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Faux Outrage

Literally the most important blog in the universe since 2010.

Category Archives: Serious!

Not long ago, while walking from the grocery store back to my apartment, I passed a man who by all accounts — or at least one specific account, mine — was in dire straits.  My evidence?  The fact that he approached and asked me for some money.

I guess you could say I’m a bit of a detective.

Now, I’m not so obtuse as to believe that the mere fact a person asks/begs/pleads/juggles for money automatically means that he is homeless or “down on his luck” in a meaningful, dickensian way.  But I do know that whatever inspires a person to ask a stranger for money, whether it be desperation, depression, or any number of soul-crushing addictions, it is a behavior that I cannot (or perhaps choose not to) imagine exhibiting.

In that sense, if nothing else, it is fair to say that the person in this story is worse off than I can imagine.  That said, there are a couple of reasons why I felt it a tad strange — or at least a bit uninspired — that this particular man in this particular situation asked me for straight-up American currency.

Number one, I didn’t have a hand free to dig into my pockets (wherein the currency theoretically resides).  And number two, the reason I did not have a hand free to dig into my pockets was due to that fact that I was carrying two enormous bags of food.

Food, glorious food!

_
I’m a softie, though, so I said to the guy, “Honestly, I don’t have any change, but how about a peach?”

A pause.

“Nah.”

Yes, after quick consideration, this man — possibly homeless — sighed out a half-hearted nah.

Nah.

I was floored.

First of all, if you’re asking strangers for money, you should at least have the decency to pretend you’re interested in using that money for food.  Food like a peach!  If nothing else, this perception needs to be a part of any money-taking routine/charade:  You pretend that you’re not going to put my $0.60 toward a Steel Reserve tallboy later on, and I pretend not to know that very same fact.

That’s the deal.

But then, as I turned the corner and headed home, my anger rapidly faded into confusion.  The more I thought about the interaction, the more I realized that the awkwardness and indignity I felt ultimately had nothing to do with poverty, politeness, shame, gentrifier’s guilt, or any social science theory neatly explained in a Sociology 101 textbook.

Nah.

This is about peaches!

_
Who, no matter what his circumstances, turns down a free peach?

I don’t care if you’re looking for drug money, beer money, beer-laced-with-drugs money, or not looking for anything in particular.  When someone offers you a free peach, you take the free peach!

Peaches are wonderful.

Free peaches are manna from heaven.

As a general rule, I am intrigued by these getting-asked-for-change circumstances, but that intrigue is usually followed by a sharp, painful sort of guilt that I specifically associate with my interactions with the homeless (or “homeless” if you prefer).  Leading up to — and in the midst of — these interactions, my internal monologue shifts into detached academic mode.  I carefully weigh and consider the macro-socioeconomic issues that led to the interaction, thus diminishing the actual (“potential”) suffering taking place before me.  The ease with which I am able to quickly disassociate from a very real, upsetting interaction is an aspect of my personality that I am willing — but so far completely unable — to shake.

As a result, I’m a bit of a sucker.

I say “a bit of a sucker” as opposed to “a full-fledged sucker” because I never physically open my wallet.  When I have change — as in, physical, clangy coins in my pocket — I will give it away.  Even in the event the total amount of change surpasses $1, it is available to anyone who asks earnestly.  But I will never reach for paper bills.

The paper bills are mine.

In the 21st century, this is actually a bit of a problem if you goal is to get currency in the hands of those who request/need it.  I am still perfectly willing to give away my change, but the fact is I don’t use cash much these days.  Every transaction that I can complete using a credit card will be carried out in that manner.  Basically, I only have coins in my pocket when I am returning from a Cash Only (“tax evading”) establishment.  As a result, with each passing year — though my standard for money-distribution has not changed — the amount of cash I distribute consistently diminishes.

Presumably, I am not the only one with the “change in pocket” standard for giving money to homeless people.  My guess is that there are thousands of people who are in the same boat as me: they would give more money than they do, but because they are tied to using their credit card, they are not often provided the opportunity to do so.  In the end, the pool of “available” money for the needy shrinks as credit card usage increases.

