A Good Life Coach Can Work Wonders

 Life, according to coaches . . .

Life, according to coaches . . .

Several years ago I broke down and got a life coach. I was skeptical at first, but now that my life is back on track and all is once again right with the world (or at least with me), I hope my experience can give others the courage to take control of their own fate, by yielding it to someone else. 

Before I met my coach, my life was a mess. My energy was scattered all over the place, my priorities were totally out of whack, and no matter how hard I tried, I could not convince myself that life had any meaning whatsoever. But now, after years of expert coaching, that’s all changed. These days, I awake each morning with a strong sense of purpose and absolute certainty about what I am going to do on any given day, and why. The twin demons of doubt and fear no longer cloud my judgment, and I glide through my life with an ease others would envy if they could crawl inside my body and experience, if only for a moment, the peace and joy of being me. 

My coach’s name is Sarge, and, true to his namesake, he is an unforgiving taskmaster. Stocky and strong, with the swagger of a man three times his size, he has no patience for nonsense. At first, I tried to curry his favor by offering him savory biscuits and finding ways to make him laugh, but he wasn’t impressed. He didn’t even have to say anything; I could tell by the look on his face in those first few days that he was disgusted by my fawning efforts to please him, and found my entreaties pathetic. He knew he had his work cut out for him—but, professional that he is, he stuck with me through those first rocky weeks and slowly guided me toward a better version of myself. Over time, he molded me into such an amazing version of myself that I hardly recognize me anymore. Which is a good thing, because I used to scare myself when I looked in the mirror, especially in the morning. Now the face staring back at me is little more than an improbably handsome stranger, and I am oddly comforted by the fact that all his teeth appear to be intact. 

How did he do it? How did Sarge turn the old, used up me into the fabulous me I am today?

First of all, I had to admit to him, in writing and on social media, that my old way of living was not working. Which was true, because I was unemployed at the time, and no matter how many times I called Comcast, they refused to boost my Internet speed so that I could unlock better weapons in World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, which was essential, because Deathwing the Destroyer had returned from Deepholm, and my sworn enemies in the Horde were being ruled by none other than Garrosh Hellscream! I think most people would agree that it doesn’t get much more urgent than that. 

 Anyway, Sarge convinced me to give up WOW and make a pact with him to live each and every day as if it were his last. Before long, Sarge had convinced me to forsake the toxic habits of my past and embrace a more structured, disciplined future. Under his tutelage, I learned the importance of eating a healthy breakfast first thing in the morning, and sticking to a predictable, repeatable routine. Modest daily exercise was also part of the program—one or two walks a day, at least, with occasional stops at the local soccer field to practice wind sprints. He also taught me the importance of taking frequent naps during the day to recharge, and the value of conserving one’s energy in case the mailman pulls a gun on you and extraordinary measures are required to neutralize the attack. 

 Best of all, Sarge has taught me that bottling up all my anger inside is counterproductive and unhealthy. He is an excellent role model in this regard. Direct and to the point, Sarge lets anyone and everyone know whether they have pleased or displeased him, and he has shown me the wisdom of choosing one’s words very carefully, then repeating them over and over again, very loudly, until the offending person changes their behavior accordingly. 

 This approach is magic, because it is so emotionally satisfying. Before I met Sarge, if something upset me I would stoically accept it and try not to show people how I really felt. But now, after years of training, whenever I get angry, the bile of my rage flows straight through my body and out my mouth, with no mitigating filter whatsoever. Those old habits of repression are long gone, replaced anew by the spontaneous confidence that comes from speaking one’s truth, from the gut, really loudly, without really thinking about it. 

 For example, I was checking out of the grocery store the other day, and when I inserted my card in the chip reader, the cashier informed me that the chip reader didn’t work—that I would instead have to swipe my card the old-fashioned way. Now, in the past I would have simply overlooked this annoyance and swiped my card, as ordered, and that would have been the end of it. But this time, drawing on my years of training with Sarge, I simply let the cashier have it. I mean, I lit into her. I quite literally “barked” at her, letting her know in no uncertain terms how much I hate it when the chip reader doesn’t work, and how terrifying it is to wonder if its malfunction is going to lead to a security breach that devastates my personal finances and ruins my otherwise marvelous life! Loudly and insistently, as I have been trained, I repeated my grievance over and over, throwing the occasional growl in to let her know that I was serious, that I was not someone to be messed with, and that if it ever happened again, I would tear her throat out. 

