Recycling: My Gateway into Existential Hell

If I had to pick a starting point for when I began to question everything, it would be when I read an article titled, “Is Plastic Recycling a Lie?” It’s worth reading in its entirety, but here’s the jist of it:

“The proof is the dramatic amount of investment that is happening right now,” Russell said. “I do understand the skepticism, because it hasn’t happened in the past, but I think the pressure, the public commitments and, most important, the availability of technology is going to give us a different outcome.”

Here’s the basic problem: All used plastic can be turned into new things, but picking it up, sorting it out and melting it down is expensive. Plastic also degrades each time it is reused, meaning it can’t be reused more than once or twice.

On the other hand, new plastic is cheap. It’s made from oil and gas, and it’s almost always less expensive and of better quality to just start fresh.

All of these problems have existed for decades, no matter what new recycling technology or expensive machinery has been developed. In all that time, less than 10 percent of plastic has ever been recycled. But the public has known little about these difficulties.

It could be because that’s not what they were told.

Basically, almost none of the plastic we’ve been separating has been recycled. This revelation shook me for three reasons.

First- recycling is a lie. Read the article. There’s no escaping that conclusion. It’s mind-blowing to me that so many organizations and individuals, myself included, bought the lie hook, line and sinker.

Second- the evidence was there all along, and I doubted my own thinking because I couldn’t fathom that I was being lied to. I remember standing inside of a classroom when I was teaching. I tossed something into the garbage, then thought better of it and moved it into the recycling. I suddenly had the thought: “How does collecting trash and recycling with two different trucks, and processing them in two different facilities, actually help the earth? It seems like everything is just doubled.”

But I dismissed that thought. Clearly I wasn’t accounting for something, because of course recycling worked. Everyone wouldn’t do it otherwise, right? So even though there’s been clear evidence of the inefficacy of recycling, such as the constantly growing garbage piles in the Pacific, the lie endured because I didn’t trust my own eyes.

Third- Recycling was the closest thing I have to a sacred action. It seemed so simple and the benefits seemed so huge that it became very easy to imagine recycling as a moral duty. That moral duty was built on a foundation that is fundamentally untrue, and once the foundation of morality is cracked, it doesn’t take much to start chipping away at the rest of what’s called “moral” and “immoral”.

But most importantly, I wanted to do the right thing, and it turns out I wasn’t. Yes, I was lied to, but I also I accepted the lie. I had a moment of critical clarity and I rejected it. That’s on me. So now when I think I’m having such a moment in other areas of my life, I follow through on it. A lot of other stuff has crumbled as well, just like the recycling façade.

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Trump’s Presidency – A Different Kind of Take

Photo by Aakanksha Panwar on Unsplash

As Trump left the White House, I felt a huge amount of relief. I’m not exactly optimistic about the future, but it’s a step in the right direction. While I was thinking about this, I had a strange thought that I want to explore a little bit. In actuality, Trump’s presidency wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be.

Don’t get me wrong, Trump’s term in office was an unmitigated disaster. I’m not a Trump apologist, and certainly not a Trump supporter. I detest the man and I have for as long as I’ve known of him. We are worse off now than we were four years ago in pretty much every way. Still, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

For starters, there was no nuclear, chemical, or biological warfare to speak of. I’m not kidding. I have been legitimately worried about this. It could have been us. Someone might have questioned Trump’s manhood. Or it could have been anyone of a bunch of questionable states emboldened by the incompetence of the United States on the world stage. I often woke up expecting a headline about a major city being attacked with millions dead. Thankfully, it didn’t happen.

While we’re talking about international issues, I have to say something about the Middle East. Shockingly little has changed there in the last four years. I was sure that Trump would exacerbate an already bad situation. I could see possibilities from total war in the region to Israeli imperialism. Instead we got nothing. I know that no problems were solved. No solutions were even attempted. But, it’s not appreciably worse than in 2016.

On the domestic front, we still have Obamacare. Clearly, Trump only had two goals while in office, steal everything he could and ruin everything Obama had accomplished. I figured the Affordable Care Act would be the first victim. I was wrong. It’s still here, at least for now. Which is good. I, for one, would be uninsured without it.

The 2020 election was more secure than the 2016 election. Given that Trump only managed to get elected by using illegal foreign help, inappropriate (at best) FBI commentary, and a friendly, incompetent media, I thought that there would be even more of all three this time around. The media was still pretty terrible, but not worse. And the foreign interference and FBI leaks were improved. I don’t know how it happened, but I’ll take it.