But could this be a good thing?  Perhaps, as a result of the ever-diminishing pool of money, asking people for spare change will no longer be a functional way to raise money for your food/drugs/food-drugs.  Perhaps, to the extent that us change-givers are enabling a lifestyle that ultimately should be altered, there is a net benefit to our not having any pennies, quarters, nickles, and dimes in our pockets.

Wouldn’t that be peachy?

Meek, "Keep Your Coins I Want Change"

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If you ask the doctors, on Friday, December 2, 2011, my first/best/favorite/cutest nephew, Max Louis Sparer, was born about four weeks early. But if you ask anyone else, even those with intimate knowledge of human gestation, they will tell you that Max was born not a moment too soon.

We were told to prepare for a Christmas Baby, or perhaps a Chanukah Baby, or maybe even the “First Baby of 2012” that local news stations insists on covering (and donating diapers to). In the end, though standard American calendars do not arrive pre-printed with December 2nd in bold lettering (I guess International Day for the Abolition of Slavery is too much of a snoozefest to be considered worthy of embolden status), the date suddenly seems more notable than any other.

The moment Max was born, husband and wife became mother and father, mother and father became grandma and grandpa, and grandma and grandpa were finally bestowed the prefix they had been pining for and so richly deserve: “great.”  Cousins, incidentally, remain cousins.

As for me, I need to get used to saying “uncle.”

So far, Max knows a few things. He knows how to sleep, how to cry, fidget, look like a burrito, grab disproportionately large adult fingers, and is slowly learning – and I’m sure will quite soon master – the art of eating food. Most enjoyably, Max knows how to coo like a pigeon, which is especially impressive once you consider the fact that he has never even seen a bird.

My brother, his nervously smiling father, can’t help but to repeat one single word when he is asked to describe his son:

perfect!

He’s perfect.

A perfect baby boy.

Everything is perfect.

Truthfully, it’s hard to blame my brother, and it is quite easy to admire his position in life.  Max has done nothing wrong, and at this rate, he never will.  He will be a perfect infant, a perfect kid, a perfect tween, teen, young adult, and man before he’s elected the first King of the Moon or is the first to fly a rocketpack around Mars or whatever we’ll be impressed by in the impossibly-distant future.  Whatever Max does in his lifetime, right now we have every reason to believe that he will do it perfectly because there has been no evidence to suggests otherwise.

But while our hearts bet on perfection, our intuition unapologetically paints a wholly different picture.  There will be mistakes, intentional and otherwise.  There will be mishaps, misunderstandings, and heartache belonging both to parent and child.  There will be times when the tears will not be of joy as they were on Friday, but because we were wronged, or have wronged another.  There will be times when our voices will be raised not because of the overwhelming need to share, but because of the overwhelming need to be right.  There will be sadness, words uttered out of spite, and times when we simply fail to say “I love you,” even though it’s the only thing on our mind.

There will be all kinds of times.

And though Max may grow up in a world without knowing the pleasure of a dial-tone, he will be allowed — like all of us — to learn for himself what it is to be human.

He will learn what it is like to fail spectacularly, and to be better for it.  He will learn that in his days of deep, dark sadness, there are those who cannot help but to be there for him.  He will learn that the more he tries to separate himself from a past that he has no choice but to be a part, the more he will recognize that his footprints pushed into the dirt behind him are possible because of the trails that have already been blazed.  He will learn — as we all do — that what seems like destiny can also be understood as the result of a series of non-accidents expertly placed like rungs on a ladder enabling us to reach previously impossible heights.

The more I think about Max, the more I begin to understand that I am just as excited about his unfortunate brushes with imperfection as I am about his unflinching triumphs.  I want to see him learn, to grow, and for him to learn what it means to be growing.  I want him to know that it is okay to fail, a lot, because our initial failures are so often the first steps to a better understanding of the world around us.