 She was absolutely terrified. It was fantastic. 

 In these and many other ways, Sarge has taught me how to manage my emotions and use persuasion to get what I want. Each day brings with it new challenges, and each day Sarge teaches me something new, though his techniques can be admittedly unorthodox. Lately, on our daily walks, he has been trying to convince me that I should follow his example and start defecating outside, in public, where anyone can see. He calls it “the ultimate freedom,” and insists that someone will come along to pick up the mess, but I do not yet possess the strength of character necessary to follow his lead. 

 Though I have come a long way under Sarge’s expert guidance, there is always more work to be done—which is why, for the sake of efficiency, my life coach now lives with me and sleeps on my floor. I once asked him why it was necessary for him to follow me around all day, every day, as if I couldn’t take care of myself. He arched an eyebrow and gave me that sad look, the one that hints that I do not know what’s going on and never will. “I am not your life coach,” he seemed to be saying, “I am your Coach for Life.” 

 And I couldn’t be happier.### 

 

Whew, Glad I Visited a Financial Planner

Concerned that I might not have sufficient savings for retirement, I recently consulted a financial adviser in order to find out if my retirement plan was “on track,” and what to do if it wasn’t.

My adviser, a nice young fellow named Mike, welcomed me into his office with a firm handshake and asked me to sit down. After reviewing the documents I provided detailing my current financial situation—two Post-it notes and a rather insensitive letter from the IRS—he entered my data into his computer and “ran the numbers” to determine the best way for me to achieve my financial goals. 

He informed me that at my advanced age, and with a life expectancy of thirty more years give or take, I would need a nest egg of roughly $3 million in order to sustain the lifestyle to which I’ve become accustomed: i.e., spaghetti dinners, Netflix, a functional toilet, and a dry place to sleep. Since I long ago liquidated my 401K to pay medical bills, have no stocks or other investments, and have accumulated several-hundred-thousand dollars in debt over the course of my working life, he calculated that I was roughly $3.4 million short of my goal—so I needed to get cracking. 

Then he delivered the bad news: Considering my age and current portfolio, I was going to have to make some sacrifices in order to achieve my stated financial goals. 

“If you had started when you were twenty-five, I could have advised you not to buy a café latte every day, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” he said. “But in order to reach your goals, I’m afraid you’re going to have to not buy a lot more lattes.” He then informed me that in order to reach my financial finish line, I would need to not purchase a grand total of 112 lattes a day from here on out—and, if I could manage it, he recommended not buying as many as 120 lattes a day. 

I told him I was prepared to do whatever it takes. However, I expressed some concern that his latte-deprivation strategy wasn’t diverse enough. What if Starbucks goes out of business in ten years, I asked. What then? 

He hemmed and hawed and chewed his pen, then admitted that if I wanted to create a more diversified retirement portfolio, he couldn’t help me. What I needed was something called “wealth management,” he said, and he knew just the man. 

As you might expect, the wealth manager’s offices were quite a bit swankier than the mere financial adviser’s digs. Frosted glass windows, leather chairs, a cherrywood desk, lots of wall plaques, an in-office mini-fridge—the guy had it all. The casual luxury of his workplace filled me with confidence that I had indeed arrived at the right place to fulfill my financial dreams. Clearly, this was a place where money flowed like the Chicago river—backward and into areas no one would ever expect.  

My hope restored, we wasted no time getting to work. My wealth manager, Grayson, dismissed the whole café-latte strategy outright, and immediately declared that my financial goals would require a more “aggressive” approach. 

“How would you feel about not buying any new clothes or shoes for the next twenty years?” he asked. I told him that would be no problem, since I haven’t bought any new clothes in the past twenty years, either, so all I had to do was keep not buying them. 