So, let’s take these things as a silver lining for the reign of Trump. Things were bad. I mean really, really bad. But they could have been much worse. It is scary that we have the stupidity and incompetence of Trump and most of his followers to thank for this silver lining. But, for the time being, I’m going to try not to think about that and just be grateful that I was wrong about some of the things I was convinced Trump would do.

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Dating in an Existential Crisis

Snoopy asking the big questions

I find myself single again in 2021. I was going to wait before going back into the dating pool, but a friend said I might find someone interesting if I dived right in during my existential crisis. That sounded intriguing, so I’m back out there, cell phone apps at the ready.

It’s one thing to think about the meaning of life and suffering endlessly, and quite another to think about dating in such broad terms. Fortunately, this is one part of my life that doesn’t need that much examination. Dating for me is basically two parts: what do I want in a person, and what do I want in a relationship?

What I Want in a Person

All I’m looking for in a partner is someone who I can have interesting conversations with, and who I think is pretty. That’s it. I once had a list that was a mile long: must have similar politics, must be a gamer, etc. But I found that I liked people who didn’t meet any of those requirements, which made me realize that I didn’t understand what I wanted.

I thought I wanted someone who was “compatible” with me, as in they shared all my same opinions and interests. What I really want though is someone to learn from, who can challenge my own thinking and help me understand the world better.

That’s what was so wonderful about my ex. We had very different views, and talking to her helped slaughter all of the sacred cows I worshipped without thinking about them. It was also just fun learning about Jeffree Star’s bullshit and watching Drake and Josh. Those are experiences I wouldn’t have if my partner was exactly like me. 

The other thing I look for is a pretty face. I’ve been called shallow because of this, and I accept that judgment. But the fact is that I enjoy talking to people, and since I have to look at people to talk to them, I’d prefer looking at a face I find attractive. I find all types of faces attractive, and I don’t really have a set of criteria for attractiveness other than thinking, “She’s pretty.”

What Do I Want From a Relationship?

This is where things get a little murky and existential. I wrote a post a few years ago about how awesome divorce is eventually. It was meant to be a joke, but I’m quite serious when I say that my relationship with my ex-wife and son are both much better since the divorce. Which got me thinking: why did I get married in the first place? Why didn’t I ever seriously consider this kind of arrangement when we found out we were having a baby?

Orthodoxy and expectations, both internal and external, are the answers. I’ve replicated that orthodoxy in almost every relationship I’ve been in, but it’s not making any sense to me anymore. I could get into the weeds on that, but suffice to say that if I’m happier being divorced, then maybe I shouldn’t be rushing to get married again. Maybe I don’t even need the “boyfriend/girlfriend” label.

What I know that I want is a pretty girl I enjoy talking to, that I can smoke weed with, and have sex with. Everything beyond that is negotiable, and I don’t know if that needs to have a name or not.

Either way, we’ll see. I’ve had one match on Tinder so far, so it’s still early days. There’ll definitely (hopefully?) be a follow up.

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A Question About Student Loan Forgiveness

Student loan forgiveness has been a big part of the public debate (such as there is) for a little while now. I always encourage debate, and I’m all for student loan forgiveness. (After the financial services industry destroyed the world economy without facing any serious consequences, I’m actually for all personal debt being forgiven, but that’s another essay). But, why is all the attention on student loan forgiveness?

The student loan crisis isn’t a crisis caused by student loans. It is the result of decades of bad policy and bad decisions in education and the job market. It is the result of predatory lenders and lack of oversite. It is the result of super PACs and corruption. Shouldn’t the discussion be about fixing those things?

By all means, forgive the debt. We can afford it, easily. But, forgiving the debt won’t fix any of the actual, systemic problems. It would help millions. That’s great. It really is. But shouldn’t we be trying to help everyone?

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Friendship

Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash

I got a card in the mail from a friend. She wrote a little note inside saying that she was in town and thought of me, so she sent me a card. It wasn’t a huge gesture, but it made me really happy. That’s the power of friendship. It has a unique way of enriching our lives.

Thinkers and artists have been talking and writing about friendship for thousands of years. Unfortunately, most of them have had an absurdly high standard for friendship. It’s BFFs or nothing. When I look at their criteria for friendship, I have had very few real friends. I have an anthology of philosophers writings about friendship. It’s called Other Selves. That’s one of the most common sentiments, that a friend is another self, almost like a soul mate. Another thing that’s big is equality. Only equals can be friends. Reciprocity is the other big one. It’s not a real friendship unless both parties feel the same.