In any event, I have a sneaking suspicion that above all, Max will be just fine.  He has two wonderful parents, four wonderful grandparents, and a huge network of friends and family who will be there to help pick him up when he falls.  He will be standing on the shoulders of giants, just as we all were and continue to be.

Though I believe Max’s first word will probably be “mama” or “dada,” selfishly, I cannot wait for the day when he finally gives in and says, “Uncle!”

Today is the 10th anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

I’ve always been a little baffled by the insistence that we “Never forget!”  the 9/11 attacks.  Personally, I would like to forget.  If possible, I would also like to forget the time I witnessed a motorcycle accident.  In fact, my list of “Never Forgets” — and your list, too, probably — does not include any (!) of the most traumatic, horrifying events in memory.  We tend to want to forget those things.

We  hire therapists to forget those things.

In any case, while I believe it is perfectly acceptable (and perhaps clinically advisable) to forget the horrific nature of that day, I often use these anniversaries to review my state of mind and perspective during that supersaturated day of confusion, fear, and sadness.

Below is a poem I wrote on the night of 9/11.   My goal was to write about the irrationality of what I had just seen using hyper-rational, mathematical language.  It was the only way to begin to wrap my mind around what we now refer to as The Events.

Two Minus Two / by Zach Sparer / Sept. 11, 2001

To explain humanity
or the [lack] thereof
We need not an equation.

Viscous eyes aim themselves skyward
Several sturdy symbols stand tangent
Awaiting their next proudest moment
Like invincible soldiers before battle.

They will stand until x = infinity;
Only the unthinkable could intersect
The glory of these tremendous twins.
A whole number.  Simply.  Two.

Ninety Degree
		angles
Flying like
		angels
Ninety Degrees
But not exactly right
		angles
Since they were minutes apart

Something was off.  Some
thing
was
	Awful

Ruins.
Aged 2000 years
In a few hours.
The proud soldiers now stand
Parallel to the soil.

Without having collected any data on the subject, my guess is that most Americans view Labor Day quite simply: a day off from work (unless you work at any retail store in the country).  Further, I suspect that most folks do not spend a great deal of time recognizing the unapologetic and irony-free connection between the labor movement and this day free from, well, labor.

Ten years ago (!), while peddling foam fingers and other miscellany at a picturesque minor league baseball stadium in Rochester, New York, I wrote (poorly and haphazardly) about one of my first interactions in the labor market.  Now, as a general rule, except for the days when unsupervised children would literally try to nickle-and-dime me (by negotiating for items with nickles and dimes), I was quite content with my summer employment situation.  However, I never could completely understand a justification for the sizable gap between the value that certain employees brought to the organization versus the amount of money they were paid for their services.

By the end of the summer, I had written what I considered to be a professional letter to Red Wings management.  At the time, my definition of “professional letter” revolved almost entirely around the use of single-spaced Courier font.  Also, lots of commas.  And no swears.  In the letter, I lamented a to-be-implemented policy whereby the distribution of meal coupons to certain employees’ (including those who work gift shop) was to be discontinued.  We relied on those meal coupons.

Copied from the letter, the crux of my argument was as follows:

Many times, if we are having trouble making sales,
employees are sent home after about 3.5 hours of work.
That makes that day’s tangible income equal to $20.13
(3.5 hours x 5.75 = $20.13).  Subtract my required
purchases of $6.75 ($4.75 for food and $2 for parking)
and the grad total for working one RedWings game is equal
to $13.38.  The point here is that by taking away our meal
tickets, you also take away 1/3 of our daily earnings at
Frontier Field.

Ultimately, the story — not a fairy tale — ends exactly how you would think:  The Red Wings never got back to me. Employees continued to work.  The meal coupon policy was indeed rescinded, and I made a few less dollars that summer than I believed I had bargained for.  Luckily, I still had a blast working at the stadium and will fondly remember my time as an employee of a real live baseball team.  But that by itself does not diminish the fact that my fellow employees and I were ignored and a fringe benefit removed merely because management had no incentive to listen.

