life while cooking, which is neither here nor there, but I think it’s important to take every opportunity to mention that Ira Glass occasionally gets on my nerves.) So I got by without food stamps. But, it should be noted that I also was not supporting anyone other than myself during that time.

Because, like  many benefits for the unemployed – transportation assistance and child care – these are reserved for people who truly need them, and most often that means families. Families, obviously, with children. And this, of course, is why we must strenuously oppose the new Republican budget that takes so much money from the food stamp program. Because cutting funding from the food stamps program will only result in hungry children. That’s really all it will do; I don’t know why anyone would be in favor of that.

I do understand that there are some people who don’t want their tax dollars supporting people who sponge off the system. It is important to note that the majority of welfare recipients are actually like me – they receive assistance temporarily, while looking for jobs. Through those jobs, they pay taxes, which means that, far from sponges, they are active contributors to the very benefits they receive.

On the other hand, there are unfortunately always going to be people who will game the system. These cuts will not prevent anyone who is so inclined from taking advantage of what’s left of these programs even if they don’t need them. The sad truth is that there will always be bad actors, but I defer to the aforementioned god-damned American hero in believing that the priority should be ensuring assistance is available to those in need.

I would also point out that nowhere in the budget proposal is there a tax cut for you; cutting funds from food stamps will lead to hungry children, but it will put no more money in your pocket, no more food on your table.

Instead, your money will go toward a drastic increase in defense spending. Which is a difficult thing to take issue with, it would seem, particularly in these times of increasing violence and the ever-present threat of terrorists. And I understand that – the world is a scary place, and it seems like we should be doing everything possible to defend ourselves. But it is worth taking a look at what we are willing to sacrifice in our rush toward security; if we are willing to sacrifice the health and well-being of children, what then, are we actually working to preserve? If we as a nation are targeting our own children – or, worse, identifying some children as “other” so we can target them – what does that make us?

In eighth grade, we had to do a research project on World War I. The project was a joint assignment between our History and English teachers, and included a presentation in History class in addition to the paper we turned in, also to the History teacher; I don’t remember what role the English teacher played beyond the initial instruction session on how taking notes on index cards would help us keep track of our different source. I also don’t remember the school librarian playing any role whatsoever in the project, even though I very clearly recall that instruction session being held in the school library.

In fact, I remember very few details about that project at all. Of my own paper, I remember not the topic but a typo: instead of underlining one word on a page, I underlined every word on the page except that one. That word was underlined in red pen when the paper was returned to me, with a -1 written over it. This was the first paper I’d ever written using a computer – remember, this was 1986; Taylor Swift hadn’t even been born yet – and though not as dramatically as it did at the time, it does still bother me that I was penalized for what was very clearly a difficulty using MacWrite and not a lack of understanding the importance of proper underlining.

Of course, I should have done a better job proofreading, which, in this case, would have been, you know, proofreading the paper. But, if you’ll recall how long it actually took to print out a 7-page paper back in 1986, you’ll understand why the relief of having it finished would preclude any interest in potentially finding reasons to have to go through all of that again. Even if it had been an option, given the difficulty I had with the underline function I can’t imagine I would have figured out how to print only a single page of a longer document.

The other thing I remember about that assignment is that, during the question and answer period following one student’s presentation, another of my classmates – Dale – said the word “fucker.”

The presentation had been on air warfare, and the German air fleet included a number of planes made by Fokker manufacturing. Over and over the presenting student said the name Fokker, carefully, seriously, with no hint that there might be something about that name that might make bunch of 12 year-olds titter.

Listening to the presentation, it was startling to hear the first time. “Did he just say…?” confusion rippled across the class, because it definitely sounded like he did just say… It was an unavoidable comparison to draw; Fokker, no matter how carefully pronounced, sounds a lot like Fucker, and that is not going to go unnoticed by a class of 8th graders.

It could have gone unacknowledged, though. The student carried on through his presentation, and the rest of the class could have supported his heroic efforts by asking pertinent questions on the subject of his presentation, or, as we likely did with all the other presentations, offered tepid applause and then showed that we didn’t really care about anyone else’s topic by not asking any questions at all. Unless there was some class-participation grade component? I don’t remember that either. What I do remember is that, instead of allowing this student to gratefully take his seat at the conclusion of presentation, Dale raised his hand and proceeded to ask a series of questions about the Fokker planes that served no purpose other than to give him a reason to, carefully and seriously, say Fucker over and over again in class.

