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This news story breaks my heart. At about 7:20 am on April 18, 31-year-old Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax saw a man threatening a woman with a knife on a city street in Queens, New York City. Tale-Yax stepped in. His reward? He was stabbed. The woman he saved ran off, as did the attacker.  As Tale-Yax lay on the sidewalk in a pool of his own blood, a security camera from a nearby business filmed people walking over and around him. Of the few who gave him a second look, one man snapped a cell-phone photo, then left. Another shook Tale-Yax, got no response, and walked away. When emergency workers finally arrived, Tale-Yax had been lying on the street in full view of morning traffic for an hour and 20 minutes. He was dead when EMTs got to him.

After telling the story, the AOL news article goes into theories on how this could have happened. This may be an example of the bystander effect: the psychological theory that, the more people are around, the less likely any one of them is to help, as we each tend to assume that someone else will take care of it. Another theory proposed is that people today, especially those in big cities, are too stressed and preoccupied to really look at each other. Yet another suggests that in a large city, where people get used to the homeless sleeping on the sidewalk, passersby may not have realized that Yale-Tax was doing anything other than taking a nap.

While that last one is hard to swallow for those of us from smaller cities and suburbs, when I lived in San Francisco last summer, I did see people napping in the middle of busy sidewalks, at all times of day. I was amazed, and I stopped to look them over, timidly checking to see if they were still breathing, but I’m a bumpkin from Colorado. A veteran city-dweller would be used to sidewalk nappers, and it would have taken a closer look for someone to have seen the pool of blood under Yale-Tax’s unmoving body. Still, how can we explain the man who shook him, lifted his shoulder (clearly exposing the pool of blood), then walked away without doing a thing to help? How can we explain the man who found him interesting enough to photograph, but not enough to call 911 for?

I’m reminded of Neil Gaiman’s TV series (and later novel and comic), Neverwhere, in which businessman Richard Mayhew stops to help a tattered-looking young woman who is lying injured on a London sidewalk. This simple act plunges him into her world, called in the book “London Below”: a world of magic, communicative birds and rats, angels, vampire-like life-suckers, and extremely eccentric people. It reads like a fantasy novel, but at a few points, Gaiman makes it clear that this is really the world of the homeless and mentally ill. Read on this level, it’s a touching and disturbing commentary on how we treat our homeless. In Neverwhere, people from “London Above” are literally unable to see those from “London Below” . . . unless, like Richard, they are heading towards madness, themselves. In the real world, we actively choose not to see the homeless—and the news story notes that Yale-Tax was homeless when he was killed. Whether it’s due to the bystander effect, the Neverwhere effect, or some other aspect of human nature, there are too many examples of the basic human tendency to ignore fellow human beings when they most need our help.

There is some hope to the story of Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, though. Not everyone ignored strangers in need. The whole story started when Yale-Tax, a young man down on his luck and low on society’s totem pole, stepped in to help a woman who was being robbed. And someone, eventually, called an ambulance for Tale-Yax.

I want to be the rare person in these stories: the one who notices a person in need and does something to help. Every time I see a story like this, I want it to remind me to try to be the one who doesn’t follow the crowd. I want to be the one who sees other people. I want to be the one who helps. I’m afraid I’ll forget, become complacent, and stop seeing other people, as so many of us do. Then again, there will always be more stories like this to remind me.

I’m a big fan of both writer/director Kevin Smith and Southwest Airlines, so I was sad to hear about the online battle that’s been raging between them since last Saturday. Because I love them both so, I’ve made it a point to dig deeper and find out as much of the whole story as I can, and knowing more makes the story that much sadder: It’s clear that this whole mess could have easily been avoided.

If you haven’t heard yet, here’s a summary of the basic story as reported by the Los Angeles Times: Last Saturday, Smith was escorted off a Southwest flight because, Southwest employees told him, the captain had determined that his size posed a “safety risk” to other passengers. Smith politely left the plane when he was asked to, but he didn’t buy their explanation, and was particularly peeved because he saw this as a sign of systematic mistreatment of larger passengers. He shared his displeasure with his Twitter readership—which, unfortunately for Southwest, amounts to over 1.6 million people.

To my disappointment, neither the news reports, nor Smith’s Twitter feed, nor even the vague apologetic post written on Southwest’s blog by their representative, Linda Rutherford, makes clear what, exactly, happened. My fan-girl brain was spinning with questions: Was Smith posing a safety risk, or pushing another passenger out of his or her seat space? Was he violating an FAA regulation or posted Southwest policy? Who decided to eject him from the plane, and what reason did they give? And why was a Hollywood star flying on a discount airline that has only cramped, economy-class seats?

I wanted to know more because, as I’ve said, I’m a fan of both Kevin Smith and Southwest Airlines. I love Smith’s work: his smart, sometimes satirical, but often just goofy comedy. I think Dogma, in particular, is brilliant, and Smith himself is a great storyteller. On the other hand, I’ve flown Southwest for five of the six flights I’ve taken this year. I love that they’re cheap (because so am I), but I’ve also found their attitude towards passengers to be fun, courteous, and friendly. On my last trip, a baggage checking agent went far out of her way to help me avoid a $50 overweight baggage fee, even though the problem was entirely my fault. I have always thought highly of both parties in this argument, and I’d like to continue to do so. So I wanted to know: What really happened?

Because Southwest is being very careful about what they say, (They are in the middle of a PR nightmare, after all.) the best source I could find for the full story was Smith’s own podcast, Smodcast. As soon as he arrived home on Saturday, Smith recorded the hour-and-a-half-long episode #106, entitled “Go Fuck Yourself, Southwest Airlines,” in which he discusses the incident with his wife, journalist Jennifer Schwalbach Smith. Yes, it’s clearly just one side of a heated argument, but Southwest has not questioned Smith’s version of the events that went down, and some bloggers have praised Smith for his honestly. The podcast answered all of my questions:

Smith was flying Southwest because it’s a very convenient way to get from the Bay Area, where he had business, to Burbank, an airport that he loves and that is near his home. He has flown Southwest often, many times a week in some cases, because loved their corporate attitude and friendly service—until last Saturday, that is. He usually buys two seats for himself because a) he’s rolling in dough and can afford to, b) he jokes, “I just don’t like people!” so he avoids being crammed up against strangers, and c) as he puts it, “I’m fat! I know I’m fat!” and while he proudly and repeatedly insists that he has always been able to fit in an airline seat with the armrests down and buckle his seatbelt without an extender, he is more comfortable with more space. On Saturday evening, though, Smith was in a hurry because he’d been away from home for days and he missed his beautiful wife (He put it a bit more graphically in his podcast.) and so he asked to switch to an earlier flight. The early flight had only one seat left.

Rather than assigning seats, Southwest lets passengers pick their own. Smith chose a seat in the center of a row, between (as he tells it) two adorable, tiny ladies who were very polite and gave no complaints about having him between them. He was about to fasten his seat belt when a flight attendant told him that the captain had asked her to remove him due to “safety concerns.” It took him a moment to figure out that she was talking about his size. He pulled down the armrests to show that he could fit between them, and asked the other passengers in his row if they were uncomfortable. Both said they were fine. The flight attendant still insisted on escorting him from the plane.