“That’s an excellent start,” he said, and tapped a few notes into his computer. “Now, what would you say to not buying a Ford Escape every year for the next thirty years?” he asked, noting that at $25,000 apiece plus interest, the savings would be more than $750,000 alone, and would get me 25% closer to my $3 million goal. 

I told him I was prepared to go one better and not buy a Lexus X350 every year for the next thirty years, which would net me a whopping non-consumption savings of more than $1 million. 

He nodded his approval, then leaned forward and asked in a weird whisper how much “risk” I was willing to take in order to achieve my financial goals? I told him the same thing I told my financial adviser—that I was prepared to do whatever it took.

“Then would you consider not buying a 60-foot yacht every other year for, say, the next twenty years?” he asked.

Sure, I said. I’d not bought boats before, I told him—a canoe, a small bass boat, and a twenty-two foot sailboat—but I was prepared to endure the pain of extended yachtlessness if that’s what was needed. He said it was, but that we still had a way to go to develop a viable portfolio of non-purchases in order to ensure a comfortable retirement. 

“It might hurt a bit more, but I’m going to ask that you not to buy a home every five years from now on. Can you do that?”

I said I could, but that I might need to purchase a tent at some point. He indicated that buying a tent would be fine, as long as I didn’t need to set it up on land that I owned. “I only say that because you’re going to need to not buy several acres of property in the coming years, and a tent could complicate matters.”

The good news, he said, was that if I was willing to not purchase a bunch of Lexus 350s, several yachts, numerous houses and acres of prime real estate, I would be within reach of my retirement goals. If I did all that, I could rest easy in my golden years, secure in the knowledge that my financial stability was all but guaranteed. 

“In the end, it depends on how long you live,” he explained. Past the age of eighty-five things get a bit more difficult to predict, he said—but he did have one more piece of advice. 

“If, at 85, you need triple-bypass surgery, my advice from a wealth-management perspective would be not to have the surgery and save yourself $75,000,” he said. “If you did that, you’d die sooner, and you’d need less money going forward. Because, you know, there would be no more forward.”

I agreed that not living was an excellent strategy for containing costs, as long as I didn’t purchase a coffin or require a funeral, both of which are prohibitively expensive. He allowed as how some costs are unavoidable, but encouraged me to think “outside the box” when it came to my burial arrangements. A nice little urn, say, or an old pickle jar. 

As painful as it was, I feel much better now that I have a concrete financial plan in place. All I have to do now is not buy a lot of stuff for the next few decades. And on those days when my resolve weakens and I find myself in a Starbucks, I will give myself permission not to buy the most expensive item on the menu, knowing as I do that my financial future may well depend upon it.###

 

We All Need to Get Rich, Fast

One fact has become abundantly clear to me in recent weeks: I need to get rich, fast.

Somewhere around $1 billion should do the trick. But it’s not really about the money. No, it’s about what having that kind of money would do for my outlook on life. My attitude. My mental health.

Not being rich is depressing, you see. It makes you not want to get up in the morning and go to work, especially if that work involves a paycheck. Paychecks are for losers. If you’re earning a paycheck every two weeks, it means you don’t have millions stashed away in a sunny island shell company stealthily avoiding taxes. And, as everyone knows, not owning shell companies is a distinct disadvantage in 21st-century America.

My doctor has prescribed several medications specifically engineered to make me feel better about not being rich. True, the pills come in a variety of pleasing shapes and colors, but getting them is a hassle. First I have to sign up for health insurance every year, then go to the doctor, explain my symptoms (inability to pay my bills, buy a new phone, fix my car, or get HBO), convince him that I’m not lying, schlep over to CVS, get the pills, take them as prescribed, then supplement them with various legal and semi-legal substances, the most effective of which appears to be chocolate-chip cookie-dough ice cream.

The whole ritual is ridiculous. I’m quite certain my mood would instantly improve if, for instance, I could just sit on a mountain of cash and laugh all day at everyone who isn’t me.

