Saturday, January 16, 2016

A bit more on the meaning of life...

I wrote a short story once in which everyone gets to ask God one question after they die, and if you ask a particularly good question, you get a second one.

So like Sally, here,

 it's important to frame your question appropriately.

PS:  Sometimes stop and consider just how similar your conception of God is to that of a genie or other fairy-tale magician.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Things You Probably Don't Have To Think About, But We Do, 2:

Today's installment: "How to stay up an entire night."

Mr F woke up at midnight.  Sweetie and I trade nights being responsible for getting the boys to bed (sitting in their room until Mr F falls asleep) and then taking care of them if they wake up and can't get back to sleep.

Mr F never gets back to sleep.

Up until tonight, Sweetie was on a terrible run of nights: going back to before Xmas, she had (1) the night Mr F had the flu (2) the night Mr Bunches had the flu (3) the night Mr F got up at 1:30 a.m., (4) the night Mr F got up at 4:30 a.m., and (5) the night he didn't fall asleep until 1:30 a.m. and then (6) the night he got up at 2 a.m.

Tonight was my night.

He woke up, as I said, at midnight. Here's how we spent the night (blogged live at the time!):

12-12:30 a.m. Mr F played the piano; he plays the same three notes with his left hand, and mixes up the right hand, sometimes for hours. We're used to it. Sometimes he changes the tempo of the song, like if he's angry the song gets louder and faster.

Meanwhile, I read some news articles.

12:30-1:05 a.m. When Mr F laid down on the couch, I suggested we go up to bed. He responded by going to get his safety harness for use in the car -- which means he wants to go for a ride.

So we went for a ride. We did his usual route, around through the rich mall and the office complex area and then downtown.  I listened to my audiobook.

When we got back from the ride, Mr F insisted on going down to the big flowerpot at the end of the driveway. He likes to touch the snow in it. We walked down there. It was 33 degrees out, cold and dark. It's different being outside at 1 a.m. The dark feels a little more ominous. We sometimes take walks at night -- 7 or 8 or 9. I don't think I'd take a walk at 1 a.m. I thought about that for a while, wondering why it felt that way. I decided: It's because anyone you meet at 1 a.m. walking around isn't likely to be a nice guy. Unless it's me and Mr F, touching the snow in the flowerpot, of course.

1:05 a.m. - 1:45 a.m.  Mr F watched The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh on TV. I read some random articles on Wikipedia -- I kept hitting the "random" button and got 7 articles about moths or butterflies in just 15 tries, which is probably a record.

1:45 a.m. - 2:30 a.m. Mr F played piano again. I ate an "Uncrustable" and had a glass of milk, and began watching Episode 1 of The Magicians.

2:30 a.m. - 2:46 a.m. Mr F is back on the couch. I am on the reclining chair. He's watching Kronk's New Groove. Almost done with The Magicians. Also I had to unclog the toilet after Mr F used it.  This time, at least, it unclogged. Once, he flushed a stick of deodorant.

2:47 a.m.: Mr F just got upset. He sat up and started hitting himself in the head and has now gone to play the piano. I bet we're going to go for another ride.

2:50 a.m. Yep. Ride City.

3:19 a.m. We're back. Mr F is playing the piano again. We saw a raccoon on the ride, right in the middle of the road. I stopped so Mr F could see it. It took off running after a moment.  I made a note about some stuff I have to do in the morning. I thought up a theory that Star Wars is all just a big Mary Sue fan fiction for George Lucas, based on two pieces of evidence: (1) Lucas said in an interview that the story arose out of his own conflict with his dad over whether Lucas would take over the family office supply store and (2) "Luke" is sometimes short for "Lucas."

It's a work in progress.

3:23 a.m. Mr F's back on the couch, watching Little Einsteins. This one has something to do with a sentient tulip. No, that's not sleep deprivation. It really is about that.

4:00 a.m. I've been watching The Flash. Mr F is giggling to himself on the couch.

4:21 a.m. Mr F is back at the piano. I'm watching The Daily Show.

4:42 a.m. He's back on the couch, complaining loudly. I'm watching Modern Family and wondering if I should make some coffee.

4:51 a.m. Mr F is getting upset. I gave him some medicine in case he has a headache. He's crying. We can never tell if he's sick or has a headache of just feeling anxious. He brought me his safety harness again. Ride time.

