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Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Chicago public transport system used to be content to just make me late.

That really used to piss me off. But now that it's tried to kill me, I think I'll be able to put non-near-lethal delays in perspective.

Tell me, what's worse than walking six or seven miles to the library because you only want to splurge on the inflated el fee one way and you figure you'll be more tired coming home, then getting on the train when you're ready to come back, plunging into the best-looking of the books you've checked out, and almost instantly being interrupted by the loudspeaker announcement that you're being delayed due to a small fire on the subway track, and looking up and realizing that the air is beginning to fill with greenish-black smoke, and putting your shirt over your nose as it starts to smell like a cross between a tire fire and Satan's hangover breath, and getting dizzy anyway, and then not being able to see more than two seats in front of you, and realizing that you're stuck 100 meters underground and have no idea how many side tunnels lead out of the main tunnel -- not that you can safely bail out of the car anyway, since god knows what's going on out there, and now the train has begun to crawl along, and the conductor promises you're going to be released at the next station, but then the car stops again, and then it starts again, and then as orange flames sweep down the sides of the car you realize that the conductor is driving the train through the goddamned fire, or else you have died already and the train is taking you to Hell, and you should have listened to your grandmother -- but since your lungs feel so terrible you kind of suspect you are alive, for the moment, and now you wonder exactly how you're going to die, since asphyxiation, poisoning, being burned alive, or simply dying of the panic attack you feel coming on (for once it makes sense!) all seem to be more or less equally viable candidates, and you're wishing you could store oxygen in your body tissues somewhere for use when you can't breathe, in the same way you can store calories for use when you can't eat, and you suppose evolution will have to throw humanity a few more million tunnel fires before we'll make that adaptation, and hopefully we'll have died out by that point anyway -- if the idiots who are clamoring for the conductor to open the doors (so the smoke can get in faster, derrrrrr) are any indication, it won't be long before we shoot ourselves in our last remaining foot -- and shit, isn't it going to suck to die this way, and since you're in the tunnel and can't get reception you can't even send anyone a goodbye e-mail, and jesus christ I never noticed how claustrophobic the subway is before, if anyone survives they'll have a great idea for a horror movie I'll bet, and then as far as you can tell in the smoke the train seems to have finally pulled into the station, but before the doors open the power goes off? Huh? What's worse than that, you ask?

Well, at least up to this point, we have all been in it together. But when people start figuring out that even with the power off we can open the doors by pulling the safety knob, it's every lung for itself. And the lungs nearest the only reachable (broken) escalator are up near the ground and the breathable air (relatively breathable; this is Chicago, after all, but right now a face full of diesel exhaust would taste like a mountain breeze) before the rest of us can even get within seeing distance of its heavenly light. The escalator is only two people wide, so everybody lined up in back is going to have a few more minutes' wait before our oxygen feast.

So what do the first people to get to the escalator do? WHAT DO THESE ASSHATS DO, I ASK YOU?! Do they panic and cause a riot? Do those of us in the rear start a scrambling row? Oh no, nothing happens that's as understandable as that. This is the glorious 21st century, and we are all angels of ADD. Forgetting their so recent terror, not to mention the continuing terror of those behind them, the first waves of people to reach the upper world START SLOWING DOWN THE MINUTE THEY CAN BREATHE, HALFWAY UP THE FUCKIN ESCALATOR, SO THEY CAN DIG OUT THEIR PHONES AND START SENDING PEOPLE TEXT MESSAGES!!!!

Uh... human race? Hello? Hello? What are you thinking when you do things like this? Mom doesn't need to be assured that you're safe yet -- this only started thirty minutes ago, and even if anything's hit the TV she probably doesn't know exactly which red line run you were on, unless you're such a mama's boy you actually text her shit like that. Your boss doesn't need to know you're going to be late until you actually start being late, and your friends don't need to know (ASNAP!)what an amazing cool unique thing you just survived... because it ISN'T THAT FUCKING SPECIAL. It's just another near-death experience; people have them all the time; quite often they swing so near they actually fall in.