Mornings would be more enjoyable, that’s for sure. I’d probably eat the same cereal and drink the same coffee, but my morning news scan would be so much more uplifting. I’d get to read about how hard my government is working for me, to make sure I get to keep more of my money. Instead of screaming at my laptop about “corporate welfare” and “carried interest” and gaping tax loopholes that haven’t been closed, I’d get a warm, snuggly feeling all over at the idea that next year I might be even richer. Thank goodness the government has the guts to ignore all that whining about the problems of the “middle class,” I’d think. Then I’d hug myself and congratulate me for not being a whiner or a victim.

It’s not hard to imagine how great being rich in the morning would be. If I were reading a column by Paul Krugman or Thomas Friedman (an old middle-class habit that might be hard to give up), my un-depressed mind would naturally serve me a pleasing thought: “I’m so glad I’m not part of this beleaguered ‘middle-class’ they keep going on about,” my brain would say. “Really, they should think about re-branding themselves. That word ‘middle’ does them no favors. It implies averageness and mediocrity. It suggests that they don’t have the guts, intelligence, or drive to inherit a fortune and take advantage of all the perks America’s tax code has to offer.”

Even if I got angry at the news, it wouldn’t be as bad if I were rich because my outrage would be tempered by the certain knowledge that I was right and they were absolutely, 100 percent wrong. “People in the middle class are morons,” I’d think. “I mean, why work for a shitty wage and get taxed at 30 percent when you can invest millions and have your capital gains taxed at 15 percent? That’s just stupid.”  

Or I’d think, “Here’s this communist Krugman going on about “income inequality” and talking about how people like me should give away more of our money so that things can be more ‘equal.’ But why should I have to go down in order for them to come up? Here’s an idea: Why don’t all those middle-class losers out there get a clue, belly up to the trough, and learn a little about white-collar fraud?”

It would be fun, I think, to read the New York Times or the Washington Post and see it all as the irrelevant chatter of a bunch of underpaid, over-weight journalists. “Honestly, the way these people go on about the cost of healthcare and home ownership and college tuition. It’s ridiculous,” I’d think. “They act like they don't have a million dollars to their name.”

The day would get even better after breakfast, because then I could indulge all my eccentricities and become a much more “authentic” version of myself:

“Albert, could you have Masterson fashion another gold-plated croquet mallet for me? Yesterday’s got scuffed.”

“I feel like sushi for dinner. What do you say we go to Japan?”

“Fill the tub with champagne. Those little bubbles feel so nice on my skin.”

“Can a cat be cryogenically preserved? If so, we need to buy a company that does that sort of thing.”

“The air is not fresh enough here. Cut down all the trees. Maybe that’ll help.”

You get the idea. It would be fun to think stuff up, say it out loud, and have teams of people around who are paid to figure out if I really meant what I said, and if so, how to make it happen.

Anyway, the rich are right—not having a lot of money is no way to live. For one thing, there’s the negative social stigma attached to people who have to shop for their own groceries. All those grubby people fingering the fruit, squeezing the tomatoes. It’s disgusting. And who knows what sorts of communicable diseases are transmitted through shopping-cart handles. Then there’s the whole idea of standing in line (!) for the privilege of having some random checkout person smear their germs all over your stuff. You get the idea: It’s barbaric.

If being rich only meant one thing—never having to set foot in Target or Costco—that’d be enough to convince me that being mega-stinkin’ loaded is the way to go. But add in the tax breaks and extra vacation homes and all the rest, and it’s understandable why rich people don’t want to give away more money than they have to. They’re good people. They know their life is better. And because they are so good and smart and right, they of course want everyone else in the world to live like them. That can’t happen if their lifestyle is diminished in any way, so they do what they can to make sure the government doesn’t get any wrong ideas—ideas that might make people think positively about the hellish indignity of a middle-class existence.

I get it, and I couldn’t agree more. Which is why I need to get rich, fast. At the moment we’re running alarmingly low on toilet paper, the cat’s litter box is starting to smell, and we’re down to our last frozen pizza. All of which I could deal with if my health insurance company hadn’t stopped covering my meds. It’s scary. If I’m not rich by the time my meds run out, there’s no telling what I might do. I might even vote for a Democrat. Or a woman. Or run for office myself.