As we age, I believe we begin to see ourselves primarily through particular social and political lenses.  But as a mostly-clueless high school graduate working in a minor league gift shop, I was too naive or too distracted to recognize where I fit on a socioeconomic or political spectrum, or whether — and the extent to which — these classifications impacted my understanding of the position I held as a team store employee.  In retrospect, I realize that what bothered me about the situation is that employees were not linked arm-in-arm and we did not operate as a cohesive unit, but at the time, all I saw was a vague injustice.

Of course, I know I’m not exactly sailing into uncharted territory here, but my experience that summer as a low-level employee has stayed with me, especially on Labor Day.

Diego Rivera, "Peasants"

On the surface, adults don’t make any sense.

If you consider the overall behavior of any particular individual, it will seem rather, well, odd.  It seems improbable — no matter which personality traits/flaws develop — that a person would grow up to be any specific way.  The statistical chance that, at birth, you would end up like you, or that your frienemy would end up like your friemeny, round to zero.

No chance.

Statistically speaking, people are strange.

Only after you obtain perspective about the fundamental influences in a person’s life (e.g., learning about parents/upbringing, discussing traumatic or otherwise crucial life happenings, etc.) can you finally begin to understand an individual.  You begin to triangulate, and begin to see the person not as an irrational thing-doer, but rather as a series of (usually) reasonable-given-their-perspective reactions based on an amalgamation of past experiences.

In other words, context is everything.

For the most part, I think we are generally willing to accept the experiences-shape-personality theory, though it seems fair to say that we are less enticed by the concept when this lens is turned inward.  The idea that my behavior and social instincts may be based on something other than my innate, natural charm is a bit more disturbing than that same notion used to explain your lame story.

The reason I bring up all of this (nonsense?) is because I have recently started considering which, if any, creative influences have molded my writing style.  My first instinct — narcissism, as it turns out — immediately had me considering the notion that I am a perfectly distinct, creative snowflake, floating down from the heavens in my perfectly distinct creative snowflake-y way.

Untrue.

As it turns out, though I never had dreams (delusions?) of becoming a writer (I was more interested in having the largest Lego-slash-MicroMachine collection in the world), my writing style makes perfect sense when you consider the media that I was gleefully consuming at such a influential time.  That said, I can barely understand what drove me to these particular sources.

Keep in mind, I was a weird kid.

(But you were, too, probably.)

Erma Bombeck

I could be mistaken, but it’s entirely possible that the first book I ever read cover-to-cover was, at 11 years old, If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?  This book, published four years before I was born, inspired Art Buchwald to rave, “[Bombeck] has done it again–this time taking a hilarious swipe at husbands, honeymoons, tennis elbow, marriage, lettuce, the national anthem, and a host of other domestic dilemmas.”

What more could a prepubescent Zach ask for?

(I have no explanation for this.)

Tom Lehrer

If you asked me who my favorite musician was around the time when I was reading Erma Bombeck in the bathroom — circa 1995 — I would say, with a straight face,  “Tom Lehrer!”  Of course, I had no idea at the time that most of what I was listening to was recorded in the late 1950’s and 60’s.  And I really had no idea at the time about the history and social awareness required to understand even a fraction of what Lehrer was carrying (a tune) on about.

For those who are unaware of Lehrer’s work, he was a brilliant songwriter, mathematician, and political satirist.  (I say “was” even though he is still very much alive because, so far as I am aware, he is no longer engaged in any of the aforementioned activities.)

Lehrer’s tapes were always at arm’s length from the front passenger seat in my mom’s 1988 Volvo stationwagon, so there was some comfort provided as I was being whisked away to Sunday School.  Only in retrospect am I able to consume Lehrer’s work the way it was intended, although I clearly remember laughing at the appropriate parts as a young’n. But listening to his songs still give me a unfiltered feeling of joyous naivety, even if now I’m laughing for the right reasons.

Dave Barry

This one is the biggie, at least in terms of writing style.