5:21 a.m.  We're back. My eyes are bleary from the lack of sleep and I had to keep my window open to keep from nodding off while I drove. I tried listening to my book more but I couldn't follow the plot right now so I put on the radio instead. Mr F is back at the piano; he's changed it up now. It's mostly a bunch of very low bass notes, played staccato.  I've put on a cup of coffee. In 39 minutes we'll have to get Mr Bunches and Sweetie up to start the day.  I'm going to play some Plants vs. Zombies 2 to see if that can clear my head.

5:24 a.m. Mr F brought me his safety harness again. I told him he had to wait until the coffee was brewed at least. I'm getting the angry song on the piano.

5:34 a.m.  The coffee's done. Mr Bunches woke up. "Dad, it's morning!" he said.  We're going on our final ride.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker makes it extra-super-duper illegal to defraud the state (but won't investigate the crony who spurred the change.)

Wisconsin, which prior to today had only two laws making it a serious crime to defraud the government, has taken a big step towards pretending it still has a clean government by threatening to make  it extra-super-duper illegal to defraud the government.

The Wisconsin legislature, up until now primarily devoted to passing bills designed entirely to protect big-government donors, like this one rewarding an auto dealer for donating $10,000 to a legislator, or this one which was designed to help a wealthy donor avoid paying child support,  has decided to make a token stab at play-acting that Wisconsin's progressive traditions still exist, by acting on a bill that would make it even more illegal than it already is to commit fraud against the government.

Failed presidential "candidate" Scott Walker, who only avoided prosecution on corruption charges because a court packed with "judges" elected  by the same big-business donors who backed Walker killed the investigation, expressed support for the bill:

Whoever gives fraudulent information to the state should be prosecuted, Walker said, forgetting that a major donor to his campaign was the impetus for the bill; the donor received a $500,000 "loan" that he never repaid after lying on his application and meeting with Walker aides -- one of whom pressured the Wisconsin Economic Development Commission (WEDC) to make the loan.

The WEDC, some people might recall, was created by Walker to replace the former Department of Commerce, and was staffed by people Walker appointed to it. Walker was likely distracted from supervising the Commission by his efforts to get people to donate money to his criminal defense fund.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Do things happen for a reason? Another perspective.

My last post was a lengthy meditation on whether everything happens for a reason.

I read this this morning, from Poorly Drawn Lines:

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Book 4 of 100: LIfe, the universe, and everything... and people, too.

A while back, I re-read Catch-22, which is probably my favorite book ever, and I was surprised at how different the book seemed to me, at 40, than it had in earlier years when I'd read it.

I think there's some value to going back and re-reading things, especially if the book meant something to you -- and to me a book meant something to you if you can remember it years later, if you find yourself thinking about it here and there, telling people about it years after you read it. What a book means to you, though, can be entirely different things at different times. Unlike songs, for example, books are long and complex and take time to read, and so we experience them differently than almost any other kind of culture or entertainment. Almost everything we take in, we do quickly, in bursts. Movies last an hour or two, songs last 3 or 4 minutes, pictures are looked at for a second, maybe two. We walk through zoos in a few hours. Museums, too.

But books last days, weeks, sometime, and so we absorb them differently, make them a part of us. But because they're so long and involved, we don't remember -- or at least I don't remember-- all the details. Upon re-reading a book I find myself surprised sometimes at things I didn't recall, and this helps reshape my view of the book, just as my being older and at a different place in my life than the first time or last time I read the book.

I started re-reading A Prayer For Owen Meany last year, actually, just after Thanksgiving. I'm not sure what made me want to read it again. I was driving home one day from a court hearing and I thought I should read Owen Meany again, and when I got home I took it off my bookshelf and started reading it.  It's one of the books I've decided to own in hardcover format, a book I want to keep around to look at and think about. It's a book that I find myself coming back to again and again, this most recent time just prior to Xmas last year.

A Prayer For Owen Meany is the story of Owen Meany, an undersized kid in a small New England town with an exceedingly strange voice. It's the kind of voice I suppose can only work in a book, because the description of the voice is so wild. Owen's voice is described as a kind of permanent scream, a voice that eventually is the only thing the narrator's grandmother remembers.  John Irving, the author, notes frequently how unusual Owen's voice is, and has Owen talk, always, in ALL CAPITALS. All Owen's DIALOGUE IS DONE LIKE THIS; so, too IS HIS WRITING.