Smith went calmly and politely, not wanting to cause a stir and get arrested by Homeland Security, but once back inside the airport, he began arguing (in a calm voice, he insists) with the gate agent, demanding to know on what grounds he was ejected, and who made the decision. The captain could not have made the call, he argued, as the captain could not possibly have seen him. (Rutherford’s post on Southwest’s blog later admitted that it was not the captain who made the call.) After getting the same unsatisfying reply over and over, Smith then spent the two-plus hours he had to wait for his next flight telling his 1.6 million Twitter followers exactly what he thought of Southwest Airlines. As the enormity of Southwest’s PR problem became clear, a manager walked over to Smith where he sat by the gate, apologized profusely, and offered him a voucher for $100 in credit to be used when (if!) he flys Southwest again. Smith accepted the voucher, but assured the manager that this was far from making things right.

That’s where most of the news coverage ends, but I think the best part of the story—and the most damning for Southwest—is what happened on that later flight. This flight was not crowded, so Smith used the two seats he had originally paid for, taking a window seat towards the front of the plane and setting his voucher as a placeholder in the middle seat. A pleasant young lady sat down in the aisle seat, and Smith noticed that she was about his size, perhaps a bit larger. A few minutes later, a Southwest customer service agent escorted her off the plane while Smith watched, thinking to himself, “Are you kidding me? Not again!”

The young lady did return to her seat before the plane took off, but she was noticeably upset and fighting back tears. At this point, Smith says, his previous anger at Southwest seemed petty and small. Now he was far angrier because, among so many other things, Kevin Smith is a little girl’s dad. “I just kept thinking of our daughter,” Smith told his wife on the podcast. “If that were my daughter, I would have punched somebody’s lights out!”

Late in the flight, the young lady introduced herself as Natali, and told Smith what had happened to her. He later invited her to tell her full story on Smodcast episode #107, “Thinnicism,” posted today. Natali tells listeners that she flies all the time, on Southwest and on other airlines. Although she was always nervous about her size and careful to pick a seat where she’d be most comfortable and least likely to scrunch anyone else, her size had not been a problem up until that flight.

On the flight from Oakland to Burbank, however, a flight attendant pulled her aside and told her she must sit in the aisle seat of Smith’s row. Then a customer service agent boarded the plane to tell Natali that there was a problem and she would have to step off. Back inside the airport, the agent told her that she had to buy a second seat—something she had never done before because she, like Smith, had always been able to fit in one seat with the armrests down and a non-extended seatbelt fastened. Natali pointed out to the agent that the seat next to her was already empty, but the was told that it belonged to Mr. Smith, and it would be unfair to him if she used it.

Natali continued the debate until she was finally allowed to get back on the plane, now very upset and very much aware of the dirty looks she was getting from some passengers. She has since left phone and internet messages for Southwest, with no response from them. “Believe me, you’ll hear from them now!” Smith declared. The pair went on to speculate that maybe Southwest was putting on a show for Smith, trying to prove that they treated all large people equally.

If it was a staged show, I’d have to say that it backfired completely, adding paternal rage to Smith’s personal indignation, and showing that Smith’s ejection was not an isolated case of poor judgment, but rather a sign of a systemic problem. After reading through Southwest’s web site, Smith says he’s found no clear guidelines about when a passenger’s size is or isn’t a problem. Fitting between armrests is a suggested test, but this was not used in Smith’s case or Natali’s: Both of them did fit between armrests. The site also suggests that the captain can decide, based on his or her judgment, but Southwest’s blog post admits that the captain did not actually make the call in Smith’s case, and the captain wasn’t even mentioned in Natali’s case. As of now, there is no way for a passenger to know what will or won’t be a problem, and the rules can change from flight to flight. In fact, Natali was on a connecting flight, having just made the much longer trip from Des Moines to Oakland in one seat with no problems. Smith concludes that, when flying Southwest, “If you’re over 200 pounds, I would think twice, because they could grab you at any time.”

This nightmare—for larger airline passengers and for Southwest—could have been avoided if Southwest had set solid, clear policies, shared them with their customers, and stuck to them. Of course airline employees have an obligation to look out for safety, and to provide an entire seat to every passenger who pays for one, and it’s true some people just don’t fit in one seat (many people, actually, since the CDC estimates that 67% percent of American adults are overweight and airplane seats are designed to stuff as many customers into a plane as possible). But these should not be subjective judgment calls. A person is either overflowing into someone else’s seat, or he’s not. A person is either getting in the way of safe flying procedures (buckling seatbelts, keeping the aisle clear, etc.), or she’s not. Airlines can tell us clearly what size bags fit as carry-ons. Why can’t they tell us what size bodies fit in their seats?

I’m not suggesting that they set boxes by the gate with signs that say, “If your butt doesn’t fit in this box, you’ll need to check it as baggage,” or that airline employees should measure passengers’ waists as they board the plane. Instead, airlines could simply set clear, common-sense rules, enforce them to the letter on every flight, and post them on their web sites and ticket envelopes so that passengers could plan accordingly. For example, if the web site said, “Our seats are 17 inches wide. If your body does not fit in a space this size, you’ll need to buy a second seat. If you do fit in this space, but would be uncomfortable in it, please consider buying a second seat. If you cannot sit in one seat with the armrests down, you will be asked to purchase another seat or to leave the plane.”

Of course this won’t make everyone happy, and some passengers will still be humiliated and inconvenienced by being removed from planes when they simply can’t fit and can’t afford a second seat. Still, clear, objective policies would go a long way towards decreasing the embarrassment for everyone concerned. Passengers would know exactly what to expect, and airline staff be able to explain—in a completely factual, non-euphemistic, non-insulting way—the rare occasions when they really must take someone off the plane. Most importantly, no more Kevin Smiths and Natalis would be humiliated when there really isn’t a problem, and nobody would have to live in fear of being suddenly singled out because some hidden, unnamed person arbitrarily decides that they are (as so many headlines have called Smith) “too fat to fly.”

Home, sweet home

Home, sweet home

I was delighted to find this post, in which two of my favorite bloggers, Ramit Sethi and Tim Ferriss, talk on video about the false starts and failures they’ve had in their business lives. As Ramit points out in his written introduction, perhaps the most interesting idea they bring up is Ramit’s “tripod of stability”: the practice of making sure the big things in one’s life are reliable and secure, so that one can feel comfortable taking risks in business or anywhere else.

That idea speaks to me. I don’t feel comfortable with the life I have now, and I want to go in a more entrepreneurial, varied, and independent direction, especially with my career and financial life. Since I don’t know how to do that, I’ll have to take major risks and learn as I go along (often, I’m sure, by screwing things up). If I could build a base of stability like Ramit’s, maybe I, too, will have the guts to build my own business and create the life I dream of. How am I doing so far?

