Disclaimer: I meant to post this two months ago, when it was actually timely, but my laptop’s graphics card all but went up in flames and I really didn’t want to type out the rest of the post of my phone.  Then I forgot about it, which is less of an excuse but probably easier to believe.  So apologies for my tardiness.

* * *

I’m not sure this blog is the place for celebrity tributes, but this is a big one.  For a couple of different reasons.

Robin Williams, to me, will always be two things simultaneously: he will be the Genie in Aladdin, a warm, congenial (eh? ehhh?) voice from my childhood, and he will be a large, hairy man, drenched in sweat and  screaming profanity on stage in an HBO special, ranting about golf and colostomy bags.  That one man could encompass both things in my mind — without even getting to Dead Poets Society or Good Will Hunting — speaks, I think, volumes about his versatility as a performer and entertainer.

The man’s a legend.  I’m going to reveal a couple of things I’m not particularly proud of about my childhood movie tastes here, but one of the first movies I remember laughing uproariously at was Flubber.  Eight-year-old Seth thought the “Make a Little Flub” dance was the most brilliant cinematic masterpiece since Ben Hur.  At the same time, I think the first time I actually realized, internalized, that I wasn’t going to live forever was watching Bicentennial Man at age eleven.

I’m not sure either film has well withstood the years since its release (I certainly haven’t rewatched either, and Rotten Tomatoes is… less than kind), but they still both were driven by one man.  One man, and such opposite emotions — emotions that, to this day, I can remember, even if I couldn’t tell you a single plot point of either movie.

The internet has already offered up all sorts of tributes and paeans to Williams, of course, and I’ve seen the following quote posted frequently.  It’s from the graphic novel Watchmen, set in a fairly dystopian alternate reality where Nixon has been president since the 70s, costumed superheroes are outlawed, and the world generally sits on the brink of nuclear disaster on a minute-by-minute basis.  Unlike your weekly Superman print, this is not an entirely odd place to find a rumination on the ironies of life, or a meditation on freedom and fatalism — albeit flavored heavily with giant naked blue dudes.  At some point amidst the novel’s stylized symbolism — some heavy-handed, but some deftly done — one of the main characters, Rorschach (who, like every other character, is a complete nutjob), tells the following story:

I heard joke once.  Man goes to doctor.  Says he’s depressed, life is harsh and cruel.  Says he feels all alone in threatening world.  Doctor says, “Treatment is simple.  The great clown Pagliacci is in town.  Go see him.  That should pick you up.”  Man bursts into tears.  “But doctor,” he says, “I am Pagliacci.”

It’s fitting for Williams, I’ll give it that.  His death certainly makes it seem that Robin Williams was a man like Pagliacci, who gave so much joy to so many others that he had none left for himself.

I can’t help but think back to what I felt when I was eleven years old and the credits rolled on Bicentennial Man.  It was an emptiness, a loneliness, that I had never felt before, like staring into a wall of black that never blinks and never ends.  I tried to squeeze my eyes shut and imagine what it would be like not to see, not to hear, not to smell, not to think.  I never got very far.  It was so overwhelming, this thought of doing — having — being — nothing that I was physically uncomfortable thinking about it.  That feeling hasn’t gone away.

I can’t, and won’t, argue that being afraid of my own mortality is anything similar to what Williams must have been going through.  It’s easy for me to sit here and type that, oh, I’m afraid of dying, he was afraid of living, both are challenges har har har — but that’d be pretty much as close to bullshit as I get on this blog.  I stared into the face of something I felt I couldn’t control and I balked, I ran away.  I’m still running away, but not every day.  Not every hour.  Being afraid of dying is a pretty human emotion, I’d like to think, and it’s not something I dwell on on a daily — or hell, monthly, even — basis.  Williams, on the other hand, stared into the face of something he felt he couldn’t control, for I don’t know how long, and it must have gnawed at him every second of every minute of every day until it ultimately devoured him.  I don’t know what that’s like, to be consumed by something like that.  I hope I’ll never know.