That's actually the least unusual thing about Owen. He is extremely small -- so small that he can hide in the couch under the cushion, get lost in a closet. He is a hoarder, almost, habitually collecting things like baseball cards and a stuffed armadillo's paws, and a dressmaker's dummy. He is obsessed with practicing to slam-dunk a basketball despite his diminutive size. And he believes that he was born, like Jesus, to a virgin and that he is an instrument in God's hands, destined to do something. He doesn't know exactly what he will do -- but he knows he will die doing it, and he knows the date, too.

Owen is accompanied through his life by the narrator, Johnny Wheelwright, who tells the story from the 1980s -- he and Owen grew up in the 50s and 60s, turning 18 about as Vietnam hit its height. Other characters follow along: Johnny's stepfather and grandmother, his wild cousins including Hester, who eventually becomes Owen's girlfriend -- of sorts-- a cast of memorable backup characters of the usual sort expected in an Irving novel, and Johnny's mother -- who appears in the book only briefly before she is killed by Owen in an accident at a baseball field.

It's that accident that really sets the book's theme in motion. A Prayer For Owen Meany is a thoughtful narrative about whether everything happens for a reason, what God means to do with us, and whether there is a God at all.  It is a rumination on faith and doubt, an exegesis of love and faith and humility and identity.  There are numerous plots running through the book, each of them presenting varying aspects of these questions: Johnny's father is unknown to him, and he and Owen spend time trying to figure out who Johnny's mother slept with to produce him. Owen's mission, of course, is unknown. Why Johnny is in Canada - when he didn't have to dodge the draft-- and what happened to the baseball that killed his mother: these are all mysteries that circle around the central mystery of why we do what we do, and whether we have any choice in it.

At the beginning of the book, we are told of Watahantowet, an Indian chief whose totem has no arms-- a symbol of the helplessness the chief felt after his land was taken.  Shortly thereafter, Owen and Johnny are in a little league baseball game, and Owen gets subbed in for Johnny, when there are two outs in the 9th inning. Owen is told to "swing away," mostly because the coach is tired and everyone wants to go home. Owen, who rarely makes contact anyway, does so, and drives the ball into Johnny's mom's head, killing her instantly as she stood on the third-base line waving to someone.

That begins the exploration of whether we are all tools of fate or in control of our destiny. Johnny introduces us early on to Owen as the instrument of his mother's death, but doesn't blame Owen. Instead, Johnny -- to the extent that he blames anyone -- blames the coach for putting him in, or the other boys for not striking out. Johnny doesn't really get angry, though. He misses his mom, but there is no real mention of much sadness or despair or anger.  The whole thing just seemed to happen, and Johnny -- who, we learn, has little in the way of religious faith or belief -- views it as an occurrence, nothing to be angry around or sad about.

If Johnny is hapless, in a way, and meanders through his life having things happen to him, Owen is just the opposite: Owen takes charge of everything, or everything that he can. When young, Owen is lifted by his classmates, passed around over their head. He tries to get them to put him down, but they won't. Later, Owen is swimming in the quarry, where their parents make them tie a rope around their waists so they don't drown.  Owen unties the rope and lets it go limp, and none of the other kids dive in to save him. Eventually he surfaces, and remonstrates them: "YOU LET ME DROWN," he tells them. "REMEMBER THAT: YOU LET ME DIE." Owen is obsessed with controlling his life: he orchestrates a Christmas pageant, talks his way into a production of a play, rearranges school rules at the boarding school he attends, directs his parents and friends and family in all manner of ways. His control is evident: eventually people do what he tells them to do. Johnny spends some time describing his wild cousins Noah and Simon and Hester, who terrify and exhilarate him.  When Owen first meets them, they startle him so much that he wets his pants. He flees in humiliation, but, talked back into the group, Owen takes charge and begins telling them what games to play and how to play them.

Owen's only frustration is when he runs into things he can't control: he butts heads with a new headmaster at the school, one who causes him no end of trouble. And when he joins the Army, he can't convince his officers to send him to Vietnam, which is where he is convinced he has to go.