Until, that is, Mr. Gray stepped in. Mr. Gray was the 8th grade history teacher; he would occasionally lean against the chalk board while teaching and end up with his own writing all over the back of his shirt, and when the phone in his classroom rang he would answer it “Mi-IS-Ter Gray,” but without the stuttering dashes – just a smooth arc of emphasis that never varied throughout the school year. In other things, too, Mr. Gray never wavered. He had taken issue with the qualifying test for the Spelling Bee that year; “a lot,” being two words, was an invalid measure of spelling acumen and Mr. Gray said as much, pausing the test to tell everyone that it should be written as two different words. Mr. Gray did not stand for administrative chicanery.

And he did not stand for swearing in his classroom. He cut Dale off when he tried to ask yet another question, to which Dale, a mealy-mouthed little prick, protested innocently that he was just curious about the planes. Mr. Gray cut him off there, too, stating he’d never heard a pronunciation so blatant; as clearly as I remember Dale saying Fucker, I remember the hint of anger with which Mr. Gray said Blatant. Mr. Gray made it clear he knew what Dale was up to, and made it equally clear that he, who ended every day with his clothes covered in his own chalky handwriting, was not impressed.

I’ve thought about that interaction a lot over the past few months. As details have leaked out about the proposed Congressional budget that cut funding from Meals on Wheels, from school lunch programs, from the Environmental Protection Agency; in the last-minute scramble to secure the passage of the now-or–at-least-temporarily-dead AHCA, as Republicans dropped requirements that health insurance cover care received at an emergency room, or pre-natal exams, or new baby care, but added a requirement that new mothers would lose their Medicaid if they hadn’t gotten a job within eight weeks of delivery.

I thought of it earlier this week as Paul Ryan, undoubtedly nursing his wounds from his incredible failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, proudly announced a repeal of another Obama’s rule which had protected hibernating and baby animals from hunters.

I’ve thought of it so often over these past few months as I’ve tried, very seriously, to understand what the fuck is wrong with these people?

Because their proposals, as astoundingly cruel as they are, are also utterly artless. Not only are they as blatant as a shitty little eighth-grader seizing an opportunity to say Fucker in History class, they are just as pointless. There is no goal in the plans they have revealed; you can not look at any of their recent actions and say “Oh, yes, now I understand what these people want.” Instead, it seems as though the only guiding principle at the moment is identifying an opportunity to act like an asshole, and then rushing in to do just that.

More than anything, though, in this moment, I admire the authority of Mr. Gray. Suddenly, as the country has been over-run by inimical eighth-graders, who believe themselves clever even while being too self-satisfied to see that no one is impressed by them, Mr. Gray has become the hero we need. Not letting bullshit pass, when it would be easy to do so, particularly after years of the same bullshit being flung your way. Recognizing your moral duty to be a leader, and stepping in to support those with the difficult job of sharing information that, due to its nature, might be easily dismissed or mocked by morons. Curtailing xenophobia and providing a lesson in recognizing that similar sounding words can mean different things in different languages (false cognates, these words are called, if you’re interested.) Persisting, yes, in the face of an unchanging tide of ill-informed students rolling into his class every year. Most importantly of all, understanding the importance of history, the details that matter, and how they continue to impact us today.

And so, among the many people who have risen to the challenge of inspiring others to act – for decency, for equality, and, yes, for freedom – for me, Mr. Gray stands tall and deserves to be recognized for his sterling efforts. Inanity is exhausting, but, even when the stakes were low, he never let the bastards grind him down. I hope, in the months ahead, I will do him proud.

(I know, you’re probably thinking “What the hell is this?” Well, for a variety of uninteresting reasons I found myself thinking about a certain cartoonish, megalomaniacal, tonsorially-challenged redhead, and I wondered what thoughts Lex Luthor might have on the subject. Spoiler alert: he is not a fan.)

Lex Luthor put down the newspaper and wrapped both hands around his mug. Eyes closed, he let out a sigh, knowing that such an action was pointless. And it was. Nothing had changed when he opened his eyes; he sighed again.

Look at him, this buffoon! Like everyone in Metropolish, Lex had been confronted with this angry image for months, heard his nattering through all manner of devices. Evin if you didn’t want to listen to him, he was obsessively replayed by every media outlet, eager to catalog the day’s gaffes and offenses.