But the rest of us down here do in fact need something: AIR! WE NEED AIR, YOU PIECE OF SHIT!

When we finally made it out, there were people from the train that was nearest the ignition point stumbling around with their faces covered in greasy black crap; about ten ambulances were already on the scene, and a few really messed-up people were being strapped to stretchers. I hung around for a while hoping we'd be offered some sort of free shuttle bus to get where we were going, but that was just the smoke inhalation thinking for me -- why would the CTA fail to charge you double when now they're going to have to find a way to pay to clean up and fix the antiquated disaster they call a train?

Then again, I seriously doubt they're going to really fix it; according to the report that's now up on the Trib's site, fires like this happen all the time. The wooden ties (I can hear Western European cities laughing at us now; yes, people, we do still use 19th-century technology, we just hoist it up in places on these rickety crumbling concrete pillars to give it that Disney city-of-the-future look, but actually we lost the Olympic bid to Rio because of SKULLDUGGERY) get soaked with fuel, and then when it's warm out and the train throws sparks, BOOM. It's just that usually it doesn't happen in the tunnels. I guess flaming, compromised wooden ties on an elevated track aren't quite as bothersome as people breathing burning creosote in an enclosed space, so they've never really given the problem much thought before.

At any rate, although I had only managed to wring about a mile's progress out of my el fare, I was feeling too stubborn to give them any more of my money (and too loopy to dig it out of my pockets and count to $2.25 anyway), so I walked all the way back home. Now my feet hurt enough that I really don't notice my lungs, so I guess I'm cured! Well, except for that black crap coming out of my nose... oh, well. At least now I know what boogers are for.

Friday, June 18, 2010

"A cynic is just a disappointed idealist." -- Carlos Yu

"You think you're so clever and classless and free
But you're still fuckin' peasants, as far as I can see"

--Marianne Faithfull

I ought to look up old Carlos Yu on Facebook. I worked with him at my first newspaper job some 17 years ago (ouch), and I can't remember why I lost contact with him; he would have been worth staying in touch with, but I suppose I was a pretty flaky beer-drinking kid back then. Anyway, the above headline was Carlos's favorite saying, and it's floated up to the top of my mind lately, tied largely I'm sure to the complex of ideas that's been stirred up by the fact that the whole BP oil disaster has occupied about 80 percent of my coherent and topical thoughts (as opposed to thoughts like 'my leg itches' and 'the cat needs water' and 'oh, life is pointless anyway, let's pop in a Tim Burton movie') for the past few weeks.

You can hardly blame me for obsessing; if you aren't worried about the mysterious future consequences of unprecedented amounts of oil being spilled into the earth's least-well-known and largest ecosystem -- not to mention the ominous and equally unprecedented underwater oil plumes which are going to lurk god knows where killing god knows what for god knows how long -- then I think you're the one, to understate the case severely, who has a problem.

But as a mere ant in the global whatever-the-fuck-you-want-to-call-the-economic-system-we-have-now, it seems all I can do about it is sign the odd petition and 'inform myself,' just in order to... what? Impress the more intellectual among my fellow ants? Scrabble for a shred of hope? Ignore my own mortality for a few moments thanks to a burst of righteous outrage? Hey, it seems to work for most ever'body else...

However, since I have, like most of the populace, long forgotten how to operate a physical newspaper, it's google google google "oil spill." So I find some pretty random stuff. There are the obligatory rants blaming Obama the socialist (if he's a socialist, kids, I'm a tree frog) and Geedub the oil tycoon (I hate to break this to you, but even if his entire life was indeed buoyed by crude, the oil cabal would have no doubt been just as strong without Junior as an ally), as expected. But what's really shocking is the relatively mainstream British-jingoist ranting I found in, of all places, the Daily Mail.