This last one reveals Owen's own doubts: from early on, Owen is convinced a dream of his has shown him how he will die, and he believes he knows the date.  When Vietnam starts, Owen joins ROTC to become an officer and get to Vietnam, believing he has to fulfill the dream and die there. But even as he is going to great lengths to do this, it's not clear whether he actually intended this, and whether he's really trying to fulfill the dream: he only ends up in ROTC because of what appears to be a screw-up on his part that causes him to lose scholarships to Harvard and other elite schools, and then he takes steps to try to ensure that the dream won't come true.

Meanwhile, Johnny stops drifting so much and with Owen's tutelage becomes more focused and a better learner; he will never become quite as driven as Owen, but he learns to believe and that helps direct his life.

Owen and Johnny are almost opposites in that regard: Owen knows and controls almost everything in his life, only to eventually try (halfheartedly, maybe) to avoid his fate. Johnny controls nothing; he is bounced around and goes wherever others want him to go, having no real attachments -- but as he comes to believe more he gains more direction.

In the meantime, the question still looms over the book: are we even able to control our own fates? A Prayer For Owen Meany is of the everything-happens-for-a-reason types of stories, like M. Night Shymalan's Signs, among others, where by the end of the book everything almost appears to have been clockwork, and each step of the journey seems to have been necessary to make the next steps happen.

Two problems are argued with that, though, and the second one is the larger. The first problem is that people appear to be able to change their fate in the book, although usually that results in some bad outcome: people who avoid the draft die smashing cars into bridges, for example. Johnny changes his fate (with Owen's help), but even that ends up with Johnny tormented by his memories.

The second problem, as I said, is larger, and more disturbing: in the end, it's not clear that this was all worth it. To get from point A -- Owen killing Johnny's mom -- to point B -- Owen's dream -- so much has to happen, and when it does (as Johnny warns us) the ending is almost anticlimactic.

That's not to say the ending isn't incredible. This book is one of two books, ever, that brought tears to my eyes. [The other is David Copperfield]. But in the grand scheme of things, the ending means nothing -- at least on a large scale.

I think all the time about whether things happen for a reason, whether and how much we can control our fate. I look back on events and try to see if there is a pattern to them, or if it's random chance. I met Sweetie, for example, through this chain of events: I had a temporary job at the Department of Revenue as a clerk. That job lasted only six months, and near the end of it I was in need of another job somewhere else. I saw an ad for the only job that had a clerk position starting right away. It was a law firm 50 miles away, in Baraboo. I applied, and was one of only two clerks who did so. I got the job, and met Sweetie, who worked there.

But I'd only ended up in Madison, and in that job, through this turn of events: I was accepted into four law schools. Madison was the only one I could afford, after I didn't get enough grants and scholarships to go to Marquette in Milwaukee, where I lived when I applied. My first weeks in law school, I met a guy named Jeff. Jeff and I were talking one day in the lounge when a classmate came over. Jeff saw me talking to her, thought she was pretty, and asked me questions about her. Jeff then offered me a position in the governor's office, where he worked. That job lasted a semester. At the end of the semester, I had no job -- but my connections at the governor's office led me to the temp position at Revenue.

So if I'd gotten a scholarship, none of that would have happened.

Does that mean that the scholarship, all of that, happened for a reason? Or was it an accident?

If everything happens for a reason, there is a purpose to bad events; they must be necessary to move the cogs of the universe forward. But if everything happens for a reason, then we don't have free will. We are instruments of fate, armless totems powerless to affect our lives in any meaningful way.

I think one of the reasons I might have wanted to re-read Owen Meany late last year and early this year was because of the changes in my life over the past year, which have been many.  I see the world far, far differently now than I did a year ago, or two years ago.  I have different views of many things that have happened, and see events that took place in the past differently than I did when they first happened. I can see where I made mistakes -- and where I happened into good luck.

Is saying things happen for a reason a way of comforting ourselves? When someone wins a billion dollars in the lottery, do we console ourselves with mechanisms of fate, just as we do when someone dies or we lose a job? We, as people, have a tendency to impose patterns on things. We see faces in random patterns, we find meaning in a list of songs, we try to make sense of what might be, at the bottom, a random universe whose current configuration was not set into action by a first mover, as St. Thomas Aquinas believed, but simply ended up in this pattern with no more meaning than reading tea leaves or discerning the configuration of an I ching.

There is a song that gives me the chills, when I listen to it. It's called At The Bottom Of Everything, by Bright Eyes.

It, too, deals with these types of questions. The line that haunts me and makes me feel happy and sad at the same time is near the end:

I'm happy just because/I found out I am really no-one.