The three big things Ramit mentions in his post are relationships, car, and where he lives. In the video, he also says he’s conservative about taxes. Well, I’m terrified of running afoul of the IRS, especially as a freelancer, so I’m extra conservative about taxes, too. Let’s see how I’m doing on the other major parts of my life:

Relationships: I actually do feel stable and happy in this area of my life. I get along all right with my family, and they’re doing well right now. I have a small, but solid group of wonderful friends. I feel supported, important, and drama free. I even have a serious romantic relationship in the works, and while it’s too new for me to be sure it’s a reliable, long-term thing, so far it’s bringing me nothing but joy and comfort. The people in my life definitely make me feel safe and supported.

Car: Um, yeah. For everyone who lives outside those cities where public transportation really works (San Francisco, Portland, and Chicago are the ones I’ve visited), having a good, reliable car is key to getting things done. For the past eight years, I’ve had just that, and it was a tremendous comfort. I could get anywhere I wanted (and I mean anywhere! That car took me across town, and to Canada and back.) whenever I wanted to go. I could carry anything. In a pinch, I always had a place to sleep. My car was my home, my rock, my best friend…

And now it’s dying. My car has been diagnosed with a failing front axle, plus a bad case of “Chevy Metros weren’t made to go 190,000 miles! It’s time to give it up!” It’s true. My beloved Metro has served me well, but it’s a discontinued model, which makes parts for repairs increasingly expensive, and it is, ultimately, a tin can that has already had a far more exciting life than anyone expected. My car, so reliable for so long, is no longer a rock of stability in my life. In fact, I drive around every day listening to every little noise, waiting for the front wheels to freeze up completely. It’s time to retire the Metro and get a more reliable ride.

Which is my main order of business for the next week. I’m off to buy a used car. According to Rajit, apparently being Indian requires him to drive a Honda Accord. Tim drives a Volkswagon Golf. I like both cars, but after weeks of internet research (read “procrastination”), I’ve decided on a Honda Civic. They’ve got Honda’s reputation for reliability, but they’re smaller than the Accord, less expensive than Volkswagons, and they get better gas mileage than even my beloved Metro did. Wish me luck in my car hunt.

Home: And, even more than Ramit does, I really need a reliable car in my life, because without one, I can’t be absolutely sure where I’ll sleep each night. I completely understand wwhen he says having a stable home can help you feel brave and secure, but at this point in my life, I can’t have one. I’ve spent my savings living the dream in San Francisco (except for what I’m about to spend on a car), so until I get some income—let’s face it, a lot of income—flowing in, I can’t afford to rent a home. For now, I’ve told all of my house-sitting clients I’m back in town, and I’m already hopping from house to house (all the while hoping my Metro will keep carrying me and my luggage for a few more days). I have to admit that it’s wearing me out, and I’m frustrated that I can’t find any of my stuff, that I don’t know what all I own (since most of it is in storage), and I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about where I’ll live next week.

I really do want a stable home. I love the multifaceted, entrepreneurial, exploratory career path I’m on, so wherever I live, I’m sure I’ll still be living a life of adventure. Soon, though, I’d like to stop being so literal about the “nomad” thing. I want to have a home again, to organize my stuff where I can see it and use it, to stop worrying about my most basic needs and start thinking about business ideas, creative projects, and new things to learn.

By Ramit’s standards, I’m in a Catch-22. To have the courage to take risks, I should have a stable home. However, until I’ve taken the rather large risks I’ll need to take to increase my income to the point where I can pay rent every month, I can’t afford a stable home. I suppose I’ll just have to take the risks anyway, reminding myself that it’s perfectly reasonable to be terrified—even my entrepreneurial heroes know it’s scary.

But not too scary. Heck, after next week, if all else fails, I can always sleep in my car.

leggyMy friend Rachel dresses beautifully for many time periods, usually not the one we’re in. Sometimes she looks like a turn-of-the-20th-century suffragette, with a tailored wool jacket, matching ankle-length A-line skirt, and little boots. Or she’s the image of 50s casual, riding her cruiser bicycle in pedal pushers, eyelet blouse, and simple sneakers. Other times, she’s another vision from the 50s, in a floral, full-skirted confection of a dress, with high, spiky, shiny heels. She can be Victorian or Mod, too, but she’s always feminine, and almost always pumping up her 5’1″ height with impressively high heels. She particularly likes to display her femininity in a professionally powerful way (I often think of her when I see Dr. Cutty on House, with her curvy tailored suits and high heels.) when she is at work as a college professor. As one of the younger professors at her college, she finds that sharp nails, sharp heels, and dressy attire separate her from the young people she teaches, and add to her air of authority. And though she’s also a fan of super-soft, flat Skechers, she’s most often seen in heels between 2″ and 3 1/2″ high. Why? She has flat feet, which feel better in a bit of a heel, she likes the boost to her height, and most importantly, she just likes high heels.

One day, Rachel tells me, she was in a faculty ladies’ room, wearing a fluffy floral dress and not even her highest heels, when in walked Kitty, an “old guard feminist” by Rachel’s description—meaning she was older than Rachel’s 34 years, informed by the struggles of the 70s, and dressed in flats and baggier, neutral clothes. Kitty took one look at Rachel’s outfit and said, “How can you walk in those ridiculous shoes?”

At this point in Rachel’s story, I stopped her to wonder: Is anyone that rude when they don’t have a political agenda? Would Kitty ever say aloud, “How can you go out in public in that ridiculous tie?” In a world where we’re shy about telling someone her slip (or panty, or ass crack) is showing, Kitty is amazingly free with her opinion of other people’s shoes.

Kitty went on to complain that Rachel was just setting herself, and by extension, every woman, up as a sex object when she let men see her like that. Rachel countered by asking if, since Kitty clearly had such a low opinion of men that she didn’t expect them to control their own sex drives, all women shouldn’t wear burqas everywhere. By policing Rachel’s fashion choices and their effect on men who supposedly possess no free will, wasn’t she suggesting the same thing?

Feminism and fashion add up to a delicate balance: Can we complain about fashions that degrade female power in the world, without restricting women’s freedom? Can we ask any woman, however sexily or tackily she is dressed, to cover up without making her responsible for other people’s thoughts and choices? I don’t think we can. If we argue that any person must choose her (or his! More on that in a moment.) clothing to control the minds of the people who see it, we’re removing personal responsibility from the viewers—an insult to women and men alike.

It’s tough to explain the problem in the abstract. Fortunately, I have a great example, with genders reversed:

I love taking stage combat classes—learning to create safe, but violent-looking theatrical fights with knives, swords, guns, fists, frying pans…you name it. It’s good training for an actor, a great workout, empowering, fun, and a great way to meet fascinating new friends. As an added bonus, most people, male and female, who are heavily involved in stage combat are very nice to look at. Of course they are: They’re actors, so looking good is part of their job, plus they use their bodies all the time. Stage combat folks are athletes, and many are real-life martial artists or dancers, as well. They’re pretty, pretty people. For example, check out the guys in the video below:

Nice-looking guys, aren’t they? The one in the tank top is my teacher, Benaiah. Yes, I and many of my female classmates agree that he’s beautiful, yes, that’s how he dresses most of the time when he’s teaching, and yes, I have to admit that I find it just a little distracting. It takes effort for me to focus on what I’m supposed to be doing (e.g. swinging a sword at someone or stopping them from swinging one at me!) and not to stare at those cut arm muscles, those pecs… I have been tempted to say, “Yo, Benaiah! Would you put on a real shirt already? How do you expect the women in the room to concentrate, with your rippling muscles on display?”