Lex had grown tired of him. Not right away – at first, he thought they could be allies. Believing his goals, his inevitable dominance could only be bolstered by this self-proclaimed Captain of Industry. Believing he’d found another leader like himself, a man led by vision, whose wealth was no more than a by-product of achieving their goals. Yes, together they would do great things – so Lex thought.

Yet how quickly this huckster revealed himself! Of course, the truth had been there all along; Lex was angry that he too had taken so long to see past the bluster. But what had initially passed for similarities were quickly exposed as mere trapping. The finely tailored suits they both wore, that were so fitted to Lex it as though they were drawn on him, looked cheap despite their probable cost, hanging awkward and unflattering on his puffy frame. The keen business mind was nothing of the sort, just shouts of success where everyone could plainly see failure. Worse, what meager success he had achieved was not his own, but just his name hastily plastered over someone else’s work.

Maybe some of his own inventions hadn’t succeeded in the way he’d hoped, but he, Lex, was the chief innovator at Luthorcorp! His scientists and engineers carried out his vision, as they should have; he didn’t need to take credit for someone else’s work.

But the hair – that had mislead him. Lex knew, always, that it wasn’t good. He didn’t admire it, but he was jealous. If not for that long ago incident in the lab, Lex would still have his own red hair. Although, he surely would have allowed his own to thin with dignity, if it must – Nature acted without malice. Unlike Superboy.

So many times Lex had thought back to that day – he’d never believed Superboy’s claims that it had been an accident – and what his life would have been like if not for the Kryptonian’s carelessness. All the praise heaped on Superman would fall on him. He would be embraced by a loving public. He’d enjoy a better reputation in the press, that was for sure; Clark Kent would be his mouthpiece too, not just Superman’s, and would never have reason to launch his relentless, and strangely personal, campaign against Lex and Luthorcorps.

For years Lex had believed this, but now, suddenly, another possibility presented itself. Without Superman to strive against, might he, Lex, have become no better than this ridiculous tycoon who was all over the news for months? Without the very real threat posed by the son of Krypton (why was he the only one to see it?) could Lex have turned into this fearful tyrant? Lex shuddered at the thought of himself rambling on about a wall. Mere humans posing a threat? Bah! No, the only alien who should be illegal in Metropolis was Superman.

Fate had brought Superboy to his lab on that day, to provide the adversary Lex deserved; he understood that now. His path in life was always to protect the people of Metropolis; for years, that had meant from Superman, but now, here, there was a more immediate threat. And not just to the people he loved – because Lex did indeed love the people of Metropolis; why else would he fight so hard for them? – but to himself. His own wealth would be protected under such a Miser-in-Chief, of course, but the celebration of ignorance this man was whipping into a frenzy; well, it would turn people against scientists like Lex and their innovations faster than Superman ever could.

He needed to be stopped, that was clear. But how? It was too late to run himself; besides, having already been president, he was probably ineligible to run again. He could surely, between now and the election, develop something to tally the votes however he saw fit. But Lex didn’t want there to be any whiff of impropriety, nothing that might support the delusions and paranoia that, incredibly, only seemed to feed the mania swirling around this man like flies on a corpse.

No, what he needed was for everyone to see what Lex saw, for him to be so exposed that even those who’d cravenly offered their support, tepidly claiming this was the best of a bad situation, would have to say No – no, we can do better than this. It needed to happen before the election, so he would never get the votes in the first place. And Lex knew, all to well, there was one surefire way to get everyone – everyone – on Earth to turn against a business man. He picked up his phone and made a call.

“Hello, Daily Planet? Put me through to Clark Kent. I need him to deliver a message to Superman – I have a proposition for him.”

Despite the many reports extolling their safety, I must admit that my concerns about self-driving cars are not in any way safety-based. I mean, developers and engineers can trot out all the stats they want to demonstrate that their algorithms will make better safety decisions than people; I have no reason at all to doubt them, other than that they’re attempting to sell a product and their entire pitch for said product is that I make poor decisions. Certainly nothing there to rub anyone the wrong way.

Hurt pride aside (also the name of my new band, covering break-up songs from the ’90s), there are bigger issues than safety that have to be addressed here. Yes, I have concerns about the other drivers on the road, particularly the folks who apparently don’t think a snow storm and reduced visibility are any reason to slow down; but I would wager that safety isn’t a real compelling issue for them either.