My curiosity about Dave Barry peaked right about the same time that high-speed Internet meandered into my life.  Dave Barry’s page on the Miami Herald’s website was actally one of the first things I ever bookmarked (in Netscape, after searching for his name on AltaVista, probably).  Thanks to magic of the current Internet, we can take a ride in the WayBackMachine to see what his website looked around that time.  Reading Barry’s column became a routine, even though I was still pretty confident at the time that I “didn’t like to read.”

His writing was always fun and pointless.

Which kind of explains this place a bit.

On July 4th, we are encouraged to consider the stunning, improbable history of the United States.  We take time to recognize that our great country was not formed by accident, or by lottery, or at the arbitrary whim of conquerors.

As it turns out, this is a pretty special place, this “America.”

Strangely, though we often find ourselves speaking vaguely about “our freedoms,” we rarely if ever discuss with specificity what those freedoms actually are, why they are special, and how they should be utilized in order to create a more perfect union.

It is possible, of course, to use your “freedom” in a way that negatively impacts those also-free persons around you.  I’ve maintained for a long time that a person is truly free if they are able to run directly into traffic.  Yet, as we drive in our cars (or in our buses or in our hovercrafts eventually), we hope those pedestrians walking alongside the road don’t feel the sudden urge to bolt across the speeding steel curtain.

In that way, we should also recognize today, on Independence Day, that our ability to enjoy ourselves comes not only from our founding documents and also the laws and technologies implemented since then, but also from each other.  By virtue of being free, we have the ability to negatively impact those around us.  Luckily, being free also gives us the opportunity to improve the lives of strangers and passersby.

We are all in this together.

Happy Fourth, everyone!

Use your freedoms wisely.  Do not play in traffic.

(You might not be as lucky as this squirrel.)

Questioning the integrity of reality television is not exactly cutting-edge behavior.

Characters and contestants are hand-picked by producers based on their potential for lowest common denominator viewing.  We know.  Footage is edited and remastered with music in order to create an inauthentic emotional experience for consumers.  We know.  Reality show “stars” often operate in a way that will bring them the most attention, antithetical to any agreed upon definition of “reality.”

Yup, it’s all true.

But I have a different kind of bone to pick with Undercover Boss, a show that an estimated 4.5 million people* eyeballed last Sunday night.

For the uninitiated: Undercover Boss is a reality series based on a reasonably compelling premise.  A chief executive, playing the role of The Face of an otherwise faceless corporation (and also of The Man), temporarily joins the ranks of some low-level employees in his (yes, his) company.

Each show is a classic fish out of water situation, much to the viewer’s delight.  A covert high-level exec forced to take out the trash!  Watch as he struggles to replace the coffee filter and fiddles with a vacuum cleaner!

The show ends, of course, with a Big Reveal to the employees.

“Rocky McGreenjeans is actually the CEO of the company, not some schlub trying to get a job repairing refrigerators!”

Here he is, with a fancy suit-tie combo as proof!  He’s even wearing a gold watch and sitting behind a desk!  Behold!

“Oh my god!” the starry-eyed female truck driver explodes.

“No way!” cries the humble maintenance man, eyes wide with equal parts surprise and concern.

It’s showtime.

The Man clears his throat and excitedly admits that he learned more from the employees he worked with than he ever could have imagined.  He admires their courage.  He wants them to feel appreciated.  He wants them to know he understands.  He implements one of their suggestions (“Company-wide recycling!”).  He gives them a prize for being so wonderful (“Football tickets for your beautiful boys!”).

The crowd goes wild.

Jeans are worn, empathy is felt, lessons are learned.

End scene.

[cut to commercial]

Everyone is happy.

Everyone, it seems, except for me.

In the end, I consider Undercover Boss to be a great show, but only because I feel that the actual lessons learned are the opposite of what is literally communicated.

All of the deceptive editing, unnatural character selection, and all-eyes-on-me winking behavior by the covert CEO result in a beautiful creation, a delightful unintentional parody where Rich Guy, whose aim is to swoop in and save his lowly grunts from the substandard work that they perform on his behalf, accidentally exposes himself as a hopelessly unaware aristocrat.