I never have said that, of course. If I ever would, I’d mean it as a joke and a compliment, but it wouldn’t land right. It would simply embarass the stuffing out of Benaiah, who is actually rather shy. He blushes easily, and gets flustered when even a slightly sexual topic comes up in mixed company. (It took him nearly five minutes of sputtering to tell the class, “When you’re doing this move on a woman, angle the cut to make sure you don’t hit her breast.”) He really has no idea how hot he is, or if he has, he’s very modest about it. So why the tank top? Because stage combat class is essentially gym class. It’s hot, sweaty, hard work, and one’s arms have to be free to swing in every direction. He dresses that way because it’s the most comfortable, most practical outfit for the task at hand. Also, I assume, he just likes tank tops. Who am I to complain?

That’s the most important question. If I were to seriously complain about Benaiah’s tank top, I’d be saying that I am incapable of controlling my own hormones, of focusing my own attention. Even if I were that weak, how would that be Benaiah’s problem? Isn’t it fair to expect that I can handle myself, even in the presence of a man in a tank top? Then why do we think so much less of men?

I think (and hope) it seems obvious, with genders reversed, that one can and should control one’s own thoughts and actions, and it’s ridiculous to expect other people to change the way they dress in order to control anyone else’s mind for them. Of course I can focus on the task at hand, and I’m in no danger of throwing myself at the pretty, scantily-shirted man. Why can’t men be expected to have that same self-control?

To suggest that women must dress in a certain way to control the political or sexual or other thoughts of men is insulting to both genders. Yes, what we wear makes an impression—that’s what’s fun about fashion!—but we should all be free to choose the impression we make, and to expect other people to behave well no matter what we wear. We should all wear what we like, and allow people around us to do the same. Or, to quote the poem “Don’t Dress Your Cat in an Apron,” from that great work of 70s feminist literature, Free to Be…You and Me, “A person should wear what he wants to. A person’s a person that way.”

Hmm…I suppose this means that, when I see women younger than me in low-low jeans with their thongs and ass cracks hanging out, I can’t say (at least not out loud), “How can you wear those ridiculous pants?” They’ll probably be thinking the same thing about me, with my Mom jeans that go all the way up to the top of my hip bone. This will take work and a sense of humor, but a world where every person took responsibility for his or her own thoughts and  actions,  where we could all wear whatever we like, without it opening us to attack, political or personal, really would be a better place. I promise to work on it. I hope you will, too.

PhoneIt’s been over a month since my last post, but I’m here again, and here to stay. As I look back on my misspent month of March, I keep thinking of the 2004 movie The Forgotten, in which (spoiler alert, though it’s a spoiler for a terrible movie, and so no great loss) Julianne Moore plays a mother who is part of an experiment run by aliens from outer space. The aliens have set out to prove that Earthling parents can be made to forget their children entirely if one just hides the children and messes with the parents’ minds. Moore’s character refuses to forget, no matter what the aliens do or how many of her fellow humans (including her psychiatrist and her son’s father) insist that her son never existed. Then the aliens have to kill her because, you see, otherwise she would be proof that the experiment had failed.

And that’s what I hate about that movie, and about any argument about science that fails to understand what science is and isn’t, or how a scientific experiment, or any experiment, really, works. Here’s the deal: An experiment is simply trying something to find out what would happen. To be a scientific experiment, you would make an educated guess (hypothesis) as to what would happen, and then try something to find out if your guess is right. (To be truly scientific, then you would have a large sample for the things you’re testing, and at least one control group, but I’m digressing now.) And what if your guess is proven wrong? To a true scientist, or anyone who loves the true nature of an experiment, that’s wonderful! Whether your guess is proven right or wrong, the experiment is a success. You now know something new. Going back to the movie, the aliens have succeeded in finding out that not all humans can be made to forget their children. The experiment was a success. The only failed experiment is one that tells you nothing.

How does this explain where I’ve been all March?

Well, I tried two experiments in the realm of moneymaking, or attempts to get something resembling a “real job.” The first was blogging for Examiner.com as the Denver Knitting Examiner, which sucked up what little time and mental energy I had after my day job (more on that below), and got me just a few readers. Since Examiners are paid exactly one penny per page view, I made less than $0.50 per 200-1,000-word, researched, originally written blog post. Based on the statistics on my start page, this is about average for the site. It may have been worth my while anyway if I was having fun, but my posts on the very narrow topic of local, current, knitting news bored even me. Finally, on a particularly stressful day, an Examiner editor wrote to complain about the capitalization of my posts’ titles, which did not fit Examiner’s unusual and bizarre-looking official style. She further said that she had “fixed” them for me, but when I went to my site, I saw that she had no understanding of grammar and parts of speech, so the new headlines didn’t fit Examiner.com’s style, my style, or any grammatically consistent style. I thought of sending her a copy of my copyediting resume to establish my credentials, and then arguing with her, but I realized that I really didn’t care. Based on my first experiment, Examiner.com is, to my mind, not worth the effort I put in, or any effort at all. I’ve shut down my Examiner page. I may write for pay by page view sites with different structures in the future, but the Examiner’s setup did not work for me. I’m much happier writing my own blog, for free, than writing the overly constrained one for pennies…or for promised pennies. I’d like to publicly note here that Examiner.com never paid me even the $10 or so I earned during my month with them.

My other experiment was taking a temp receptionist position, for $10 an hour, with an old friend of my dad’s and his wife in their accounting firm. (All of Dad’s friends are old friends, since he’s been dead for 20 years now.) I might have known better. Because I haven’t been making much money, and I’ve begun to feel guilty about not having a regular job, I tested some long-standing assumptions: 1) I hate reception work, especially when it amounts to writing down messages for one or two people who simply think they’re too special to answer their own calls or use voice mail, and I can do nothing to help the caller, myself. Such jobs make me feel like an impediment to any real accomplishment, stress me out, and piss me off. 2) I won’t work for less than $12 an hour, unless the job really is volunteer work for a cause I care about. Less than that makes me resentful, and isn’t worth the time away from my freelance gig hunting. 3) I am fascinated by almost every field of endeavor, but accounting bores me to tears. I can just bring myself to do my own taxes each year because I like being a law-abiding citizen, but I can’t bring myself to care about anyone else’s taxes or day-to-day finances.