Yeah, I shouldn't have been surprised. Fancy that, a tabloid devoted to cellulite seek and snark missions publishes a bunch of columnists who still feel a vituperative resentment against the United States for... what, exactly? Not belonging to them anymore? Being fat and ugly? That's kind of the vibe I picked up, although, like most people who are tormented by tribal hatreds which are no longer nice to express in polite company, the Mail's columnists had to twist things around to make themselves look like victims, who are merely striking back in self-defense.

So their launching pad for their American-hating British diatribes is American hatred of the British, as exemplified by President Obama's OUTRAGEOUS reference to BP as 'British Petroleum,' a name the company ditched 12 years ago in favor of, um, the acronym of that very name.

See, that slip of the tongue, the Mail argues, shows just how much Obama hates, and always has hated, Great Britain. Remember when his wife HUGGED THE QUEEN? (The Mail actually used the verb form 'mauled,' as though Mrs. Obama were a bear, and her side-hug had in fact been a violent tongue kiss followed by erotic strangulation.) American outrage at BP's actions is, they claim, a direct expression of the fact that AMERICANS STUPIDLY HATE AND DISDAIN EVERYBODY, especially the INCREDIBLY CIVILISED AND SUPERIOR BRITISH RACE, because we are DUMB EUROTRASH HALFBREED YANKEE GITS. Ain't prejudice hideous? The amount of hatred simmering in these columns, as well as that openly expressed, on both sides, in the comments section, is surprising: we have been allies for quite some time, fella/ows.

Of course, one of the more rational Mail articles on the subject brought up the very valid question of why mainly-American companies such as Halliburton, who were BP's contractors on the blown-out well, are not getting the same fire as BP. Valid though it is, it's an easy question to answer: while Dick Cheney is still at large, anyone who questions Halliburton -- including the sitting president -- runs the risk of being waterboarded. (Or beheaded; I just got around to watching Alice in Wonderland, and while I've always admired Helena Bonham Carter, I think ole Dickwad would have been a much better casting choice for the Red Queen.)

I'll grant the Mail another point: as much of a ditheringly detached scumbag as he seems in his own right, you almost had to feel sorry for Tony Hayward when the U.S. Congress laid into him this week. The format of the interrogation was proportional to the disaster, but in no way appropriate to the amount of personal guilt that can be laid at the feet of a single man when an entire multinational corporation's habits of recklessness and greed are at fault.

HOWEVER: Come on, what different outcome did the Mail honestly expect? The US congressmen needed to show blustering outrage in order to appease their constituents so they could justify their useless overpaid role in a government that's so much weaker than the nondemocratic international corporate system of overlord-ism that their only possible means of remaining relevant is to, indeed, be noisy and hypocritical corporate lapdogs. How does this differ from the prostrate bloviation of British -- or any -- politicians? Serving up an individual head like Hayward (and, to a lesser extent, Obama) as a sacrificial circus scapegoat is the only way to quiet the populace without attacking the big, thick body of the multinational hydra -- which no politician, no matter how comfortably the hydra may line his pockets, has the power to do in any meaningful sense. (With the possible exception of Obama, who tried to make up for his adminstration's failure to clamp down on the oil industry in time to avert the disaster by wrangling a reparations trust fund for the small businesses and individuals that were ruined by the multinational's fuck-up -- but who in consequence is once again being blasted by the corporate welfare queens. That'll teach 'im! If he were more malin he'd just put Hayward in the stocks for a bit and then slither away with a payoff.)

In other words, if the Mail columnists know anything about the way the world works, which I hope they must, their attack on Congress (and by illogical extension, the entire American populace) is just as insincere and opportunistic as the Congressmen's attack on Hayward.

And, I suppose, in my turn I should not be surprised that the Mail is trying to drum up British jingoism against the stupid, dumb, arrogant, dumb, stupid Yanks; it's a great opportunity to use obsolete prejudices to get more clicks on your site from angry people on both sides of the pond. Never mind the fact that the daily lives of the Yanks and Brits whose ancient antagonisms they're riling up are, in the end, far more heavily affected by the same non-elected international corporate bureaucracy than they are by their own home governments. Hell, even our own home cultures are losing ground by the day.