And that, I think, is where the self-driving car misses the point. Consider, for a moment, the Latin name for the car: the automobile. Auto, you no doubt recall, is a fancy way of saying self, and a reminder that the very purpose of the car is to be self-driven. Except that, in the original, the self is a human. The automobile has been such a whopping success – detrimental though it’s been to the environment and the well-being of small animals and often pedestrians of varying sizes; another sure sign that safety is not nearly as meaningful as the folks at Google seem to think – not just because it takes less effort than walking, or because it is eminently more practical than owning a horse, not to mention less gruesome when the time comes to take one out of commission; but because it puts the person front and center. Or, more accurately, slightly to the left.

Either way, no longer are we reduced to being merely the captain of our fate.. Even a simple trip to the grocery store, we get to be the captain of an actual ship (well, ship-ish), and even if we don’t have the vast expanse of space or the ocean before us, we are still the ones to lay in a course and we are the ones to make it so.

And that, I think, is the crux of the underwhelming response that has greeted the self-driving car; it’s not just that we are prone to ignore any threat that isn’t imminent; it’s that we object to the diminution that comes from the redefining of self.

Because the biggest question that I have, when I imagine the self-driving car, is: what am I supposed to do with that time? Do I just sit there like some schmuck staring at my phone while the car makes all the decisions? Maybe it’s my public transportative roots coming through, but if I’m not actually driving I expect there to be other people around, giving me someone to look at, people to ponder or have some kind of interaction with; something that makes it seem like I am active participant in this endeavor.

In a way, I have those interactions as a driver, too. I nod along with the other drivers when they decide to pass me (because, it bears repeating, I’m not going to go any faster no matter how close you get); I graciously allow other people merge on the highway; and I feel grateful when they let me change lanes. And sure, I get frustrated when they don’t. But all of that gets wiped away if the cars are the ones yielding the right of way, simply because it makes the most sense to do so.

What I imagine with the self-driving car is a sterile bubble of isolation. Is that accurate? Maybe not. But that’s what the people behind the self-driving car have to address. People don’t purchase cars to be passengers. If the self-driving car is to be successful, it has to present some sort of active value to the actually self-aware entity it is designed to transport. Like the moving sidewalk or escalator, that still allow people to be mobile, if they choose, just much faster. Because otherwise, it’s just people sitting, by themselves, in a weird little pod. It may be safer than the automobile, but it’s also sadder.

First, a bit of news: I recently discovered an NPR station that stays tuned in on my car radio the entire length of my commute, rather than switches over to country music 1/3 of the way to work. Which, as far as novelties go, was exceptionally short-lived. But, the point is, now that I can spend an entire car ride pretending I have people to talk with, I may have less to say on the subject of whatever good or terrible song I have just heard for the first time. I know you’re sad, but at least I leave you with this discussion of Shut Up and Dance, by the band Walk the Moon, which holds the distinction of there being no other song that makes me change the radio station faster. 

Which,  honestly, makes it hard to know how to start talking about this song and my deep feelings on it, since I’m really only familiar with about 17 seconds of it. But those 17 seconds stick with me, because the song raises a conundrum which I then spend several minutes considering, and that conundrum is whether the song is incredibly cynical, or am the cynical one for thinking this is the most cynical song I’ve every heard?

It seems like the easy answer is me, that I’m the cynic, since, on the face of it, Shut Up and Dance is nothing but an upbeat bit of fluff exhorting the audience to dance, albeit quite impolitely. It is instantly sing-along-able and has a retro vibe beyond the sample of Where the Streets Have No Name that opens the song.

But then that sample starts to trouble me. Not because of anything I have against sampling, but I think that to count as sampling, you have to alter the original in some way, use it in a different context or in some other way be unexpected. Like when Naughty By Nature sampled the Jackson Five for O.P.P, taking the hook from a schoolboy’s crush and reapplying it to the homies who betray both their bros and their hos by indulging in the titular,uh, property, that belongs to other people. Shut Up and Dance, on the other hand, doesn’t do anything with U2’s guitar chords other than just, you know, play them as they lay.

This is what makes me believe it’s the song that’s cynical, rather than me. Because I’ve never in my live heard a song more clearly designed to be a big hit song than this one. And I say “designed” because I don’t believe this was written by actual human beings, but instead is the result of an advanced algorithm designed by an away team  of undercover aliens this close to mastering our human ways.