We are, each of us, Pagliacci in our own ways.  There’s a public Seth and a private Seth, a Seth that gives to others and a Seth that needs things for himself.  And over the last decade I’ve watched my friends, my loved ones, my tangential social acquaintances wrestle with their private selves, longer and harder battles then I’ve ever fought.

I want to close by saying if you need me, I’m hear to talk.  And if you don’t want to talk to me, you can pick up the phone and talk to someone else who cares: ‪1-800-273-8255‬.

Polling Down

A bizarre occurrence in the world of politics this week: for the first time in the history of the Washington Post/ABC News “Approve of Your Congress Member” poll (also called the “Swear into the Phone Receiver in a Problematically Jingoistic Tirade about your Congress Member’s Lack of Patriotism” poll), the majority of respondents disapproved of their representative’s performance.

This is a dichotomy that has always amused and/or puzzled me.  Congress’ approval rating is usually awful, and yet often 90% of it is reelected every two years — meaning people think their specific representative is not to blame. Everyone thinks that the member representing their district is fighting the good fight, hamstrung by those a) liberal apologist flag-burners, or b) neocon redneck bible-thumpers, or c) lizard people.  But this poll is almost a reversal of that trend — blame being applied at the individual level, rather than to the gestalt entity of Congress with a capital C.

Does it mean anything for 2014’s midterms?  Probably not.  But I am curious to see if the trend continues, because at some point having enough people dislike you must erase incumbent advantage.  That’s a democracy.  Right?

World War Zesus

I realize this is not the most timely post, seeing as the movie came out more than a year ago, but “World War Z” just hit Netflix, I just watched it, and my god do I need to complain about someone else’s god.

Hint: not this one

I’ve talked about the big JC in cinema before, but somehow the guy keeps showing up in movies as a convenient metaphor.   Go figure, right?  Now, by most accounts Jesus is a pretty cool dude — and I guess Brad Pitt’s a pretty cool dude, too — but I am still a bit confused why Brad Pitt had to be Jesus in this particular movie. And since a quick google search for “World War Z + Jesus” doesn’t turn up too many relevant hints, I figured I’d unpack this one myself. (Full disclosure: I know next to nothing about the New Testament. But that’s never stopped me before.)

Spoilers after the jump — including New Testament spoilers.  I think?  Kind of shooting from the hip here.


The Eagle Has Landed

This weekend marked the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the first mission that successfully landed human beings on a thing that wasn’t the thing on which every human being ever in the entire history of humanity has lived.

That we as a species pulled this off is still staggering to me.

We put three living humans into a small metal tube perched on six million pounds of concentrated liquid explosion, shot them straight up into the air until they reached a point where they are so high up there is literally no more air, then guided the metal tube to a piece of space rock hurtling through the void almost 240,000 miles away from the Kennedy Space Center, and did it with less computing power than I carry around in my pocket today.

(I use that computing power, by the way, to look at cat videos. To reiterate, NASA used it to send three men — three normal, terrestrial people who cannot fly and who must breath air — to THE GODDAMN MOON.)

The sheer audacity of the US space program’s goal — to send living, breathing people to the moon and then bring them back still living and breathing — is incredible. Beyond the technical challenges this had to pose to 1960s-era scientists and engineers who were still marveling at the hand calculator, beyond the funding that had to be found by politicians who had chilly wars to fight, beyond the undoubtedly bowel-loosening terror that had to be faced by the men in the Apollo capsule as they careened wildly through the firmament towards a tiny chunk of rock floating in an endless sea of nothing, one simple fact remains: the moon is really, really, really far away.

A case study: Apollo 11 launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Orlando. The closest Taco Bell to Kennedy is 13.2 miles away. The astronauts that left Kennedy to go to the moon could have traveled round-trip to that Taco Bell more than nine thousand times and not covered the same amount of distance. That’s beefy five-layer burritos for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for more than eight fucking years.

