Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Love and Lemmings

In modern America divorce is as much of an institution as marriage. The results--particularly the financial results for men--are calamitous. Today marriage is a lease, not a buy. Everyone is aware of this. Everyone acknowledges that marriage is a countdown to separation. Divorce surprises no one.

Yet what happens when you tell people you don’t believe in marriage? They react like you're some kind of curiosity from the future. Even if they aren't religious. Even if they are a group of divorcees. The fact that you aren't eager to become another predictable divorce statistic renders you an outcast.

Same thing with politics. You sit around a bar and listen to everyone list all the reasons why the political system doesn’t work, all the reasons the government is unfixable. Then when you say you don’t vote, outrage abounds! You are immediately treated with suspicion and disdain. How dare you not participate in this thing we all agree is irreparable!

It seems it is perfectly fine to skewer the sacred cows of marriage and voting, just as long as after you're done skewering you promise to line up with all the suckers. As long as you pledge not to change your behavior in light of the facts of marriage and politics, you are in the clear. The second you act on this knowledge, you are kicked out of the conversation. It's fine to complain, just as long as you promise not to do anything about it. This is the opposite of the advice people usually give you. 
So if you want people to take your advice on relationships, don't give them the best advice of all; avoid marriage. If you want people to take your disdain for politics seriously, don't reveal your non-voting record.

Why? Because MAN is a herd animal, and people want company on the Titanic.

Monday, August 27, 2012

One Angry Man

I “served” on a jury in the summer of 2007. It was just one day. The parties settled, so my service amounted to sitting in a room for several hours next to a bunch of other frustrated jurors-to-be. Naturally, I walked out of that courthouse with my bosom popping, as I always do after performing sacred civic duties.

Cut to a few months ago: I received a notice in the mail saying that if I haven’t served on a jury in the last six years, I am eligible to regress back into the jury pool.
I wrote back, giving my address at the time of service and the year in which I served (a little less than four years ago). In return I received a summons for jury duty. Apparently, my name, my address at the time of service, and my year of service wasn’t enough to help them narrow things down. Never count on a bureaucrat to connect any dots (or to even have a pen for the dot-connecting).
The juror website for my state offers no useful info. for contacting someone to explain any of this, because if it provided this function, people would use it to clear up the kinds of misunderstandings that lead to their being called to serve on juries when they aren’t actually eligible to serve on them. This is not an accident.
So I go to the Manhattan courthouse to explain this. I brought my new summons, along with my original summons from 2007, the jury questionnaire I filled out in 2007, and a paystub from 2007 showing my old address. This would be enough documentation to get a home mortgage loan, a lease on a pre-owned hovercraft, and an orphan from Darfur, so I figured it would be more than enough to verify that I sat in a jury room for one day in 2007.
When I showed the woman at the courthouse my paperwork, she acted like I’d handed her a used heroin needle. “No, you have to have your original certificate of service!” Evidently every document related to said service is irrelevant. I started to ask if she could just check with Queens (the county I served in), but she interjected with “We have no way of checking the records in Queens.”
Jury duty is spoken of as this sacred function, and in some cases, the decisions made by juries are a matter of life and death. Yet the databases of New York’s five boroughs lack the ability to communicate with each other about the folks performing this sacred duty. It seems Lady Justice is also blind to fax machines.
She gave me the number to call in Queens. I got someone on the line and gave my name, my old address, and the date on which I served. Within seconds, the woman in Queens was able to verify that I had served. I then asked how I could obtain a new certificate of service to satisfy the people in Manhattan. She said I could either go all the way out to the Queens courthouse (Jamaica, Queens, which is only slightly closer than Jamaica the island), or they could mail it to my old address. I told her I didn’t live there anymore. She said they could only mail it to the old address. I tried to ask if she could somehow communicate to Manhattan that Queens had a record of my service. She said my only option was to trek all the way out to the Queens courthouse to get a copy of the record. And of course, they don’t have evening hours. Why make things at all workable for the people who are employed and pay the taxes that keep courthouses operational in the first place?
So I go all the way out to the Jamaica Queens courthouse. It takes about an hour to get there. After going through security, I ask the guy where to go to obtain records. He sends me to a spot on the other side of the courthouse. When I get there, the signs I see give me a hunch that I’m in the wrong place. While on line I get on my cell and call the Queens helpline to make sure I’m in the right place. They tell me to go to the jury room for records. I head to the jury room. There are a handful of jurors-to-be sitting around (I’m guessing everyone was at lunch), but not a single official in sight. Literally not even one.
I walk back out and try to speak to a different security guy. He cuts me off and gives me another room number. I go upstairs to this new room; it’s marked as the room for jurors with questions. Not exactly what I was asking for, but at least we’re getting warmer.
In this room there was a woman leaning against the counter. She asked if she could help. As I started to explain why I was there, she cut me off, pointed to a bench and said, “Someone will be with you.” Before I could give any details, she just commanded me to sit…like I was a troubled dog on a troubled dog reality show. So I sat on this bench. NO ONE ELSE WAS WAITING. No one. Just me. There were probably 5 or 6 courthouse workers behind the desk chit-chatting (I learned that one of them was trying to lose weight). I sat there while the people behind the desk, who according to the signs, are there to answer questions, did nothing. They certainly weren’t answering any questions (except those related to their co-worker's diet strategy).
Finally a guy appears and offers to help. I explain my situation, and am again told to go to the jury room. I retreat back down the stairs and trudge back to the jury room. Once again, not a single official in sight. I started walking around in circles, thinking I must be missing something. After making a few laps around the mostly empty room, I find a little nook in the corner with an open door. I see two guys inside. I ask if they can get my records. One of them says YES HE CAN. DING! DING! DING!
Some obvious: Why weren’t there lots of signs identifying this as the records room? Why didn’t anyone on the phone or in person tell me to look for this room within the jury room? I can tell you its location wasn’t obvious.
The guy in this room was actually helpful, and I managed to get two copies of my certificate of service.
I went all the way back to the Manhattan courthouse (another hour-plus journey). I dealt with the same woman as before. I handed her my certificate. She adopted a nagging tone and lobbed this at me: “Come next August, you’ll be eligible again.”
Not: “Hey thanks for being patient with our embarrassingly outdated process.”
Not: “Hey thanks for being honest enough to comply.”
Not: “Hey thanks for paying the skyhigh taxes that allow me and my Kafka-villain colleagues to buy the paperwork we use to tapeworm your time.”
Nope, just another rap on the knuckles as I walked out the door. And we’re supposed to trust this system to make a sound judgment about whom to execute?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Random Acts of Randomness