I question whether there are actually any set criteria for friendship. Let me tell you a different kind of love story and, hopefully, you’ll see what I mean. The woman who sent me the card, I met her when I was a freshman in high school. She was in my Latin class. She was an upperclassman (upperclassperson somehow doesn’t sound like high school anymore). I believe she had already finished her foreign language requirement, but was good at it, and enjoyed it, so she signed up for Latin. I seem to remember that she was a cheerleader. I was a typical quiet, awkward freshman. I’m decidedly not good at foreign languages. I only took Latin because they told me it would be good for me, help me with my SATs. I still think Spanish would have done me a lot more good.

Anyway, my point is that our paths only ever crossed by accident. We didn’t have much in common. In the world of high school, we were nowhere near social equals. Not that she was a snob or anything, she was always very nice, but that’s just how high school works. Latin was a small class. I want to say there were only eight of us, so we got to know each other a little bit. Then, she graduated, I was still in high school. We lost touch.

A little while later, she got a job at the local Blockbuster. I’d see her when I rented movies. We’d chit chat. I think she recommended movies a couple of times. It was nice to see a friendly face. I don’t remember if she got a new job or if I moved and started using a different Blockbuster, but we lost touch again.

Some years later, I grudgingly joined Facebook. She was one of the first people to send me a friend request. We interacted as Facebook friends do. I learned that she was married with a couple of kids and was now a realtor. She congratulated me on my wedding. Stuff like that. When I was in the market for a house, I had the thought, “Hey, I know a realtor.” She helped me buy the house I’m sitting in now. That was almost ten years ago. Since then, we still interact with each other’s posts and we send each other notes a few times a year.

I know why stories like this are seldom told. They’re not very interesting. There’s no drama, no action, and no passion. There have been funny moments, but nothing you’d call comedy. What it comes down to is she really is my friend. And that’s meaningful to me even if it’s not for anyone else. I wouldn’t say we’re soul mates, I don’t think of her as another self. We might be now (I’m not a good judge of such things), but we certainly weren’t equals when we first met. I have no real idea if she reciprocates my feelings. I mean, she sent me a card, so I don’t think she dislikes me, but we don’t have those kinds of deep, soul-searching conversations. None of that changes the fact that she’s a good friend. My life would be a lot poorer without friends like her. I think it’s about time the people who study friendship accept that. And I think we should all celebrate it.

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We Need More Tepid Takes

Like almost everyone else, I spent a good chunk of yesterday watching in horror as Trump’s thugs looted the Capitol. I tried not to, but I wound up on social media and some news sites reading what people had to say about it, everyone from pundits and politicians to regular people, friends, strangers, people I admire, and people I kinda hate. I should know better. All it did was upset me, I barely got any sleep.

As I lay awake, something struck me. Every take I read seemed so confident. These are terrorists! This is an attempted coup! Every person involved must be arrested! Trump must be removed from office immediately! Trump must resign! If the mob had been black, it would have been a bloodbath! They must be held accountable! And on and on and on. Now, I’m not saying any of these takes are wrong. I was just struck with the confidence with which they were presented. There wasn’t an “I think” or a “maybe” to be heard. It didn’t matter if the person saying it was a former president, a guy off the street, or a supposed expert. They all had the same apparent degree of confidence.

I felt anything but confident. Were they terrorists? Maybe, but I usually think of terrorists as trying to spread terror. I felt a lot of things, but terror wasn’t one of them. I don’t know what they were. Does calling them terrorists do anything productive or counterproductive? I have no idea.

Was it a coup attempt? Again, maybe, but did they have a plan? Was there an endgame? Is it even logically possible for a terrorist to participate in a coup? They seem to have different goals. Does it even make sense to talk about a coup when the people involved support the sitting president? Again, I have no idea.

Should everyone involved be arrested? I really don’t know about this one. Has any good ever come from somebody being arrested? I know it’s what we do to criminals, the poor, and the marginalized, but is it what we should do? I don’t know. I suspect not, but I really don’t know.

Should Trump be removed from office or resign? We can’t have both. Is there a real difference between the two? The theatrics of this were spectacular, but how is it different than everything else he’s done the last four years? He only has two weeks left. Is it even worth the trouble at this point? I certainly don’t know.

Would it have been a bloodbath if the mob had been black? I believe this one to be very likely true, but there is simply no way to know. You can’t test an alternate ending in real life. I don’t know and nobody else does either.