I wondered if I’d been cheating myself out of opportunities by clinging to these assumptions, so I took the job. Now I’ve confirmed all of them. I hated the job, and it sucked the life out of me so that I could barely get keep my Examiner blog going and keep up with my stage combat class (more on that in a later post), let alone find any other freelance work or do anything else for fun. I also added one more assumption, now proven, to my list: 4) I should never work for those people, and should be wary of working for any of my parents’ friends. While there is hope that people older than me, and even people who knew me when I was nine years old, might be able to see me as a peer, an intelligent, educated, skilled adult worthy of respect and empathy, my bosses were not such people. In the four weeks I was there, they didn’t bother to pay me, ask for my timesheets (which I’d compiled on my own, unasked), or tell me when I would be paid. They often set up my work so that I was alone in the office, waiting for someone to come by to pick up a check or some financial papers, and unable to take a break and get my lunch (while they were out to lunch, themselves). When I spoke sharply to the telemarketer who had called me back six times in a row and then started to swear at me, one of my bosses chastised me for “shouting at callers,” and continued to bitch the incident daily for the next three weeks. When, exhausted, I accidentally locked my keys inside the office as I was leaving on a Friday night, trapping me in the office building (as I couldn’t drive anywhere, and if I left the building, couldn’t get back in), I called one of my bosses for help. Her first suggestion was that I camp out in the lobby for two days until the cleaning crew came by on Sunday. When I pointed out that I actually had a life and responsibilities outside of her office (not mentioning that I also like to eat at least once every 48 hours), she seemed surprised, and suggested I call AAA, have them break into my car, and ask them to hotwire it so I could drive home. When I pointed out that AAA doesn’t hotwire cars, nor does any legal business, she told me to call a locksmith. Only when the locksmith arrived three hours later, charging me $40 (half a day’s salary, before taxes) to tell me that the only way in was to destroy the lock, did she agree to drive for half an hour to unlock the door with her key. And when I quit the next week, pointing out that this job was killing my freelance business and thus losing me money every time I came in, and I gave them two weeks notice to find and train my replacement (a job that could be done in two hours by calling any temp agency, as I told them), they replied, “Well, two weeks would put us right up against tax day. I don’t think we’ll bother to find I replacement. I think we’re going to, um, go ahead and, ah, have you just work the two weeks and be done with it.” I thought for a moment that they were joking, but then I realized that these people didn’t know what a podcast was, what iTunes was, or how to use Google, let alone how to quote Office Space. They weren’t joking. The next day, I brought in my organized timesheets with a note pointing out that Colorado labor law requires them to pay me by the 10th of the next month, and a letter of resignation that carefully explained the point of two weeks notice, that it was a courtesy and not a requirement, and that I was taking mine back. At the end of my work day, I announced that I was never coming back, left my letter and timesheets on my desk, and I was free.

I learned a good deal from that experiment, annoying as it was. I’m tempted to take other assumptions from it, such as: 1) I’m not cut out to hold any job, 2) I hate answering all phones, 3) I can’t stand anyone my parents would associate with, or 4) I should avoid all accountants, but none of those is true. I just shouldn’t do that exact type of job, for $10 an hour, or for those people. Ah, and most important: If a job sucks that much, I can leave, and I will. Life is too short to lose money hating one’s job.

My next experiment: I wonder if someone would hire me to deliver pizzas, and if I’d like the job. My hypothesis is that I’d have fun, and make pretty good money. I’ll tell you what I find out in a few weeks.

Home, sweet home

Home, sweet home

It’s good to be a freelancer. Right now, I’m in the house I grew up in, and right after administering another dose of Vicodin, I’ve just finished the last of the work projects I’ve struggled to get done this week, and I’m taking a moment to be deeply thankful that my life is so amazingly flexible.

Let me back up. At about 2 a.m. this past Tuesday, my mother was still bustling around her house, putting laundry away and generally tidying up. She trotted up the steep stairway to the second floor like she has hundreds of times over the 36 years she’s lived in that house, with her arms full and not bothering to turn on the hall light. It was so dark in that hall that, once Mom turned aside to set the laundry down on the hall table, she couldn’t see which direction was the rest of the second-floor hallway, and which was the stairs. Sleepy and disoriented, she picked the wrong way and, intending to take a step down the hall, stepped into thin air above the stairway, then fell head over heels down a full flight of stairs. She broke one arm, dislocated one shoulder, torqued her neck, and bruised several of her ribs.

Here’s where my gratitude comes in: A friend who lives nearby took Mom to the hospital to get x-rayed, diagnosed, prescribed, and patched up. When she got back home, she called to tell me the story, and at that moment, I was able to toss my laptop computer, my guitar, my knitting, several books, and a week’s worth of clothes into my car and rush right over. I’ve moved into her house for at least one week, and possibly longer, depending on what her doctor says at her checkup next Monday. I don’t have to worry about missing work, because I can work from anywhere. I don’t have to ask anyone for time off, because my time is entirely at my command. I decide when I have to work in order to meet a deadline, and when it’s time for a break because my mom needs me to fix her lunch, open her prescription bottle, or bring her a better pillow. I have no idea how I would have managed this if I’d had a full-time, in-house job, but as my life is, I have have been able to meet all of my work deadlines while hearing my mom tell her friends on the phone, “Don’t worry about me. My daughter is here, and she’s waiting on me hand and foot!”

No, it’s not fun to see someone I love in pain. Yes, it’s getting tedious to keep driving off on little errands, opening bottles and jars, and making yet another cup of tea. Yes, it has been a challenge fitting my work projects in around my worrying…but accidents happen. Illnesses happen. Heartbreaks happen. Relatives need extra care sometimes. Sometimes friends need someone to listen to their stories, or just a ride to the airport. I’m happy to know that I can make room for anything life throws at me.

The Eye of the Tiger

The Eye of the Tiger

I spent this weekend cat sitting again. No, I’m not on the move already. It’s just that I miss having cats around, since we have no pets here in my comfy home. My roommate/landlady tells me I can get a cat if I like, though she’s not a fan, herself, and so I’ve been thinking and reading web sites about getting a foster cat. That would mean taking in a kitty who lives at an animal shelter, but for some reason is not ready for adoption—she has an illness or injury to recover from, or he’s been in the shelter so long he’s forgotten how to play with people—and loving him or her until it’s time to go back and find a forever home. I’m also still open to sitting for local clients, especially those I know well. Besides, I could use some extra money, as well as the extra fur.

This weekend, I was in Longmont with two cats in a home I’ve stayed in for many weeks during my full-on-nomad days. It was refreshing to pack for just a three-day trip, easily finding everything I might need in my own closet, dresser, and shelves. It felt like a vacation instead of a total home move. In fact, I was surprised to see how calm and productive I was all weekend.

I was more surprised at how irritable I was when I got home last night. My roommate was out for the evening, but I twitched at every little thing that had changed while I was gone. How dare she run the dishwasher (Quite nice of her, actually.) and not unload it immediately? What was a clothes drying rack doing in the office (folded neatly, right next to the washer and dryer)? Why was the door to the unheated basement left open, sucking warmth from the rest of the house? Then I took a moment to be surprised at myself. My roommate is wonderful, actually. She’s easy going, rarely home, and charming and interesting when she is around. After knowing me for a week and a half, this woman baked me a cake for my birthday. I couldn’t ask for a better roommate, and I wouldn’t trade her in for another…well, maybe for Christian Bale or Kal Penn, but it would take quite a lot.