It's a strange thing to be happy about. When I was a kid, my mom told me one day I would be a president, a doctor, all manner of important things.  I became a lawyer, which seemed to disappoint her a bit. I live a quiet life. I keep to myself and spend time with my family, doing quiet things like reading and writing.

I have helped a lot of people; I spend my days keeping people in their houses, suing lawyers who mess up cases, protecting people from harassment by debt collectors. I have seen people cry with gratitude because they don't have to leave their house, lose their farm.

But I'm just a small cog in a giant universe.  I'm 47, now. I'm not going to be the President. I'm not going to quarterback the Buffalo Bills to the Super Bowl. I won't become an oceanographer or a doctor.

The burden of expectations is a great one, indeed. It can be better to be no-one than to be someone, in that sense: superheroes don't sleep through the night. If you are really no-one, then you don't have to change the world.  If you are really no-one, though, then maybe everything doesn't happen for a reason. Maybe there is not a benevolent God out there making kicks go through the uprights, curing cancer, causing earthquakes for some reason. Maybe it's just random.

We don't know. We may never know.  These questions can haunt you. Should you be making more of your life? Did God, if he exists, have a plan for you, and if he does, can you avoid it if you want? What does it all mean?

A Prayer For Owen Meany answers this question, the question of what it all means, without solving those riddles. It ends up with this: the important things are the people we've loved, who make up the lives we lived.  In the end of the book, the lasting lesson is that everyone wants Owen back. They can't believe he's gone, can't believe he left them and that he wanted to, that he would willingly try to fulfill the dream. Even though the fulfillment did good -- it's such a minor, minor thing, it was really no-one, but it was definitely a good thing-- even though the dream was good, Owen's friends want him back. They could only have him back if he didn't fulfill the dream, if that tiny bit of good he did were undone and Owen returned to them, but they don't care: Owen's leaving has led them to many answers and realizations, but the main one is that they don't care about all the meaning and answers. They care about Owen, and the others they've lost on the way.

There's a good lesson to be learned. I didn't read the book as fast as I could, because often, I would put it down to take the boys sledding, to watch a movie with Sweetie, to talk to the older kids, to go to work and try to save someone's home. It was in my idle hours, alone, late at night and early in the morning, that I thought of these things and read the book. I'm writing this now, at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday night, while everyone else in the house is asleep. I had to do it now -- I worked all day and then ate dinner with Sweetie and we took a ride and I played with Mr Bunches and took Mr F for his nightly ride alone, and all of those things were more important than these questions about the universe, about God, about meaning.

If we spend less time wondering what it all means, and more time just doing it all, we'd probably have better lives. There's a prayer I used to say from time to time. I learned it from a book. It's short and easy to remember. It goes like this:

Thank you, God, for this good life.
And forgive me if I do not love it enough.

If are really no-one, if we are just here to live, and be kind, and enjoy the company of others around us, if that is the only role we play in life, it's a pretty good one.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Book 3 of 100: The First Bad Man is a hard book to talk about -- but that's a good thing.

The First Bad Man is a hard book to know how to talk about. It's so unusual. The setup is simple enough: a lonely(ish) woman with some quirks that probably go beyond quirky and into disorder has her boss' daughter come stay with her, and the daughter then gets pregnant.  But the book is so much more than that. It just keep surprising, finding new twists and nooks and crannies of the story to dig into. It's a fascinating book that I doubt I'll ever forget.

The main character is Cheryl Glickman, and at the outset of the book she's on her way to a chromotherapist, a doctor that treats what is apparently a purely-mental condition Cheryl has. He treats it using what is likely just plain water, but he tells her it is the essence of distilled red.  Cheryl has been referred there by Phillip, who is the love of her lives: Cheryl is in love with Phillip, 20 years older than her, and believes that she and Phillip have been repeatedly reincarnated as lovers for thousands of lifetimes.

It gets weirder from there -- but not 'weird' in a bad way.  The entire book is told from Cheryl's point of view, and it's a hilarious and heartbreaking point of view.  Cheryl has a 'system' for her life: she thinks it's akin to carpooling.  One example of the system: if you have to take soap to the bathroom, wait until you have towels to take, too. Then, when you have to take them all (soap and towels) up, fold the towels while you use the toilet.  "Your hands are free," Cheryl notes, pointing out that you can then use any extra time you have to blot oil from your face.