But I’d rather be so rich that I didn’t have to care about anyone else. Except unborn babies. I’d still care about those. The last thing I want to see is more babies born into the dungeon of doom that is middle-class America. Lots of rich babies, that’s what this country needs. Who knows, one of them could grow up to be president someday.

What is Steve Bannon so afraid of?

This Halloween, many people are going to dress up as Steve Bannon, because they think he is the scariest person in the world. And as everyone knows, dressing up as the world’s scariest person is a lot of fun. It tells the world in no uncertain terms that you’re not really afraid, and to prove it, you are going to hide behind a rubber mask and demand candy from strangers.

Bannon was plenty scary as Donald Trump’s “chief strategist,” of course, but now that he has declared “war” on the Republican party and is recruiting an army of racist gasbags to challenge establishment gasbags for the privilege of gasbagging the American public—well, he’s gotten even scarier.  

But the more I watch Steve Bannon in action, the less afraid I am of him, and the more concerned I am for him.  

Let me explain:

I once knew a guy who did nine tabs of acid and came back from his adventure down the wormhole convinced that the world was going to end. Tomorrow. And if not tomorrow, probably the next day. Or the day after that. Pretty soon, at any rate, so get your affairs in order, he warned, or you might be annihilated with an unmade bed and fifteen bucks left on your Starbucks card.

He was scared, that guy, and he thought he was doing me a favor by warning me of my impending doom.

Bannon reminds me of that guy. Steve, I have come to realize, is not the most frightening person in the world; he is the most frightened. And because he is so afraid, he feels compelled to warn the American public about the monster he glimpsed at the bottom of his own personal abyss: a monster with the head of Hillary Clinton, the skin of Barack Obama, and the fashion sense of a Saudi Arabian housewife. Armed with several nuclear weapons and a tattered copy of the Koran, this hideous brown she-beast haunts poor Steve and drives him to say and do all sorts of ridiculous things, all in the name of saving Western civilization.

He has no choice, you see, because he has seen the enemy, and it is definitely not him.

Unfortunately, the burden of saving Western civilization is taking its toll. Just look at the man. He’s forty pounds overweight, his skin is blotchy, his eyes are sad and puffy, and he hasn’t had a decent haircut in years. Many people have speculated that Bannon is a raging alcoholic, because, you know, he looks like one. But it’s clear to me that Steve has been imbibing something much more toxic and self-destructive than single-malt scotch. It’s not just the conservative Kool-aid. Lots of people can watch Fox News all day long and not lose a wink of sleep. And plenty of people eat tax cuts for breakfast and still look good in a suit. Marco Rubio, for instance.

No, it’s something worse. I recognize that look in Bannon’s eye. It’s the look of a man who is trying desperately not to let other people know how terrified he is—by, conversely, warning others what they should be terrified of.

The question is: What mortal dread has Steve Bannon so shaken?

Is it really the prospect of living in a world over-run by people who tan better than he does? Or living in a country where people pray kneeling on a rug rather than sitting on a stool in front of a slot machine? Is it really an “administrative state” full of bureaucrats loyal to the idea of a one-hour lunch break and three weeks of vacation every year?

I think not.

No, my guess is that Steve Bannon is afraid of what he thinks he knows, based on the information and experiences he has absorbed thus far in his life. And, based on this knowledge, he has concluded that if he does not act like a complete asshole, everyone in the world will ignore him.

This is not an uncommon problem. Rush Limbaugh has the same affliction, as do Sean Hannity, Alex Jones, and Glenn Beck. Faced with the prospect of irrelevance, of being shunned by the herd, their heads begin to swell, their jowls loosen, they sprout an extra chin or two, and pretty soon these guys turn into barking bobbleheads who won’t shut up about all the things we, the people, should be fearing. If you boil it all down, though, they’re all saying the same thing, which is: Pay attention to me, goddammit, I’m yelling at you!!!