After giving it some thought, I realized that I was bothered only because I have a roommate, any roommate. I’m not used to living without cats, but more than that, I’m really, really unused to living with people. Even the sweetest roommate is a lot to get used to. I’m not used to doors being open when I haven’t opened them, trash being created by anyone but me, tiny spills on the kitchen counter that I don’t recognize. I’ve been far too isolated for too long, and I’m still not used to all this humanity. That’s why packing an overnight bag and running away for the weekend felt, more than anything, like going home.

Photo courtesy of Andy Bahn

Photo courtesy of Andy Bahn

Last Saturday evening, I played chess in a cafe with the friend I play with on most Saturday evenings. She was telling me about her search for a telephone customer service job, as she has every Saturday since she was laid off in October. She was slowing down out of pure despair—why send out more resumes if nobody answers? Just then, another friend happened by. After exchanging the usual hugs and hellos, I asked how he’d been, as I hadn’t seen him for months.

“Oh, you know,” he said, “Still looking for a job.”

Still? The last time I’d seen him, he’d been very gainfully employed.

“Oh, really?” said my friend. “It has been a while. I got laid off in August.” He went on to explain how jobs were scarce in his field, mechanical engineering, as they are all around. Then he and my chess buddy exchanged creative ideas for paying their mortgages, (She was using expensive early distributions from a 401k, and he, cannibalistically, a home equity line of credit.) and praised the glories of antidepressant drugs.

The next day, I called another friend to ask if he was up for Sunday morning coffee, our weekly ritual. He said he wasn’t, because he, along with his company’s entire sales department, had just been laid off. Being an introvert, he wanted to absorb the shock by avoiding all of humanity for several days.

I started to worry about my friends, and about the state of the world. In addition to the many unemployed, I know homeowners who are stuck in houses they can’t afford but can’t sell, successful self-employed renters who can’t buy homes because mortgage lenders are now too careful, and workers at non-profits who are watching annual budgets shrink, wondering if there will be enough left to pay their salaries. It looked like a dark and scary time, indeed…

…until yesterday and today, when I had more in-depth conversations with those friends. Now another pattern stands out more strongly than fear:

• Over coffee, the “out-of-work” mechanical engineer told me about the inventions he’s come up with in his free time, and his plans to get them to market. He also told me how he’s analyzed his investments (Playing the stock market is one of his many hobbies.) and how excited he was about buying now, at what may be the bottom, before President Obama gets sworn in and his HopeTM drives prices back up again. Then my friend

offered me ideas on how to market the knitting patterns I’m always making up, and encouraged me to look into monetizing my blog.

• I’d been worried about my newly-unemployed introvert friend, so I was relieved to get an email from him. (He still didn’t feel like talking.) He told me he’s spending most of his time in his living room, which doubles as a recording studio. A songwriter and musician, he’d been meaning to work on a new album for months, and now he finally has time. It will surely be colored by his feelings of loss and worries about money—and the fact that he’s now spending all of his non-recording time listening to Joy Division, (I’ve got to keep an eye on that boy!) but in any case, his muse is working overtime. I can’t wait to hear the album.

• Yesterday at noon, I got an out-of-the-blue call from another friend, one of the non-profit workers who’d been wondering whether he would soon be non-salary. He’s still wondering, but he’s largely forgotten about that, as he’s very busy figuring out what would completely different career path he should take next. He’s reached the top of a steep learning curve at his current job, and now he’s wondering whether to go back to school so he can do biological research, and how to fit that in with his family life, his job, and his growing career in experimental jazz. He’d called me, not because I had the faintest idea what he should do, but because I love hearing all of his ideas, and bouncing them off me helps him organize his own mind.

Taking them as a whole, I have to say: Damn! I have cool friends! On top of that, I’m noticing a larger trend here, and it’s an exciting one. Yes, the economy is in the toilet, yes, jobs and loans and charitable donations are hard to come by, but this is, above all, a time of incredible creativity. We’re being forced by economic realities to move in with people we normally wouldn’t meet, take very odd jobs, and create our own side ventures just to keep our heads above water, not to mention our juggling of debts and strange ways of paying them. In addition, laid-off employees finally have time to remember their passions, be they music, woodworking, painting, or communtiy theater. We also finally feel we have time to volunteer to help each other out—nothing puts our misfortunes in perspective like helping someone even less fortunate.

I figured out, nearly four years ago now, that having an ordinary, day-to-day job was not for me, so I’ve been experimenting with other ways to live. Now that the usual way of making a living is hard to come by, more and more people are joining me in the experiment, and I’m seeing some amazing ideas. Yes, the economy is in trouble, but I think we’re also in for a gorgeously creative time. I can’t wait to see what the world comes up with.

Note: I once had a blog, now offline, called Anita’s Weekly Column, in which I practiced writing one essay per week. I’m trying for more of a standard blog format now (though I don’t know if I’m any closer to it), but I’d like to occasionally repost some of my favorite essays from the old blog. This is one such essay:

Me as a child, on a family trip to Springfield.

Me as a child, on a family trip to Springfield.

In his blog, Traveling Hypothesis, my friend R.J. Zimmerman has posted an intriguing review of Lewis MacAdams’ book Birth of the Cool. It sounds like a great book, full of fascinating tidbits about the musicians, poets, and visual artists who shaped our world through the avant-garde movement, but I won’t be reading this book anytime soon. One of R.J.’s comments scared me away: “The story moves along one name drop at a time, leaving a story unexpectedly at the mere mention of a new player. It’s the kind of book you memorize so you can be cooler than your cool name-dropping friends at parties.” If this is a book by a name-dropper, for name-droppers, I refuse to read it. I have a great fear of any path by which people try to become cool by studying those who were cool in the past, trying to ride on their cool coattails by claiming an association with them. I’m afraid that to read such a book would remove any chance I have of ever being cool.

Yes, I do believe that I have the potential to be really, truly cool. I know that those of you who’ve met me are laughing right now. You’ve seen the wire-rimmed glasses I insist on wearing almost everywhere, even though I own contact lenses. You know that I wear no makeup at all, except on very special occasions—the occasions when I break out the contacts. You’ve noticed that my fashion choices have gotten a bit sexier since I realized that spandex-infused tight jeans and polo shirts are even comfier than the huge, baggy ones I used to wear, but that’s about as dressy as I usually get. The Converse sneakers I wear everywhere are falling apart again, but I can’t replace them because I don’t know where to find more in bright purple. I have a new haircut because I’ve realized that the all-one-length, long locks I’d had most of my life can’t get nearly as messy as my new, piecey short cut can. I can speak knowingly in the terms of Dungeons and Dragons, and I remember reading The Lord of the Rings more reverently than I remember the Bible. My stuffed animals have stuffed animals, and lately I’ve been knitting totem animals that represent myself and my friends. For fun, I read about mummies, autopsies, and neurological disorders.