That said, the Mail columnists do have another valid point: we Americans are throwing a fit and demanding reparations because a company we perceive as foreign (it's actually multinational, with plenty of U.S. stockholders and employees) has polluted our shores, when American corporations as well as the government are creating massive messes in others' backyards on a constant basis. True; even as we cry over BP's oiling of our shores, American companies are trashing our own neighbors' land to extract oil to fuel our monstrous SUVs. (Just google 'Canada tar sands' if you want to be absolutely sick.)

But then again, as repulsive and immoral as 'our' actions in Iraq, for example, have been, it's American taxpayers (not, you'll note, corporations such as Halliburton who have made money hand over fist off the war) whom the Bush administration set up to foot the bill for cleaning up the mess we've made there. The public sector in this country has enough trouble cleaning up its own disasters; once in a while we'd like the profiteers to pick up the bill, thank you, regardless of where they're based.

MORE ESSENTIALLY, HOWEVER: Is the average British citizen to blame for BP's spill? Absolutely not; they're powerless against the company, and any American who decides to hate the entire UK population for this soft attack is -- despite my devilish compulsion to make jokes like 'one if by crude, two if by methane' -- off his rocker. Aaaaaaaaand, by extension: just who the fuck are you, Daily Mail, to blame the average American citizen for the actions of powerful 'Americans'* beyond his control who pollute sites in other countries? I personally have no more control over the nefarious deeds of Halliburton than John Smith of Picadilly has over Tony Hayward, or than Ali Iraqui had over Saddamn not-actually-the-Taliban Hussein. In fact, I don't even drive. The Mail may rant and rave about what a gas-guzzling monster culture the U.S. has, but the fact of the matter is that most individuals must either live according to social norms or live like me -- rather small and outcast. Most people can't handle that. Do you own a vehicle, Mail columnists? Do you eat food and drink beverages? Yeah... I eat too. Maybe we should all shut up. If you're going to tilt at windmills, tilt at the multinational money government, not random tv-addicted 40-hour-a-week-working no-health-insurance-having American citizens. Most of us are just pigs being fattened for the slaughter, just like your own compatriots.

But back to Carlos Yu. You know, maybe I wouldn't care so much about any of this if it weren't for the Enlightenment. That was a period of time in which much idealism was bandied about, and those ideals have been passed down to us, even as a new, rather nastier -- dare I say it? -- international aristocracy has grown up around the corporate system. Free markets had their day, so they say, a hundred or two years ago, but what have we got now? The only people I know who weren't born with more money than God who are really rich now never sleep; they may have power within the circle influenced by their work, but they're hardly in a position or mental condition to make a real difference in the world. Those of us who want to have lives outside of work have no power at all, except the power of free blogspeech, which is reaaaaaaal useful when there are as many blogs as there are PC owners. Once in a while we can circulate a petition to save an historical building or two, but I'd like to see, say, restaurant-worker bloggers take down Sysco.

As twistedly as we may behave, modern denizens of nominally democratic nations are hopeless idealists, on the grand scale of things. More than any other peoples in history, we really seem to believe in freedom for everybody. Ironic then that almost nobody really has any. Which is business as usual for humanity, but we're unique in being so bothered by it that we're in near-psychotic denial. You're free, huh? How about that student loan? How about your rent payment? Mortgage payment? Oh, you've paid for your house? How about those property taxes, then? You think you can quit your job and keep that house you 'own'? What percentage of your income do you spend paying property taxes for the right to live on 'your' land in comparison to, say, the percentage of his fortune that an anonymous scion of the Walton family pays in total? Yeah, you're free. I'm free. Free to be you and me: indentured servants, whoo fucking pee.

