July 2015
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Some whinging

This was a horrendous month. In Amagansett, I am as I write this without Internet and, for part of the day, even without cell phone service. PSEG, which inherited the substandard electrical service out here from the politicized and useless Long Island Power Authority, manages a system of above-ground poles and shoddy looking hardware next to the front door which looks like it will fall off any moment under the influence of our corrosive ocean winds. For the second time in a few years, the amperage got out of whack coming in from the pole, causing problems with the gadgets inside the house. Last time the refrigerator shut itself off, but this time the cable and Internet were fried. PSEG repaired the amperage problem about a week after Cablevision discovered it, and now Cablevision is scheduled to return nine days later; they insist that is their first available, even though I am without Internet, which you would think would be regarded as an emergency situation. The local Cablevision wifi signal is weak and I can only connect to it intermittently from my Chromebook. I wrote most of a Spectacle essay to be entitled "New York Fucking City", closed the Chromebook and the next morning discovered I lost about half of it, probably due to connection problems and the fact the Chromebook stores everything in the cloud. In the meantime, Verizon phone service seems to be degrading everywhere, in the city as well as here. In Amagansett, I can't get a 4G signal for much of the day, so no Internet that way either, and for an hour or so yesterday couldn't even make a phone call or check voicemail. I can't remember the last time I was so completely disconnected from the grid. Luckily we had lovely visitors and I also spent time working with a neighbor on a project, so human connectivity compensated for the lack of electronic.

This was already a hard month for two other reasons. I have been having some epiphanies about the pro bono work to which I devote half my time. For the several years I have been doing it, I have come to think of myself as a kind of masterless samurai, a ronin, who stops to intervene when I see someone being beaten on the road. But a few of my commitments don't fit this model. Some clients see me as one more player in their personal battle who, rather than trusted, must be confronted and manipulated; some probably can't distinguish me from the enemy, as just one more lawyer-authority figure who intervened in their lives. It is not written anywhere that anyone is required to trust me, but we end up with a stalemate, as I am also not required by any rule of the universe to spend hours of my life, or go miles out of my way, helping someone who does not trust me. So, like most human enterprises, the act of trying to help people in need doesn't always work out, and you can end up feeling foolish and questioning yourself.

Most significantly, I am involved in a personal battle in Amagansett, to prevent a fragile, environmentally sensitive and important, dune adjoining my house from being paved for a completely un-needed and senseless parking lot, as the initiative of local, un-elected politicians trying to score points or serve undisclosed agendas. This has reached the point at which people are calling me a liar by name in the local papers for making unequivocally true statements like "That is a dune you are trying to pave" (the official spin is that it is a "right of way", or "the unpaved eastern portion" of my road). This vituperation feels mainly like a badge of honor, but also can be wearying, especially when you don't have Internet, are losing stuff you write and so forth.

The result has been that, for the first time in 21 years, I missed a month of the Ethical Spectacle. For most of that time, I posted the new issue sometime between the first and fifteenth of the month. Recently I have been getting the new issue online by the last day of a month. Now I will be posting the July issue by August 10 or so (delayed even further by no Internet). I thought of doing that July/August issue thing, or just skipping July and hoping no-one will notice. But I'm mildly hopeful I will be able to post another issue before the end of August and put the Spectacle back in order.


How bizarre that going on forty years after the end of the war, Vietnam is a proto-capitalist country, like China socialist in name only, with young people making millions in high tech start ups, wearing designer products and driving expensive cars. You would have to jump through multiple hoops of sophistry to maintain that the fifty thousand Americans who died there gave their lives for something meaningful.

Sometimes the worst happens

As a child, I desperately looked for justice in the universe, and felt despair when the signs were clear there wasn't any. I am remembering that now because of a story I read in the Times last month. A young African American man was parked with his girlfriend in the lot of a coop or apartment building. A security guard knocked on the car window, the young man tried to drive away, and ended up under the usual murky and disputed circumstances being shot and left a quadraplegic. I think it was a "stand your ground" state, and the security guard has not as of yet been charged with any crime. The young man had health insurance but his company dropped coverage either on the theory he had committed a crime or on some sort of "contributory negligence" theory--how careless of you to get shot. His family could not afford to keep him in the facility that was keeping him alive, brought him home and he died. This is one of those stories in which "all the planets drop in the sun", in which multiple strands of evil, inequality and injustice combine to produce a completely horrible result.

Or almost

On a similar note, there was an article about a 68 year old woman who may finally be out from under the crushing burden of student loans she took thirty years ago. She borrowed money to finance a technical degree, but under financial and life pressure could not complete it, and defaulted on the loan, which has since tripled. She has spent the rest of her life working multiple low paying jobs at a time to try to get out from under. Some time ago, student loans were excepted from discharge in bankruptcy except under a very hard and vague standard to prove. The cost of education has become so high, scholarship money so rare, and student loans such a predatory business that a friend of ours borrowed $130,000 just to become a dental hygienist, while a young woman doctor was quoted in an article I saw as revealing she had borrowed almost $700,000 and would have to work, at a high salary, without a break of any kind, until she was nearly sixty, to pay it off. As a function of late capitalism, you now gamble your life and well being on an education or a mortgage; it was once an important social goal to help you do these things in a stable, nondangerous way, but no longer. Today's major political commitment seems to be to assist people who already have a billion dollars to attain their goal of having three or fifty billion.

One of the most heartbeaking things I have ever seen was the photo accompanying this article, of the face of the woman who spent her entire life in the thrall of a student loan: every minute of the horror, exhaustion, emptiness was written there.

And Greece

The entire population of Greece may become like that sixty-eight year old woman, except that politicians and bankers gambled their wealth and prospects away. Think of power communicating to the young man two paragraphs up, or the woman in the previous, that it is your role in life, your destiny, your responsibilty to be pillaged, destroyed, ridden down for the good of someone who is a higher life form than you. At some point, don't you seek to detach yourself from that power, in search of more life and freedom? It would be better to grow vegetables in your backyard and barter them than to accept the European Community or any other power structure telling you you will never again have a job, a life, anything to be proud of.