It gets worse if you look at my childhood. I wear glasses now because I’m quite used to them; I was four and a half when I got my first pair. (Jerry Maguire would not convince the world that very small children with glasses were cute for another 18 years. In 1978, a four-year-old with glasses was simply a freak.) I didn’t learn to speak at the rate generally considered normal. In kindergarten, I was sent to a speech pathologist who systematically taught me to pronounce “sh” “t” “th” and “s” sounds correctly and at the right places in the language. I continued to see a string of speech therapists through the fourth grade because it took them that long to figure out how to get me to pronounce the “r” sound. In the meantime, I shuddered when people asked me my last name, knowing that they would never understand “Harkess” coming out of my mouth. I learned to avoid speaking at all. By the time I mastered “r”s at the age of nine, I was used to being practically mute, and stayed so well into high school. When I was six, my orthodontist started experimenting with pulling lots of baby teeth to see if this would make my adult teeth grow in straighter than otherwise expected. They didn’t. After my few remaining teeth leaned in, my canines grew in high up on my gums. From age 10 until I got my extremely painful braces at age 12, I avoided smiling so that other kids wouldn’t be scared by my fangs. On top of all of that, I was definitely what psychologist Elaine Aron now calls “a highly sensitive person,” meaning that I was one of those kids who involuntarily burst into tears with the slightest stress. In short, a string of issues beyond my control doomed me to a childhood as an incorrigible dork.

All of this, of course, is the blessing that gives me the potential to be truly cool. In his review, R.J. explains that MacAdams’ book has taught him what cool really is: “the detachment from what seems important to everyone else, mostly because nobody’s listening to you anyway.” Learning early on that I could not possibly attain the small details that seem important to everyone else, I learned not to care as much as most people do. I never struggled to fit in, simply because I never had much hope that I could.

I didn’t realize what a marvelous, protective gift my dorkiness was until 2002, when my very cool friend Rachel sent me a copy of the New York Times Magazine article profiling Rosalind Wiseman and her upcoming book for parents, Queen Bees and Wannabes. Wiseman had done a great deal of work with young teenaged girls. Her book, and the article, revealed how truly horrible these outwardly sweet little girls could be to one another. She shocked and worried a nation of parents by showing how the “queen bees” at the top of the most powerful cliques in most American schools can order communal actions that amount to psychological torture. Those at the top can make those on the edge do just about anything, all the way from buying clothes their families can’t afford, to standing for public humiliation, to going way too far with alcohol, drugs, and too-early, promiscuous sex. Yes, the clique system is dangerous and cruel. And what gives the queen bees such incredible power? It’s the desire of the wannabe, that urge everyone has to belong, to be accepted, to be part of a community. The wannabe wants so desperately to fit in that she will do anything to please those in power.

Wiseman’s book goes on to instruct parents on how to communicate with their daughters to help them navigate the clique system and rise ethically to a position of power. Me, I suggest a different solution. You see, I remember the cliques from my junior-high days. I remember the queen bee, her wannabe disciples in tow, following me as I walked home from school each day of seventh grade, yelling something about my hair. (I think it had to do with the color. My hair had recently turned from light blonde, like hers, to the murky midpoint between blonde and brown where it still is today. For some reason, this color, and my refusal to bleach it out or dye over it, is particularly offensive to 12-year-old blondes.) I remember ignoring her, and I remember letting out a friendly laugh as the wannabes quietly came to me at my locker the next day, apologizing for their queen’s behavior. I remember being touched by their respect for me, but I don’t otherwise remember caring much. I definitely don’t remember changing my appearance or my actions to make this stupid girl like me. It’s not that I didn’t want to belong to the group. I just realized that nothing I could do would ever make that possible, so I went on with my dorky little life, saving a lot of time, energy, and money for my own interests. I’m grateful now that I was such a complete outsider. If I ever have a daughter, I’d like to give her such a gift. I’ll spare her the tooth-pulling, and I’ll let her speak correctly if she can, but I am definitely going to buy her the ugliest pair of glasses I can find, then make her wear them, whether she needs them or not.

I do believe in the problem Wiseman describes. Even as a girl, I had an inkling of what it was like to be a wannabe. I felt sorry for the sweet girls who met me at my locker. As early as eighth grade, I heard about drunken parties I could never be invited to, about the boys who prowled them looking for passed-out girls to have sex with, and the class president, who peed in another eighth-grader’s mouth because he was too drunk to enjoy oral sex. In high school, I heard about kids being rushed to the hospital with alcohol poisoning. I heard about the girl in my senior class who got so drunk that she spent the night spread-eagled on a pool table, having sex with any besotted boy who wandered by. I heard how horrible she felt afterward, and that her parents threatened to sue the school paper for running a classified ad that cryptically mentioned the incident, but that most of the damage was already done. I felt sorry for her, too. I was grateful that I wasn’t invited to that party. My freakishness was my armor. I was saved from the torture of belonging.

This is why I believe that I may someday be cool. I think that we too often mistake being “in” for being cool, when in fact the two states are opposites. The “in” crowd, the fashionable people, those who belong, simply do as they’re told. They work very hard at being just like as many other people as possible. The truly cool do whatever works for them, whether or not anyone else understands it. They focus on their own lives, on causes that matter to them, on art that comes from their souls, and in so doing, they accidentally become unmistakably unique. The “in” are sometimes respectable. The cool are geniuses.

For example, the more I learn about Neil Young, the cooler I think he is. He is, and always has been, a strange-looking guy. His voice is even stranger. He is best known as a guitarist, but his songs are so easy to play that they are often taught to beginning guitar students. In his solos, he doesn’t show off technical prowess or speed; there are plenty of guitarists who play faster and more complicated licks. He just plays what sounds good to him. He even wanders from genre to genre, from the hippie protest songs of Buffalo Springfield, to the pretty folk of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, to Crazy Horse’s hard rock—the precursor to grunge—to some beautiful country songs and some so twangy that I wonder if he’s making fun of the genre. When he dabbled in electronica in the early 80s, he was so far outside of expectations that his record label sued him for making “unrepresentative music.” Even now, at 60, (note: This essay was written years ago. Young is now 63.) he has not sunk into the mire of doing only greatest hits albums and “I-need-the-cash” reunion tours, as many older stars do. He’s still writing new songs, still performing, still using his power as a celebrity to propel his favorite social causes, like Farm Aid, Live 8, and his wife’s creation, the Bridge School. In an age when appearing in an iPod or car commercial is considered to be the best way to promote an album, Young is one of the few classic rockers who hasn’t sold any song for any ad. He’s surely a celebrity worth admiring. His real appeal for me, though, is best summed up by Kevin Chong, the self-described geek who wrote the homage book Neil Young Nation: “Young was the embodiment, in his appearance, his singing, his music, of a type of anti-beauty. To an awkward kid, this was appealing. Young sought beauty in frayed edges and worn-out patches. He reveled in bum notes, in buzzing guitar strings.”