Or they could have driven from the launch site to Washington, D.C. and back 140 times, a trip that would take 146 days of non-stop driving. Or to San Francisco and back 50 times. To Fairbanks, Alaska and back 25 times. They could have gotten in a plane and circumnavigated the globe almost ten times (no great circles here — I’m talking circumference) before reaching the moon.

My point being the moon is really, really, REALLY far away, guys. It’s cold and it’s alien and it’s distant and we’ve been there. Forty-five years later, the moon landing remains one of the most impressive things accomplished by mankind. It is, of course, a testament to what we can do when we put our minds to it, work together, follow through on some third sports movie cliché, and decide there’s no way those goddamn red-loving commie bastards are getting there first.

In thinking about how to close this post, I was tempted to point to the moon landing as proof that government-sponsored science works, that it’s important, that’s it needs to continue. I believe that’s all true, but I don’t want to use this anniversary to harp on that message too much. Because when it comes down to it, forty-five years ago mankind — essentially a troop of slightly-evolved and overly-opinionated monkeys — shoved three of its own in a can, blasted them into outer space, and took that first small step into the giant universe beyond our world.

And that’s just really, really cool.

Flight 1964

Every time I fly back from a trip home to southern California, which I seem to do in fairly regular three- or four-month intervals, I take the same flight.  Not always the same number, I suppose, but the same flight path, the same rituals, the same trip: a Southwest flight from Burbank to San Jose.  It’s about an hour gate-to-gate — forty-five minutes in the air — or just about long enough for the flight attendants to sprint down the aisle and throw peanuts at me before we start our descent.  It’s a great flight, Burbank may be the easiest airport in the world to fly out of, and Southwest is pretty cheap.  So why would I ever change the itinerary?

The one thing I do change, I suppose, is the side of the plane that I sit on.  Most of the time this comes down to where my carryon fits, since Southwest has this (possibly Marxist?) no-assigned-seats policy, but it gives me dramatically different views of southern California as I leave.  When Southwest takes off from Burbank, the runways point south, so the plane has to wheel around after takeoff to avoid taking us all to Tijuana or — god forbid — Long Beach.  That means if you sit on the left side of the plane you’re on the outside of the turn, and there’s a brief moment after the wheels retract and before the plane starts to bank that you can see the Los Angeles skyline emerge from between two hills that separate the valley from the LA basin, sliding into view as the plane rotates.  The LA skyline isn’t a skyline that rushes to the water, buildings elbowing each other out of the way in a rush to reach the shore; there’s no precipitous architectural cliff that tumbles from the city into the ocean, like the canyons of New York or San Francisco or Boston or Seattle.  Like everything else in Los Angeles, the skyline is sprawling and bizarrely positioned, spikes of steel and glass that rear out of the middle of, well, nowhere really and stretch towards the sky, metal fingers jutting from the impossibly flat sea of the basin like a slowly sinking ship.  Then the plane starts to bank and LA is swallowed by the sky, sometimes smoggy and gray, sometimes clear and cerulean, but always hungry.  By the time the plane levels out it’s hills and farmland and sometimes the coast until the pilot announces the descent back to San Jose.

On the right side of the plane, the inside of the turn, the views are very different.  Burbank looks like a grid of gray roads and grayer buildings, and when the plane starts to bank your eyes are drawn to a cemetery, the lone patch of green seemingly for miles.  The cemetery is beautiful in its own way, as individual plots blur and smear into a greenish-gray hole in the city, but it’s certainly not as striking as a skyline.  The cemetery always makes me think about who’s buried there, under the shadows of countless flights, the eyes of innumerable passengers — voyeurs, always looking at the stones, but never able to read them.  Then the plane starts to level out and it’s hills and farmland and sometimes some mountains until the pilot announces the descent back to San Jose. 