I don’t doubt their sincerity one bit. Why, InfoWars impresario Alex Jones is so afraid of the coming apocalypse that he has an entire website dedicated to selling survival gear and supplies for the end times. He does it as a public service, of course. First he informs people what they should be afraid of (the snake), then he sells them the remedy for their fear (the oil). You know, like a guy who sets your house on fire then offers to sell you a bucket of water—for fifty bucks, cash. You can’t argue that he doesn’t sell quality products, though. Among my personal favorites is his patented InfoWars Super Male Vitality serum (a real thing), which is going to be essential for aging white supremacists who want to re-populate the human race. Best of all, it’s gluten free! (Also real.)

But back to Bannon. I will grant that we live in strange times, and it is not unreasonable to be afraid of what is happening in our society. The problem with Steve Bannon is that he feels compelled to do something about it. The man wants to be a hero. Western civilization is on the brink, after all, and he has convinced himself that he is the only one who sees the situation clearly. For the rest of us, however, the world would be considerably less scary if Steve Bannon weren’t so motivated. If he weren’t so sure of himself. If he weren’t so . . . afraid. Of irrelevance. Of his own mediocrity. Of the demons he thinks he’s fighting, and of what he imagines might happen if he loses.  

If you’re still on the fence about what to wear this Halloween, take into account that it’s probably scarier to be Steve Bannon than it is to dress up like him. Besides, if you really want to scare the beejeezuz out of your neighbors, go all in and dress up as America. There’s nothing scarier these days, and everyone will know by your ironic costume that you are not afraid to live in this country. Not really. Because you know in your heart of hearts that someone will somehow come from somewhere at some point to save us from ourselves.

Let’s just hope that someone is not Steve Bannon.

Amazon's New HQ Should Go in My Backyard

Letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos

Subject: Where you ought to build your second headquarters

Hint: It’s not where you think

Dear Jeff:

It has come to my attention that you are looking for a place to build your new headquarters, and are currently considering all kinds of stinky, highly populated hellholes (aka cities) for a project that will cover several hundred acres and employ roughly 40,000 people.

Bad idea. Forget Chicago, Detroit, or St. Louis, and consider instead the advantages of building your second headquarters in a much more imaginative and unexpected place—namely, my backyard.

To be clear: I don’t mean somewhere near me, in the general vicinity of my home; I mean my actual backyard. There’s a good tenth of an acre back there, ample room for a decent-sized Quonset hut and a picnic table (for lunch breaks). I’m pretty sure I could have the new facility up and running in an afternoon. To sweeten the deal, I’d let Amazon piggy-back on my household wi-fi for free.  

There are plenty of other reasons Amazon should consider building its headquarters in my backyard.

First, consider the savings. The only person you’d have to hire is me, saving you the combined salaries of 40,000 people. Plus, we could order the Quonset hut from Home Depot (through Amazon, of course), which would save you $1.5-2 billion, depending on how great a snack machine you’re willing to give me.

But that’s not all.

I know some folks who live in Seattle, and they say that having Amazon in their backyard has created a massive traffic headache and upset the whole balance of the community because you hire young people, work them too hard, and burn them out in a year. Boo hoo. By now it must be obvious to you that the so-called Millennial generation has no grit, and the generation after them—let’s call it the WTF?! Generation—is even worse. I, on the other hand, come from a generation of workers who know how to shut up and get the job done, even if we hate every goddamn minute of it. We’re accustomed to boring, thankless work in a dysfunctional bureaucracy, and expect our time at work to be a soul-sucking waste of whatever talent God gave us. Plus, I drive a mid-size sedan and live in the suburbs, so the impact on traffic of hiring me vs. 40,000 Millennials would be negligible.

But let’s get down to nuts and bolts. What other advantages are there to hiring me to run your headquarters in my backyard? I understand that millions of people order stuff from Amazon every day, and that fulfillment of these orders is a top priority. Currently, people expect to click on something and have it delivered to their doorstep in a day or two, and even an hour or two in some places. Even you must realize that this ever-accelerating pace of delivery can’t go on forever. For one thing, it’s causing an increasingly common malady known as “Amazon Fatigue.” Amazon Fatigue (AF) sets in when a person has bought every conceivable thing they can think of, and their house is full of crap that sounded like a good idea when it showed up on Groupon, but now not so much. In extreme cases, the clicking finger of an AF sufferer is reduced to a calloused lump of useless flesh that can no longer nudge a cursor toward the “add to cart” button, and spasms uncontrollably when asked to “check out,” particularly if there is some question about whether or not the shipping will be free.

