“You know, to borrow this whining seventy year-old brat’s babyish analysis, which breaks the world neatly into winners and losers, I spent my life trying to be a winner while feeling the whole time like a giant loser. It’s such an idiotic and inhuman way to look at the world, Elie, winner vs. loser, and a recipe for frustration for the vast majority of us, who are manifestly losers.” The skeleton settled back against his tombstone, regarding the lush foliage all around him.
“Hey, this graveyard, for example. I am buried at a prestigious spot on the top of the hill, under a shady canopy of enormous trees. I can see my brother’s grave a few steps away. We paid a lot for these prime spots over the years, I can’t do the math for you at the moment, but it was probably tens of thousands of dollars. Our parents are buried in that section at the bottom of the hill, with poor drainage, where the small tombstones are jammed together like crooked teeth. Those are pauper graves, dug in the cheap real estate, with no shade on a hot day, where members too poor to pay regular dues were buried.”
“What does it mean to any of us buried here? Hah. To the living it means trudging across the boneyard to the bottom of the hill, walking a ways on the gravel road, and picking your way through the tightly packed graves, to go from my grave to my father’s. You have to walk over the graves of other Jewish losers to stand where you can put a stone on my mother’s modest grave marker, or my father’s.”
“I keep wondering about these winners, as you struggle to keep yourself on the right side of the mental health line. Without money, I know what a struggle life is. The closer you live to the poverty line, the more the world fucks with you on an hour to hour basis. The money we left you could only last if you have no material expectations for a middle class life. That’s never been a problem for you, I realize, living on a subsistence income, you’ve never done otherwise. But to most people, it’s mystifying that you’d be satisfied, living in a land of plenty, and amid constant clamor for your consumer dollars, consistently denying yourself the pleasure of buying all the cool must-have shit they’re continually updating. I guess that’s one good thing I did for you, somehow.”
I date it to when you and mom devised that draconian punishment after I disobeyed you and went to see Fail Safe with Michael Siegel. No TV for a year, for a six or seven year-old, shit, maybe I was even younger. That was the beginning of sitting in my room, thinking of myself as the protagonist of that Chekov story, though I hadn’t yet read it, where the young lawyer bets the banker he can stay alone, with no human contact, in a room with unlimited books, music and writing tools. The banker bets him he can’t do it for five years, the lawyer offers to do it for fifteen.
“Ah, The Bet, a classic story of doubling down, which is what a glorious winner is supposed to do. Taking on impossible odds casually, with elan. You remember that great moment in Cyrano where he arrives to defend his friend, told that a hundred swordsmen are waiting for him. ‘I’ve been cheated, there are no hundred here!’ he grumbles as he begins to dispatch a few dozen men with swords. Look, these stories are one thing. Look at the real-life ‘winners’ you know, Elie…”
You’re preaching to the choir, boss. I see them in their hundred room mansions, being chased by the devil from room to room. I’m like Zora Neale Hurston, I refuse to play a game designed to fuck people like me.
“Well, you do seem to be constantly doubling down on that refusal…” said the skeleton. “But look, the president you have now, the self-proclaimed biggest winner, wakes up every day at the crack of dawn, in a rage. He wakes up snarling, doubling down on his idiotic promises, and snarls through the day. ‘You’re gonna win so much, you’re going to be tired of winning, believe me, believe me.’ Not a very good advertisement for winning, a winner who wakes up mad every day. But as we’ve noted often in these talks, the supposed role of rationality is overstressed in human affairs. Much of life is pitched directly at our ids, a shameless play to our lower impulses. When challenged for being wrong, a winner doubles down.”
No argument here, dad. The only question, really, is, if you’re doing something you believe is valuable, how do you share it, publicize it, get paid a living wage to do it.
“Well, we’ve talked about this, Elie, this is where hard work and grit come into play. Two things that have never really been your strong suit. On the other hand, a shit load of money can relieve one of the need to work hard. You can buy people to work hard for you. Look at how Trump got those 70,000 or so votes that swept him to victory in the Electoral College, though he lost by more than thirty times that margin in the general election. Social media played as big a role as the corporate mass media that gave him the billion dollars of free publicity.
“One of Steve Bannon’s great strengths was analyzing and exploiting social media, playing those lonely, angry internet nerds and geeks like a vast, out-of-tune string section. Trump’s team bought hundreds of bots in Singapore or somewhere over there to re-tweet his brilliant aphorisms. Each bot would re-tweet the latest shard of glittering prose hundreds or thousands of times. This in turn spurred an army of trolls, emboldened by the million hits to their candidate’s latest semi-literate 140 character utterance, to take to social media and do what trolls do.
“Look, I know you are revolted by faceBook, and I have to give it to you, that billionaire weasel who invented it, though he was on to something– monetizing the desire of people to connect to others– does appear to be your classic piece of shit. Your hermit friend, the tortured, emaciated fellow you see in the library from time to time, has hundreds of close personal friends on faceBook. By the looks of the way he clings to your company, he has only one friend, you, in real life, though to call your casual bumping into each other in the library a few times a year friendship might be stretching things.”
A lot of things are stretched, dad. An increasing number of things, more than I can explain. Just in the twelve years since you died, brains have been radically rewired. We are all like rats, hooked up to instant feedback machines. I have a new phone, a genius, that gives me an alert beep any time anyone I know contacts me. It is programming me to be an endlessly distracted, twitching rat. I can turn off notifications, but then I might miss an email or text.
“That would be a fucking tragedy, Elie,” said the skeleton, “I can see why you’d be reluctant to turn off notifications. LOL!”
It’s hard to explain. When you were struggling with Mavis Beacon to learn typing, you found that software that translated speech to text. It produced Mad Libs. A few years later, I can talk into my phone and it flawlessly transcribes whatever I’m saying.
“Ain’t dat some shit…” said the skeleton. “How does this make your life better, actually?”
You’re missing the point, dad. This is the direction the fractured attention span of the world is going. I can save valuable minutes, and my carpal tunnels, by just dictating my emails now. It’s not about making my life better, actually, it’s about providing services that make it more convenient, tie me more inextricably to this little computer I carry in my pocket. The better to know my habits, needs and preferences, the better to market to me.
“They’re marketing to the wrong guy, Elie, we’ve just established what a shitty consumer you are.”
OK. That’s true. But most people are perfectly suited for this kind of in your pocket continual reminder of the many, many great things money can buy. And keeping in touch with the people they know, like my old friend who just sent me a beautiful video of the view from his kayak, shot ten minutes ago.
“Well, it’s nice that your friend can send you a nature video, that’s pretty cool, but the rest reflects the tragedy of misguided mankind right there. The complete triumph of ever more invasive capitalism. What’s the latest thing? Want to search for images of naked ladies in a private browser that doesn’t record your searches? Google now makes you sign in, so they can know if you like black chicks, or Asians, small ones, gigantic ones, young ones or old ones. This is important information for those who pander to your id. To those who pander best, go the spoils. Expert pandering is the difference between winning or losing.”
Thanks, as always, for the insight, dad. I’ll catch you next time.
“Be there, or be square, baby,” said the skeleton, with what might have been a wink.