As for the landing, well, I’m usually too immersed in a book to notice anything until wheels hit tarmac.  Maybe the next flight I’ll pay more attention, but that would involve changing my mental itinerary.

Indian Guidelines

The recent news about the Washington Redskins losing patent protection for their name is a long time coming — even if it does remind me of what might be the most on-point Onion article ever.  I’m happy someone’s finally trying to leverage something to get the D.C. team to change their name.

Plus, I figure it’s as good a time as ever to trot out the audio essay I wrote senior year of college about my time in the Indian Guides and as a Hart High Indian.  And by “trot out” I really mean remind me how great this art form is and convince myself to try to make another audio essay.  So stay tuned?

Anywho, here it is: Cub Scouts and Indians.

(Big thanks to the Dandy Warhols, the Village People, the Hart High Regiment, and the lovely singing voices of Winter 2011’s English 191T.)

Things I’ve Learned from Online Dating, Vol. 1

To cut the preamble: for about seven or eight months last year, I was active on OkCupid.  It’s a strange and brave new world, this internet thing, and after several abortive internet first dates over the last year, as well as one much more enjoyable and longer-lasting yet ultimately equally abortive traditional relationship (that I’m still making a distinction here may be telling, but so far my friends and alma mater have much better taste in women than any algorithm), I’m wrestling with whether it’s time to get back on that, uh, e-horse.

I started this list of learnings last year, before I met a pretty girl at a football-viewing party (like, a real party, with food and people and everything), and before she made me walk away from her in the middle of the night a couple of months ago.  But with every ending comes a new beginning, or however that not-really-consoling-at-all aphorism goes, and so in weighing the benefits of app-based dating — it’s mobile! social! local! 3D printed! — the list has surfaced from the mire of my many half-made blog drafts, to be presented here as evidence in the case of The People v. Winger.

Some lessons the proverbial fish in that deep blue online sea taught me:

  • You are not allowed to both describe yourself as “shy” and have a username with more than two consecutive x’s in it.
  • Don’t capitalize the G and S in “grad school” unless you go to a college named after William S. Grad.
  • I also think of my self [sic] as diligent, meticulous, and detail-oriented.
  • I will never remember what Meyers-Briggs type I am, or what your Meyers-Briggs type means.
  • Do not lead with “hey u want 2 cyber”.
  • What was your Meyers-Briggs type again?
  • “The basic currency of the Internet is human ignorance, and, frankly, [the OKC] database holds a strong cash position.”

But the most obvious thing I learned wasn’t about any of these girls.  Or women in general.  It was about me.  Chiefly:

  • I am an enormous, colossal, unforgivable asshole.

From ignoring people’s messages to criticizing their minor grammar mistakes to losing all interest because of a single unflattering photo, the sort-of anonymity of OkCupid (that’s-not-my-name, that-is-my-picture) both enabled me to embrace all sorts of misanthropic aspects of my personality and to feel terrible about it at the same time.  Would I really ignore a boring girl trying to talk to me at a cocktail party?  Would I really judge anyone for mixing up “less” and “fewer” when telling me a story?  Am I really so shallow that lighting determines how much I want to talk to you?

The answer to all of these questions, it would seem, is yes.  At least, yes when I know I’ll never see these people again (or in the first place).  Yes when there’s no social pressure to do the opposite.  Yes when I don’t have to hide behind cerebral concepts like “society” or “decency”.

It’s not how I like to see myself, to say the least.  But a general malaise of cynical misanthropy I can live with — I can at least assume that I’d feel the same way, that I’d be as judgmental about favorite television shows and Oxford comma use,  if I was trying to find male friends online.

But I wasn’t.  I was looking, at one level or another, for female companionship.  What got me to stop using OkCupid wasn’t a real-life girl with a smile like moonlight.  It was a night, a few weeks earlier, when I just kept scrolling.