I remember being patriotic when I was a little kid. It's natural to want to be proud of your country, even if it can lead to nasty things. It's especially natural when your country tells you stuff like, hey, you're free! No tyrant can rule over you! But then why is Dad so cranky and miserable? You find out when you get a job and are shoved into the mini-realpolitik of the office that, even if we were living in a pure and perfect libertarian or socialist paradise, where everybody truly got an equal shot from the start, people will take petty tyranny where they can achieve it, and enlarge the scope of their ass-rapership whenever possible. Actually, didn't you already learn that lesson in grade school? Even as you were assimilating the optimists' propaganda of freedom and equality, the kids who thought they were better than you for one reason or another (sometimes just because they didn't like your face) were stuffing you into the Dumpster behind the gym.

Feudalism and aristocracy seem to be the natural tendencies of large-scale and complex human societies. Any measure of democracy or freedom is a sweet fruit to be savored, indeed, but not to be depended upon. It seems almost cruel to inculcate children with the idea that these things are their inalienable rights, when most waking hours of most people's lives in even the most affluent nations are marred by bondage to activities contrary to the individual will. And the sweeter freedom sounds to you, the bitterer you're going to be when you grow up and realize how pitifully rare such a thing is in all of human history.

Sometimes I just want to put my blinkers on, get high on yoga, put my head down, and think about nonexistent gods while I muck through the most mindless job I can find, then shuffle home and turn on the circus tube. When I was younger I thought such behavior was degenerate, but now I think it's realistic; nonetheless, something keeps me studying things like Sanskrit and history and literature whenever I can work up the energy. I think that something may be a yet-unlabeled form of insanity. 'Cause we're still fucking peasants as far as I can see, and even after the death of Divine Right, repositories of divide-and-conquer strategems such as the Daily Mail and the non-fiscal right seem to hold an eternal advantage over love and logic.

*Who, for all their own opportunistic pseudo-jingoist rhetoric, care more about their equally wealthy Saudi oil buddies than they care about Joe Yank -- I mean, seriously, geedub would have looked much more appropriate wearing a giant pound symbol hat on his head than a frigging cowboy hat.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

More signs of the apocalypse

Oh joy, now it turns out that an oil slick on top of the Gulf of Mexico would have been a minor cosmetic blemish compared to the new development: we're starting to get oil 'plumes,' they say, columns of oil droplets that are dispersing through the water below the surface, like colossal goopy octopi poised to strangle the oxygen out of the web of life.

Woops! Our bad! Sorry, other animals! Before we can figure out the real extent of the damage this spill will ultimately do to the world's largest and most mysterious ecosystem, we'll probably be extinct. Maybe we can make up one last advertising slogan for ourselves before we go. HUMANS: WE'RE LIKE AIDS FOR THE EARTH!

You'd better eat all the oysters you can while there's still time, kids. Eat 'em like popcorn while Obama (I tried to figure out what the hell logic leads the peanut gallery to surmise that this is his fault, but then I thought, oh well, a scapegoat's a scapegoat) and Tony Heyward are forced into a cage match. The last of the circenses!

But seriously, folks, I was talking to a millionaire at a bar the other day. The guy's an engineer, doesn't have a care in the world financially, he's about to pay off the mortgage on his condo... which he has stocked with three weeks' worth of rice, beans, bottled water, and canned food, because, while he hopes he never has to use them, he thinks it's fairly likely that the shit will hit the fan sooner than later, and he wants to be the guy who survives the critical period. Everybody laughs at me, he says... all my coworkers laugh at my Aldi's-shoppin' lifestyle and giggle at my pantry... but who knows whether a day will come when a million dollars in the bank won't get you a dried split pea?

Tell it to Louisiana, buddy. Tell it to Louisiana. Maybe it's just me (well, probably), but even up here in Chicago there's a sort of panic in the air.


If you can believe the Rolling Stone's political reporting (and pardon my ig, which is vast, but I don't see much more reason to distrust them than, say, Fox News), the Obama administration hasn't done all that much to clean up the corrupt relationship between oil companies and their would-be gummint regulators. Ah ha. Well then, cage match it is. But since Obama has at least publicaly admitted his guilt, he gets to keep his underwear on, and Heyward has to fight with tackle flapping. Then again, maybe nobody wants to see that...