Cheryl works for a company that markets self-defense videos as a form of exercise.  She's the manager, somehow, despite being told that her management style is similar to that of an old Japanese man of legend, who protects his village by sititng outside it keeping the fire going -- first by using all the wood, then by burning his own body, then, finally, by burning his dreams, which are so full of energy that they protect the village forever.

Into this quiet, orderly life, comes Clee, the boss' daughter, who is sloppy and sexy and rough and mean.  Cheryl only takes Clee in because she was told that she (Cheryl) is 'practically family', and from there the battle, literally, starts: Clee and Cheryl begin fighting, actual physical fights that cause Cheryl bruises until Cheryl hits on the idea of acting out the self-defense scenarios on the videos the coimpany makes.

There's so much more to the book, but to describe it all would basically be retelling the book without half the wit and verve and sadness the author, Miranda July, puts into it.  It was one of the most compelling books I've ever read.  I've started pointing out more and more when I talk about books that every story has to have a reason for existing as a story, and The First Bad Man is a shining example of that: it is, first and foremost, a story that is somehow both familiar and completely exotic and different. It's a story almost completely unlike any other I've ever read; it feels almost like its own genre.

Beyond that, which is enough for a story to be in the first place, are what feels like layer upon layer of meaning in the story.  Without in any way emphasizing it or dwelling on it, The First Bad Man is about the way we create our lives, and the way others create our lives.  Everyone in the book has a way they see themselves, and a way the world sees them, and these expectations keep butting into each other and reshaping everyone, over and over, so that the personalities of the characters are in constant motion while also being rooted to a basic concept -- much as we ourselves are. And through it all the book just keeps popping up these memorable gems of ideas and concepts and scenes.

I think the masterstroke of this book is that it manages to be so funny about being so sad. It's not laugh-out-loud funny (although there are lines that made me chuckle.) I once realized that if you take most comedies and turn off the laugh track and happy music, you've got a tragedy -- comedy and tragedy are flip sides of the same coin, often.  Think of some hilarious movie you've seen, and consider it without someone telling you when to laugh. Pretty sad, isn't it? One of the funniest movies I ever saw, hands down, was There's Something About Mary -- but taking a step back from it, it's about a desperately lonely bunch of people fixated on someone they believe to be the perfect woman, people whose lives are so empty they will throw them away at a moment's notice just to spend a little time with someone they barely know.  That's sad.

The First Bad Man is that sort of comedy: it's made up of many inherently funny scenes, like when the possibly-homeless gardener Rick lets Cheryl know he's seen her fighting Clee and that he is there to help her if she wants, while also talking about how he will need snails for the garden.  "I'll get you snails!" Cheryl yells as Rick flees her backyard.  "I'll get you a baker's dozen. A hundred snails!" And she does: she ends up getting a box full of snails delivered, and they somehow get out and spread around her house.

But none of these scenes feels perfectly funny -- possibly because of the overlaying sadness so many of the characters seem to have.  They're all alone and waiting for someone else to help them decide who to be, so that they can decide if they want to be that person or try again.

The theme of who a person should be -- someone they want to be or someone they are made to be by everyone else -- pervades the book.  Cheryl imagines a baby she met when she was six being born repeatedly, trying to become Cheryl's own baby -- so every baby she sees, she scrutinizes to see if she has a special connection with the baby. Cheryl ends up in therapy with the office-share therapist of her chromotherapy doctor, who she first believes is a receptionist. When Clee gets pregnant and has a baby -- one Cheryl believes has the special connection with her -- Clee's parents say they don't really see themselves as grandparents.  "Let's not force it," they say, preferring to wait and see if they run into the baby someday when he's grown and they can meet on their own terms, as people who have something in common.

It's funny, and sad, to watch Cheryl and Clee and Phillip try on various personas that other people want, while they mistake everyone around them for somebody else.  The theme becomes overt when Clee and Cheryl, acting out one video in particular, get confused as to which person Clee is playing.  "Who are you?" Cheryl stage whispers to Clee-- and we get the feeling that she's asking not just for that moment, but for her entire life: what role will Clee play in her life, she's wondering -- and by playing that role, what role will Cheryl be forced into?