OkCupid uses infinite scrolling instead of pagination (or at least did last year; I haven’t logged back on to check), presenting a never-ending parade of nubile would-be dates that waltzes up the screen as you scroll further and further down.  And so one night, as I was scrolling through potential matches, I didn’t stop.  Without realizing, I must have scanned a hundred — two hundred — profiles.  You don’t get much information to go on without actually clicking on a profile: a username, a thumbnail headshot, an age, a compatibility percentage.  And that was enough for me to categorically reject every single person that crossed my digital descent.

When I realized how long I had just spent browsing, how many people I had reduced to nothing more than a 100 pixel wide picture and a fake name, I was disgusted.  It’s not that I had expected to find true love in the pool of a couple hundred random people on the internet that night, but rather that I took these girls and ignored them, cast them aside, based on a photo.  A photo!  That’s the textbook definition of objectification, and I — me — I had done this.  Not some frat star I went to high school with, not some red state politician, not some third world country’s dictator, but me.  I disregarded more girls than I could count because of how they looked, without even registering that I was doing it.

I am not here to argue that online dating is bad, in any sense of the word.  (I’m not sure which statistic to believe, but somewhere between 20 and 35% of marriages now start online — which, regardless of the exact number in that range, is staggering and beautiful in equal measures.)  But the ease of access to the most superficial parts of a person, to pictures and percentages and profile names instead of smile lines and nervous tics and laughter, to headshots instead of a head’s thoughts, eventually brought out something in me that I hated.  It was, no doubt, amplified by parts of my personality — I can be meticulous, addictive, obsessive — and so maybe the biggest thing I learned from data dating was that I need to be careful about high volume online romance.  Or high volume online anything, really, if the hours I’ve logged in Diablo say something about the rest of my personality.

And I realize that the same exact thing was happening to my own profile in the hands of who-knows-how-many girls on the other side of my monitor.  I do not pretend that my charms are universally irresistible.  To untold droves (droves!) of women, I will forever be “that dude with the vampire teeth and the goofy hair and the username that sounded like it could be a critically acclaimed children’s board game”.  I’m sure I was thoroughly uninteresting to the majority of people OkCupid pleadingly shoved my profile towards — take him! take him! please! have pity! — in the same way I was thoroughly uninterested in the majority of people presented to me.

But that doesn’t change how I felt about being so disinterested, how I felt about not caring to get to know anyone whose picture couldn’t land them a modeling contract.  With no information beyond a brief blurb about “what you’re doing with your life” and “six things you can’t live without”, looks won out.  They always did.  Which left me wondering if that’s what I actually cared about, if this yen I claim to have for a sense of humor or a deep intellectual conversation or a mastery of English grammar is really just monkey-brain nonsense trying to beat my brainstem into submission.

I know this is a trying time to fire off half-formed thoughts on sexism in a blog post that had its genesis as a rant about internet grammar.  My thoughts are with Isla Vista.  But I suppose that this is the time, more than any other time, to confront what lurks within me: that brainstem can be a sexist pig.  Which means I can be a sexist pig.  Not all the time, granted.  Not even anywhere close to some of the time.  But enough of the time.  Too much of the time.

I fall into so many traps guys my age are prone to — and not just the Tinderized romance of reducing girls on the internet to the sum of their headshots.  I’ll laugh at misogynistic jokes.  I’ll toss around words like “pussy” and “slut” without a second thought to the loaded gender bias behind them.  And, maybe most damning of all, I’ll be quick to agree that my ex-girlfriends are all “crazy”.

These are all huge topics, each worthy of a much larger discussion.  Where is the line between comedy and controversy?  Should we categorically declare certain words taboo?  How do people project their insecurities onto others?  I don’t know any of the answers, obviously.  All I can say is consider this post an admission of guilt, and a pledge to do better.  Because #YesAllWomen deserve better.  From me.  From us.  From everyone.