If you ignore the delicious subtext, the show is painful to watch.  The disconnect between the well-meaning, aloof CEO and his overburdened employees seems to be a perfect metaphor for what has become of the American worker.  It’s not heartening to learn that CEO’s are shocked to find that American workers — their American workers! — are overworked and underpaid.

Welcome to the new economy.

This is my recommendation for what the show description should read on your TV’s channel guide:

Crocodile tears from CEO’s of enormous corporations as they take a short-term interest in the plight of a handful of underappreciated employees motivated primarily by the positive PR generated.

Lessons from Undercover Boss

$5,000 is a small price to pay for primetime PR

In the last episode of the show that I saw, the CEO of Synagro gave a female employee he had been bowled over by $5,000 for all of her hard work and effort.  $5,000.  In 2006 (five years ago), a different CEO of Synagro took home over $1,000,000 (not counting the 41,000+ shares of stock, of course).  That CEO made about $3,000/day that year.  Things may have changed since 2006, but I tend to doubt the current CEO earns less loot.

Of course, the $5,000 won’t come out of the CEO’s pocket, and yes it is “better than nothing,” but it seems like an oddly small payment for a woman who was misled by the head of her company and used as an unwilling pawn in a nationwide PR campaign.

Leading up to the $5,000 exchange, the company’s lead executive engages on an hour-long journey designed to make his company endearing to the public.  We watch as he tries his darnedest to perform the simplest tasks of his employees.  We learn how empathetic he is towards the common man, how easily — like the politician he turns out to be — he commiserates with the plight of the American worker.  We learn that this company, Synagro, seems like a good place to work and filled with people who care deeply about each other and the environment.

I’d pay $5,000 to the woman who helped convey that message to millions, wouldn’t you?

Corporate executives are as out-of-touch as we assume

I’m sure most of the execs who are the subject of Undercover Boss are genuinely nice people.  But I also think it’s fair to say that these rich guys are adorably ignorant when it comes to what American workers are required to endure on a regular basis.

I know we are supposed to be heartened when a CEO sits down with a low-level employee and is shocked to learn that the employee can’t afford to buy glasses because “vision” isn’t included in the company’s insurance plan, but I’m not.  I know that when an employee explains to his undercover CEO that he misses his family, but has to work long hours in order to pay for his kids to go to college after his wife was laid off, we are supposed to think, “The CEO gets it!  He understands now!”  but I don’t.

What’s remarkable is that these stories aren’t remarkable at all.  This is the economy as designed in whole or in part by these very same titans of industry.  Providing some temporary aid for 3 of 5000 of your employees is an interesting way to completely miss the point.

Sadly, my guess is that a vast majority of the shows viewers miss the point, too.

Workers, not CEO’s, deserve our reverence

I promise not to get into a debate about tax policy, but it’s quite difficult to watch Undercover Boss without at least briefly considering the possibility that a vast majority of the CEO’s fortunes come as a result of underpaid employees doing, you know, “the actual work.”

I don’t mean to diminish the work of brilliant businessmen who develop a company’s vision and spot market inefficiencies, etc., but there is something particularly unnerving about a rich CEO tee-heeing his way through the life of a laborer.

Life should not depend on a lottery ticket

The employees in the show who are recognized as key contributors to the company are truly blessed.  Their good deeds and ideas are caught on camera.  In many cases, after speaking with the unmasked CEO, they, with tears in their eyes, explain how wonderful it feels to finally be appreciated.  Their ideas are implemented.  They get a bonus or other benefits.  Generally speaking, they get a good deal (or at least a deal better than the one they were getting a day earlier).

But this is not how life should work.

We should not rely on nor expect that a benevolent angel will swoop down from the heavens to save us from our common-though-painful circumstances.  The workers portrayed in Undercover Boss, if not filmed for the show, would still be toiling away, unappreciated and underpaid, still unable to see their families, or pay their bills, or afford healthcare, or go to college, etc.

These workers are the lucky ones.

They are the ones who were saved.

What about everyone else?

* For the purposes of television ratings, “people” are defined as “viewers aged 18-49.”

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