We all get forced into roles, by our choices and by other's choices, and we might settle into them comfortably -- the other day I mentioned to Sweetie that I thought I made a pretty good 47-year-old, having been not so great at being a teenager or a person in his twenties -- or we might chafe in those constraints and want to push back, to change roles -- only to find that perhaps we liked our old character after all.  The First Bad Man is a must-read, not least because it makes one think about how we place ourselves in the world and what personas we try on -- but mostly because it's a fine story that is worth reading, and thinking about for a long time.

One day in my marriage we had a conversation.

Me: I don't know what a 'suicide pool' is...

Sweetie: Oh I know what that is. One of the ladies in my class told me. It's where you take a bucket of water and you put a board on the end of it up to like a rock wall and put seeds on it in a line, and then the animal eats the seeds and falls into the bucket and drowns. The lady who did it got like 2 chipmunks one day and 10 mice the next.


Me: I was talking about a football pool, and now I am as sad as I have ever been.

Should You Play The Lottery? A rebuttal to the snobs.

As usual when the lottery gets to mega-jackpots, hosts of articles come out telling people how dumb they are to play the lottery. These articles overwhelmingly rely on statistical comparisons like “you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than win the lottery,” as though statistics prove anything (they don’t; statistics merely describe history, and thinking they predict the future is the gambler’s fallacy.)
A lottery line in Utah, America. Haha they don’t understand economics! *asks Mom for another lemonade, gets back to Gawker post.*
Nevertheless, insulting people who like to play the lottery by calling them dumb, as this Gawker article does (either overtly or subtly) is a sport among the somewhat-idle riche who play at being writers while receiving checks from their parents to subsidize their Manhattan rent. It is, like saying you don’t watch TV or wearing a Bernie pin, a pastime engaged in by people who are not serious themselves but want to think they are.

Should you play the lottery? Yes. Not playing it won’t make you any better off, economically speaking, while playing it might make you a billionaire, or get you at least halfway there -- after the tax policies that overwhelmingly favor the rich in our country take a (relatively speaking) inconsequential portion of the proceeds.

Here are some statistics about the lottery and the people who play it, as well as young people in Manhattan who make fun of them, and, finally, why playing the lottery is every bit as likely to make you rich, statistically speaking, as simply being alive in America, by which I mean: it’s probably the best shot most of us have at getting rich.
1. 1 in 25 low income kids is likely to get a college degree. That same study found that only about 5% of kids are likely to move up an income bracket, at all. Since about 4,000,000 babies are born in America each year (babies eventually become kids), you have a 1 in 400 chance of simply getting a college degree, and a 1-in-200,000 chance of moving up an income bracket above what your parents earned.
2. The people most likely to play the lottery are people in their 20s and 30s. More whites than blacks play the lottery. Statistically speaking -- and people who make fun of those who play the lottery love to play up statistics! -- statistically speaking, young white people are the most likely to play the lottery.
3. Gawker media is 79% white. They also are in their 20s and 30s, mostly.
4. Statistically speaking, Gawker media writers play the lottery. STATISTICS NEVER LIE.
5. Most people gamble, on average, about 1-2% of their income on lotteries. This means most people, on average, gamble about $470 a year on lotteries. If you invested $470 a year over twenty years and achieved average growth of about 4.1%, you would have about $14,000 in that fund after 20 years. This is pre-tax growth.
6. In other words, investing that money ain’t gonna make the poors rich. At best, the average lottery player would be marginally better off 20 years later.
7. For all their snobbery, those young white well-off Gawker media types with their English Lit degrees aren’t much more economically sophisticated than the poors they routinely make fun of about the lottery (which, statistically, young white people are more likely to play!) Those young white folks are not as good at wealth-building as their parents, but the young white folks are moving back home to sponge off their parents anyway, which no doubt gives them the idle time to write snarky articles about how dumb people are to play the lottery.
Go ahead. Play the lottery. I doubt people who play it bother reading Gawker and the like, and anyway statistics say that the Gawker people who write nasty articles about the stupid poor people are sneaking out of their parent’s houses to buy lottery tickets, too.
Maybe instead of making fun of people who play the lottery, rich white kids who like to look down on the poor who don’t have college educations could do something constructive like propose “no-lose lottery” savings accounts, or actually go work for Bernie, or maybe just get up off their lazy, snarky butts and go vote for a change .
Pictured: Gawker Media staff, who statistically speaking live at home and buy more lottery tickets than anyone else. Also, they probably watch a lot more TV than they are willing to admit. It’s cool, trust them.