Should we hold everyone involved accountable? That’s an incredibly difficult question. What does it even mean to hold someone accountable? What does holding someone accountable do? Will it prevent similar things from happening in the future? Maybe, but it’s not like the Nuremberg Trials stopped a bunch of wannabe Hitlers from popping up over the last 75 years. Did Martha Stewart or Bernie Madoff act as a deterrent for anyone? What happens if people are not held accountable? Did letting all the Viet Nam era draft dodgers off the hook cripple our military? No one was held accountable for the foreign interference and other improprieties in the 2016 election, but the 2020 election was still the most secure in history. Maybe it’s about justice, but in the past few thousand years, no one has been able to show how punishment brings about justice. At least I’ve never seen it if they have.

This isn’t even getting into the more amorphous claims like: This isn’t us! or This is who we really are! or Biden will heal us! Again, I’m not saying any of these takes are wrong. I just find it strange that I can be the only one so full of doubt about all of this. Am I dumber than everyone else? Yesterday’s spectacle left me bewildered and confused. The last thing I was prepared to do was loudly proclaim what had to be done.

I’ve taken quite a few writing classes in my time. I know that they always teach that good writing is confident writing. Qualifiers and caveats are practically forbidden. I think we should try honest writing instead. It should be OK to be confused and admit it. There’s nothing wrong with reflecting before deciding what to do.

It’s possible that this is the hottest of hot takes, and for that I apologize. Maybe I am the only one who doesn’t know exactly what to do about looting the Capitol. But, I suspect I’m pretty typical, at least when it comes to this. I know I’m outraged and shocked, but I have no clue what to do about it. I’d feel better if more people would admit to being unsure as well.

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Are Republicans Lazy?

Photo by ZACHARY PEARSON on Unsplash

I know that’s a snarky title, but it’s a (mostly) serious question. I’m not talking about Mitch McConnell or Rand Paul or Paul Ryan. I don’t have much positive to say about the Republicans in government, but I don’t think they are, as a rule, lazy. I’m talking about the regular people who self-identify and vote Republican. Are they lazy? Because that would explain a lot.

My whole life, Republicans have been pushing the narrative that anyone who uses any kind of government social services is basically stealing from their fellow citizens. They’ve used this narrative to keep benefits low, restrict who can claim benefits, and shrink the duration of benefits. There have been two prongs in this narrative. The first is that without all the restrictions, benefits might go to people who don’t deserve them. The second is that people need some kind of incentive to stop needing benefits. I’m not sure which one is more ridiculous.

In my experience, most people are pretty honest. That’s not to say that I’ve never met any liars or cheats or thieves. But, the vast majority of people I’ve run across are not those things. Even if it were easy to get benefits, I don’t think a lot of people who don’t need or deserve them would try. It’s for the same reason that most people don’t try to steal every time they go into a store, that’s just not how most people operate. Of course there would be some who take advantage, but not enough to justify making it onerous for the people who need it.

Again, in my experience, people don’t want to be in a situation where they need benefits. I’ve had some bouts of unemployment in my life. It sucks. And the suckiness has very little to do with money. Not everyone likes their job, but virtually everyone likes to work. People have a need to feel productive and a part of something. They crave a sense of accomplishment. Not having a job, not experiencing those things, is humiliating and depressing. That’s all the incentive I need to find a job, even if benefits were unlimited.

Needless to say, I’ve never been convinced by the Republican arguments that we have to take drastic steps to protect against fraud or force people to fend for themselves. Most people really want to fend for themselves honestly. My experience has been so overwhelming that I don’t even understand how someone could be persuaded by the Republican arguments.

The past four years have shown me that there are a lot more bad people out there than I thought. Could that mean that there are a lot more lazy, dishonest people than I thought? It actually makes sense for the everyday people who are Republicans to believe the arguments because they are the very people who would take advantage of the system if they could.

Of course, if this is true, then Republicans would be protecting themselves from themselves and making life harder for the rest of us in the process. That would be some kind of irony.

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The End of 2020

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

2020 is coming to an end tonight. It was an odd year. Certainly not the worst year for me personally. 2015 and 2016 were way worse. It might be the worst year in my lifetime for us, though. When the year started, 2020 sounded like such a big number. The future had arrived. While I don’t think it qualifies as dystopia, the future is darker than I had hoped.

The pandemic hangs over everything that happened this year. In a lot of ways, I’m well-suited for pandemic life. I’m protective of my personal space, I’m kind of a loner, I’m a homebody, and I don’t like people touching me. But I really miss seeing people’s faces.