Of course, I haven’t read Chong’s book, either. I’ll allow myself to read it in a couple of months. I’m rationing my Neil Young intake now, an album here, a book there. Loyal fan that I am, I am afraid of steeping myself too thoroughly in anyone else’s story. I don’t want to become an imitator, or the sort of rabid fan who is so excited about someone else’s life that she forgets to live her own. That would definitely not be cool.

Anyway, I don’t ever need to know all about Neil Young, as I don’t want to be exactly like him. I just want to be cool like Neil Young—to be an outsider, irreverent, obviously imperfect, a little bit ugly, a little bit odd, and proud of it. Thanks to the gifts I’ve been given, I think I just might have what it takes.

Photo by Robert S. Donovan (booleansplit on Flickr) used under Creative Commons license

Photo by Robert S. Donovan (who does not necessarily endorse the opinions on this blog) and used under a Creative Commons license

The main branch of the Boulder Public Library—my favorite local library, one with a great variety of interesting books—has a nifty gadget for its book drop. Instead of the usual mailbox-like hole in the wall, all books returned to the Boulder Library (whether or not the library is open) go into a machine embedded on the outside wall of the building, a small metal box with a door in its center, under a sign that says “Book Drop.” When one waves a book (or anything else, really) towards the door, an electric eye notices, and the door opens, revealing a treadmill-like belt. A pleasant voice says, “One item at a time please. The door will close when you are finished.” Books placed on the belt are spirited away to some secret, safe spot inside the building. When the last book is gone, the door stays open and the treadmill running for a full minute, the electric eye making sure no more books are coming, and then the door gently slides shut.

I like the machine. It’s more trouble and more electricity than is strictly necessary, but I find it fun, and it does give me a secure feeling to know that my books are so tidily tucked away. Also, when there is a line of people returning books, one person after another can swoop in and set a book on the treadmill, efficiently stowing away several people’s deliveries before the little door closes. Sometimes I watch, making a game of seeing how many people can get through on one open door.

The game didn’t work today. One woman was at the machine when I arrived. I waited a polite distance away for her first two books, but then I noticed that before every book, she stepped back and waited until the door closed. Then she pressed her thumb on the metal housing that contained the electric eye, leaning hard, as if it were a sticking button. Eventually, the door would open again, the voice would say, “One item at a time, please. The door will close when you are finished,” and she’d reach into her large bag of books and place one on the treadmill. Then she’d wait for the door to close. Then she’d pound on the electric eye. Then she’d place one book on the treadmill. Then she’d wait for the door, then pound harder on the eye… At this rate, I would be waiting all morning to spend my two minutes with the machine.

“There is no button,” I said. “It’s motion activated. And you don’t have to wait for the door to close.”

“One item at a time!” the woman shrieked back. “Can’t you hear?!”

“That just means, ‘Place one book on the belt at a time,'” I continued over the electronic voice, which was starting up again. In unison, the voice and I said, “The door will close when you are finished.”

The woman ignored me and continued to pound on the electric eye.

“That’s still not a button,” I said.

She kept pounding, placing one book, pounding again, ignoring me and the machine’s voice. She placed one last book, then looked at me at last. “There! Are you happy?!” She stormed off.

I’m not happy. I’m rather depressed, actually. I’ve been thinking about her all day. This woman will never learn how to use the cute little book drop that so many of us enjoy, and soon she’ll probably break the electronic eye. Worse, she’ll spend the rest of her day, her week, her life, complaining about how difficult everything is, and how rude people everywhere seem to think that she’s an idiot.

She is an idiot. This is not an inborn trait, a mental illness, or a chemical imbalance. It’s just that she works so hard at never understanding what’s really going on. She clings to her first impression so completely that she can never understand anything new, anything that takes more than a single glance to figure out. “One sentence at a time, please. The mind will close when I am finished.” Many people learn slowly or in different ways from the standard school curriculum. I enjoy these people: I’ve met many with “learning disabilities” who are, in fact, highly creative, intelligent individuals who create great things and broaden my view of the world. In a completely different camp, and far more common, I’m afraid, are people like the woman at the library, who work very hard at refusing to learn, refusing to consider anything but the first conclusion they jumped to.

Of course, we all do this to some degree. I am taking my ten minutes with this woman and expanding it to assume that I know how she lives her entire life. I could be wrong. She could be closed-minded and defensive only around fancy library book drops. Still, I am better about this than the average bear, and I’m sure this is the only reason why many people around me think I’m remarkably intelligent. I do score very well on IQ tests, but only because I like puzzles and games and figuring out what answer each game is looking for. My mother (who, at 66, is actually quite good with computers, and much better than she thinks she is) is always impressed when I “fix” her computer problems, even though I only tried one more possible fix than she had. One of my past boyfriends, a tri-lingual, high-tech marketing manager with a degree in physics and a hobby of studying linguistics, called me “the smartest person he knows,” but only because I knew a little more than the average person did about every subject that came up. I usually figure out how the latest thriller film is going to end before the rest of the audience does. I’m curious, I like revelations and plot twists, and I am relatively open to being proved wrong.

I still need to work on this, though. Aggressive stupidity, the refusal to let go of one’s first assumption and find out something new, is still a problem for me, and it’s at the root of most of our world’s problems.

The US economy? Ordinary, working folks came to assume that a mortgage broker wouldn’t give them a loan for more than they could pay, so they let predatory lenders tell them “how much house they could afford.” Investors in mortgage-based securities had always assumed that mortgages were rock-solid investments, so they bought the shaky loans. All up and down the line, most folks didn’t notice that the game had changed until the damage was done.

Workplace misery? The Dilbert-esque “pointy haired boss” still lives in offices, warehouses, worksites: the one who refuses to listen to “underlings” who have more specific knowlege and training, the one who, faced with a problem, leaps to blame the nearest person for it, never finding out what really happened or how to prevent the same thing from happening again. These are the people who use oversized words they don’t understand, and will never learn the meanings of, because they assume that they sound smarter that way. These are the people who make their coworkers miserable and their companies ineffective.

Bigotry, hate crimes, and most wars? We all tend to make snap assumptions about other people, and the more different a person is from us, the less we know about them, the more broad and rigid the assumptions. “All muslims are anti-American terrorists.” “All women are crazy gold-diggers.” “All men are violent jerks.” “All homosexuals are promiscuous, disease-ridden, and rapists, too.” “People with developmental disabilities can’t learn, and have nothing important to say.” “Everyone in Country X despises our country and wants to destroy our way of life.” “All Republicans are heartless.” “All Liberals are mindless, soft-hearted saps.” And on and on. Groups get polarized, wars declared, and huge misunderstandings live on and on until someone finally looks past their first assumption. Peace and acceptance only come when we can finally past a general label and get to know a real person.

I know I need to work on this, myself. Clinging to our first assumption is a bad habit, and a very dangerous one. At least now I have a solid image to remind me to open my mind. Now, when I’m feeling stuck, frustrated, victimized, I can just ask myself, “Is this situation (person, machine, etc.) really impossible, or am I just pounding on an electric eye?”