As a very lazy person, I do respect that strategy. It’s hard to write a big hit song; U2 did it in 1987, so why reinvent the wheel? We all know that U2 approves of recycling, so if they’re cool with it, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be, too. On the other hand, if Walk the Moon isn’t going to bring any of itself to this endeavour, there’s no reason I shouldn’t just listen to the U2 song.

 

Of course, the U2 chords fade, to be replaced by generic ’80s guitar and synth, uh, things (you guys: I don’t know about music), as the focus shifts to the songs lyrics. Which isn’t an improvement, because I don’t understand at all what is the story this song is telling. 

The first verse goes as such:

Oh don’t you dare look back
Just keep your eyes on me
I said you’re holding back
She said shut up and dance with me
This woman is my destiny
She said oh oh oh
Shut up and dance with me

When did these two meet? I’m given the impression that they’re relationship starts with the song does- and, indeed, Google reports that in a subsequent verse the gentleman describes their relationship as “chemical physical kryptonite,” which is illusively evocative and entirely nonsensical but also gives a degree of urgency usually associated with the beginnings of things- which makes his “You’re holding back,” to be more than a little presumptuous. Yes, of course she’s holding back; that’s what people do with strangers, until they get to know them better. It’s probably supposed to be romantic, and maybe if I listened to the whole song I might end up rooting for this couple, but being familiar with only this one verse, I have to say it comes across as a little bit rapey.

Also, for a song so reliant on ’80s tropes, they missed a major opportunity in not having that woman be his density; that’s a song I probably could have gotten behind.

Finally, let’s talk about the band name for a second: Walk the Moon. I understand there are no official rules to naming a band, and thus no requirement that the name make sense. But I think we can all agree that, if a band name is going to nothing more than  string of random words, it shouldn’t include any verbs. Neutral Milk Hotel? Sure – sounds like a strange place to stay, but I’m along for the ride. Walk the Moon? No – fuck off and don’t tell me what to do.

That’s a lot of words to spill on a song that seems destined for the dust bins of history. I’d probably have more to say if I could listen to the whole song, but instead, let’s end with a nice list of 5 one-hit wonders I’d rather listen to than this hear this nonsense ever again:

  1. Mmmbop, by Hanson – I legitimately like this song. It seems peppy, but it’s actually a surprisingly dark discussion of aging. It’s not Death in Venice, certainly, but for a pop song by a bunch of teens, it’s unusual.
  2. Tubthumper, by Chumbawumba – now here is a song clearly written to achieve massive popularity, and nothing more. But, the almost angelic voice of the woman singing “Pissing the night away,” is a clever note. I’d hang out and chat with these guys for a little while.
  3. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, by Deep Blue Something – I feel bad for Deep Blue Something, because I am sure some record executive somewhere promised them they’d be the next Hootie and the Blowfish, but apparently none of them had the charisma of Darius Rucker even if I really like a redhead. As for their name, well, the ’90s was an experimental time in overt apathy, so I grade them on a curve. But, all that said, I’m okay with this song. I wouldn’t buy an album, but I’m pretty sure I have a perfectly legal download of the single.
  4. Inside Out, by Eve 6- Most likely the only reason this song is on the list is because I just found out the band’s name was inspired by the X-Files episode “Eve”, and I like the X-Files enough not to watch the reboot. This is a perfectly serviceable if unmemorable song. Oh, and look at that – another redhead!
  5. Come on Eileen, by Dexy’s Midnight Runners – This is maybe the granddaddy of one-hit wonders from the ’80s, and overall I have to say that after three decades I’m actually quite tired of it. But I feel like DMR is a great example of being born in the wrong time, and that with the current popularity of bluegrass and folk music, they might have had a shot at sustained popularity if they were coming up now. So I feel a little bad for them. I also feel like they’re ripe for a comic book adaptation about Dexy’s Midnight Runners, a courier service that handles the most urgent overnight deliveries, and the interesting and/or sinister characters they meet on the job. As long as it didn’t get too, like, super-hero-y, I would read that.