You probably heard about that shooting that happened yesterday by the Empire State Building. I used to work just two blocks away from there, and less than a month ago, I had my farewell company lunch at the Heartland Brewery; the restaurant you saw on the news, the restaurant that had the gunfire right in front of it. Yep, not thirty days ago, I was eating lunch there. You’re probably thinking: “Wow, makes you think.”

Not really.
Yes, it could have been me. But it could have been me ANY day. It could be me today. A similar shooting could take place at the deli around the corner from my apartment. I’d be caught flat-footed, and would fill up with lead before I knew what was happening.
But getting back to yesterday’s shooting: The shooter had been out of work for what…a year, so hypothetically he could have stopped by during any of those days; not just yesterday. I walked by there quite frequently. Any day over the last year, I could have been there on a day when the shooter snapped. I could have been caught in the crossfire.
But what is always lost in the idiotic media coverage of these kinds of events is that that chance—the chance of encountering unpredictable violence-- exists every single day. Every time you interact with the world, worst case scenarios are all around you (and you can also get hurt at home of course). Every square inch of Earth has the potential for violence. Every square inch of Earth has already experienced violence. Every time you take a step forward, you are walking on someone’s grave. It wasn’t always concrete.
Every single day you are surrounded by disaster, and despite what the news might lead you to believe, extreme violence can happen anywhere at any time. Your parents weren’t totally crazy to plant that idea in your idea. Every subway car you ride probably has at least one person on the edge. Every mile of highway you drive down probably at least one person with a kettle of violence brewing inside him. And he already has a deadly weapon…his car.
But although violence can happen anywhere at any time, it rarely does. And the kind of chaotic violence that took place by the Empire State Building is such a low probability event that it isn’t worth thinking about. It doesn’t make sense to alter your life one bit to account for the possibility of ultra-low probability events. The only thing to “learn” from these events is that yes, you’re never completely safe anywhere, and when you see something that looks amiss, there is nothing wrong with crossing the street. It can pay to be paranoid.
Yes, in aggregate, some places are more violent than others, and yes, walking down the street at 3:00 AM is probably a bigger risk than doing it at 3:00 PM. But that is about all you can do to “avoid” violence; basic risk management.
So turn off the news and go on with your life like nothing happened. Be vigilant, but don’t lose sight of the cold, hard statistics, which favor your continued (mostly) safe existence. In other words, be a nerd with an edge (too bad those skinny jeans will make it nearly impossible to run away from the perpetrators).

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Judging a bookstore by its brown paper cover

There is a 24-hour adult book store near my apartment. Hard to believe these places still exist. Between free Internet porn and online booksellers hocking paperbacks for 99 cents, I would have thought the adult book store would have gone the way of, well, every other kind of bookstore. I never would have guessed there were enough smut purists out there to allow adult book stores to afford Manhattan rents.

I have never popped into an adult book shop, but I would like to know if they have sections for Staff Recommendations. Hopefully not. It would be awkward enough browsing in an establishment called “Johnny’s Peepers Pages of Perversion,” without also discovering that the cashier’s vices involve butterscotch and squirrels.
I can just imagine the Staff Recommendation section…next to Who Moved My Lube? and The 17 Inch Sex Diet, there would be the stupid hand-written sign below the books:
“I really believed she was barely legal!” – Sam, Johnny Peeper’s Pages of Perversion Associate.
And even if I was intrigued enough by one of Sam’s recommendations to take a look at it, I’d still be afraid to buy the thing. There isn’t enough Purell in the world to get me to put my hands on a book that Sam the Shady Adult Bookstore Graveyard Shift Cashier might have already, ahem…flipped through.