Unfortunately, the calendar is the only thing that resets with the new year. The November elections won’t even be finished tonight. COVID is still here, and it will be months before I get my vaccine. Civil unrest will be around for a while. It will take a long time for the economy to recover, if it does. Most of us will wake up tomorrow with the same anxiety we’ve been carrying all year.

The New Year is supposed to bring hope and optimism. I can’t quite get there. I’m going with a cautious “Let’s see what happens.” I’ll be happy as long as I can see my family for the holidays next year.

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My Favorite Teacher Story

On January 1st, 2020, I was in a teacher’s training program to become an elementary school teacher. Today, December 31st, I don’t know if I ever want to work in a school again. That transformation needs its own essay. But I want to try to end 2020 with a good memory, so here’s my favorite story from my many years of working as a tutor/teacher.

***

I worked at a middle school as a reading tutor. What that typically meant is that I would go into a classroom and help some students while the teacher helped others. There was one classroom though that whenever I showed up, a table of girls would ask to work with me in the hallway. Their names were Lisa, Jenny, Sarah and Tammy (fake names to protect the kids, obviously). I was flattered, until they told me that they disliked their teacher so much that they just wanted to get away from her.

One day we were sitting in the hallway, and between doing their work, they engaged in their favorite pastime: making fun of each other. I was not spared. One of their favorite topics to pick on me about was my Android phone, the clear marker that I was broke. They were right, of course, but I couldn’t let these 13 year olds dunk on me. I took out my wallet and flashed a $20 bill and jokingly said, “Would a bum have all this money?”

Before I could blink, Tammy had snatched the $20 from my hand. She smiled as she gripped it in her hand and her friends gassed her up.

“Give me my money back.”

“No.”

“For real though.”

“I’ll trade you the $20 for the $5 in your wallet.”

Now I need you to all understand: I’m the teacher here. At any point, I could have just yelled, or gotten a security guard, or an assistant principal, and gotten both my money back and Tammy suspended. But I didn’t because she’d outsmarted me, fair and square.

“I’ll give you the $5 if you promise to share it with your friends.”

“Deal.”

We negotiated for another minute over how we would exchange the money (same time, like honorable people), and then Tammy was $5 richer than when she began English.

I saw the four of them walking together later in the day. “Did Tammy share the money with you?” I asked.

“Yeah, she did,” Jenny said.

“Cool. Have a good day.”

***

I’ve done a lot of teaching, but that was the day that I got schooled. It’s my favorite story because it demonstrates how smart and quick-witted the children in that school are. How amazing their communication skills are. How generous and kind they are, to share their bounty with each other.

There are so many other stories I could tell like this one, with different groups of children. Yeah these kids might fail these biased, absurdly hard tests. But they demonstrated their ingenuity and brilliance to me in so many other ways during the year I worked there. They taught me how to use a curling brush. How to set up my YouTube channel. Who the hot new artists are. I learned ten times as much from them as I taught them.

When I was hired, I was told that the school had decided to shell out the extra money for tutors because “this cohort is just so low.” The intention behind hiring tutors for kids may be good, but I think that kind of thinking, and ESPECIALLY that kind of talk, is harmful. It positioned us as tutors who didn’t know these kids to presume and expect deficiency.

As I talked to the students though, I didn’t hear or see deficiency. I saw really amazing, really funny, really smart people. That experience was what made me enter the teacher training program I ultimately quit. I want to work with these people, not the boring ass adults I’m forced to talk to every single fucking day. Kids are just so much more interesting. I’d already done 8th grade before, plus I had twenty years of additional knowledge and experience, and I STILL couldn’t keep up with Tammy. That shit is fun. It’s just too bad that adults run the schools.

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Not So Sneaky Kitty

My cat doesn’t eat human food. I’d say I’m lucky, but it’s how I raised him. I never give him anything except cat food. He doesn’t beg or try to steal my food. He seems perfectly content and I’m happy with a polite pet.

Tonight, however, was different. We got Chinese takeout and the cat really wanted some. He begged and meowed and gave us the puppy dog eyes. When those strategies failed, he tried a more direct approach. He tried to steal some food.

I suppose it’s his lack of experience, but my cat is a really bad thief. He just went right for it. No sneaking or coming from behind. He just jumped on the table and went for it. And he wasn’t even quiet. He was purring like a hot rod the whole time. I pushed him off. He tried again and I pushed him off again. Then he went into the corner to sulk.

I don’t know what was different about tonight. He had already eaten his dinner. It’s not the first time we’ve gotten Chinese takeout. I guess it’s just one of those things. Hopefully he learned his lesson.

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