 

Although I had some grand plans for my first paid vacation in 2 years, I spent the majority of my week and a half vacation wearing pajamas, enjoying the luxuriously soft new sheets I received as a holiday gift, and watching an absurd amount of television on my laptop while Oola Belle slept on my legs. And while I am happy to watch an endless marathon of just about any procedural on USA, I was intrigued by all the passionate reviews of Netflix’s new series Making a Murderer, particularly the favorable comparisons to Serial, whose own second season just returned only to immediately and frustratingly take a holiday hiatus, as well as The Jinx, which I actually didn’t watch but enjoyed reading about. And so, on Sunday, when no other investigative shows seemed to be streaming, I decided to check it.

I did not love it. Not for the reasons that I’d read, because of a justice system that is grossly incompetent at best and deliberately obfuscating the truth at worst, and an innocent man railroaded by a corrupt system, although there was some of that at the outset. But the longer I watched, something nagged at me; it seemed small, almost trivial at first. And then Steven Avery – wrongly accused man who tragically spent 18 years of his life in prison – said he’d been arrested for setting a cat on fire, and I realized the problem is two-fold.

First, I don’t like Steven Avery. While others might find his circumstances to be extenuating, I am comfortable with my unwavering and inflexible belief that, like the waiter rule, an otherwise good person who is cruel to animals is not actually a good person. Steven Avery set a cat on fire, and that is his defining trait as a human being as far as I’m concerned.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t think he deserves to be treated fairly by the justice system. That I think he’s garbage for killing an animal doesn’t mean he should have served nearly 2 decades for a horrific crime he had absolutely no part in. Further I thought the show – in the form of one of Steven’s attorney’s – made an excellent point in that much of the reason Steven was in jail for so long is because of a justice system not constructed to investigate its own shortcomings; it is not designed to admit that it has made a mistake.

But what the show doesn’t do, and this is problem the second, is that it doesn’t question Steven’s explanation about what happened with the cat: that he and several friends were playing catch with the cat near a fire, and it unfortunately got burned. Which, even if this is true – and there is ample evidence that it’s not, that Steven very deliberately set a cat on fire and let it burn to death – is not reasonable or excusable behavior. But the show doesn’t question Steven’s explanation. They don’t investigate the contradictory evidence. They let his story pass, uncontested.

The show takes a similarly interesting approach to another of Steven’s prior arrests, mentioned in that first episode, that he ran a woman off the road and pointed a shotgun at her. This was part of an ongoing feud between Steven and his neighbor, who was also a relative, as well as dating a member of the local law enforcement. And while much is made of the fact that Steven had a feud with someone involved with a member of the law enforcement, much less is made of the fact that he ran a woman off the road and pointed a shotgun at her.

In fact, one lawyer while questioning the woman about the incident asks if she had started a rumor about Steven having sex with his (Steven’s) wife on their front lawn. Although it’s not stated outright, it seems to me very heavily to imply that Steven’s violent behavior was somewhat understandable; that perhaps in this case, turnabout was fair play.

And this is what I objected to in the 1.5 episodes that I watched: Steven Avery was unjustly incarcerated, but that doesn’t mean he’s never committed a crime. He has, and serious ones at that. These crimes certainly don’t justify him spending 18 years in prison for something he didn’t do. But, the other side of that coin is that, just because he spent 18 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit doesn’t automatically mean he couldn’t possibly also have killed someone. The effort to portray his as an innocent, simple man in my mind betrays the very serious bias of the makers of this project.

I would like to know what happened to Theresa Halbach. But Making a Murderer is not an investigation into the murder of Theresa Halbach. It is not an unbiased presentation of evidence, but someone else’s interpretation of events. Clearly, the filmmakers believe in Avery’s innocence, and judging by the reviews online, the make a compelling case. But they are ignoring key pieces of evidence that don’t support their theory of the crime(s). They’ve presented a plausible alternate theory by going after an easy target in the prosecution that so seriously botched their investigation of the first crime. But there are holes in their own case, too, just as there are holes in the prosecution’s. I can’t overlook them. And their efforts to wave their hands and make them go away just make me not trust them.

I will repeat that I would like to know what happened to Theresa Halbach. It seems unlikely at this late date, with both sides so deeply entrenched in their own stance, that there will ever be a judgement that is accepted as definitive proof. And the real shame of this case (which I must admit I read elsewhere online, although I read so many different articles I can not give proper credit) is that Ms. Halbach has become a footnote in her own story. She, like Steven Avery, deserves justice.

 

 


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