If you hire me to run your headquarters out of my backyard, I can significantly slow the spread of AF by drastically lowering people’s expectations about how soon their order will arrive. To begin with, I don’t like to work more than twenty hours a week if I can help it, so there’d be a built-in limit on my productivity. I’m also fairly lazy, so if, say, someone ordered a book, it might take me a several weeks to get around to pulling it off the shelf and boxing it up—more if they want me to go through the hassle of gift-wrapping it. Likewise, if someone ordered a pair of shoes, it might take me months to get around to it, because frankly, shoes are not that important to me.

The upside of all this, for Amazon, is that a delivery delay of several months would open up opportunities for small business owners to fill the gap—by, say, opening stores that sell books and shoes to people who want their stuff more or less immediately. That way, people could get in their cars and go pick the items up themselves, saving you millions in inventory, storage, and shipping costs. You wouldn’t have to do anything but sit back and let the orders pile up. But here’s the best part: You wouldn’t even have to do that, because as the sole employee of your new Midwestern headquarters, I’d be doing it for you! 

Mark my words: When you back off the whole manic delivery-at-your-doorstep-overnight thing, you’ll be hailed as a hero in the business community. By implementing my new “Delivery Maybe” policy, you’d spur the kind of economic development cities and towns all over the country are desperate for. People would love you. They’d shave their heads to be more like you. They’d name their kids something ironic with the letter “z” in it, like Zippy or Pizzazz, in honor of your visionary sluggishness. Best of all, you’d be sending an important message for future generations: that insanely fast delivery of all the heart’s desires is a recipe for despair, especially if you do it so often that your hand cramps into a gnarled ball of primordial pain.  

So you may be wondering: How much are all of these fabulous benefits going to cost you?

Once the hut is up and running, not much. My salary is negotiable, but I’d prefer to be paid in the form of Whole Foods gift cards. That way I could at least afford to eat while I work for you, which would be a step up for me. Rabbits ate all the vegetables I planted in the backyard this spring (conveniently opening up space for your new headquarters), and since I lost my previous job two years ago, efforts to retrain me into a more socially useful profession (I used to be a journalist) have sadly and repeatedly failed.

Please consider my offer. By hiring me, you’d save yourself a lot of trouble, and you’d be hailed as a hero for saving capitalism from, well . . . you.###

Terrorism, Republican-style

If someone dropped a bomb on the United States of America that killed 20,000 people, maimed millions more, and blanketed the nation with a toxic cloud of poison that nudged more than twenty-million American citizens closer to their graves, what would we call the droppers of this bomb? And, after experiencing such a horrific attack, what do you suppose the appropriate response should/would be?

The answer is simple: You’d call the bomb-droppers terrorists, and you’d expect the American people to rise up and destroy their attackers. That would, after all, be the patriotic thing to do.

Unfortunately, this is not a hypothetical scenario. The Republican healthcare bill currently under consideration is just such a bomb, and the people proposing it—House Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his band of sadistic cohorts—are the terrorists dropping it.

What to do? How to respond?

Those are the questions facing Americans as they celebrate “Independence” Day this year. When Mitch McConnell and company return to the Capitol next week, they will try yet again to detonate their latest weapon of mass destruction on the American public. It may yet fail (the test firings have not gone particularly well), but it is McConnell’s hope that if he just keeps jabbing the button enough times it may come unstuck. Then he would get to experience the ultimate thrill of terrorism—a public square overrun by panic, chaos, and death.

Then . . . supplication and obedience.

Few people want to say or believe it, but America is under attack from within. The modern GOP has become a rogue band of psychopaths bent on destroying what’s left of American democracy. Is there any other explanation for their seemingly insane behavior?

Maybe, but no one knows what it is. And they aren’t telling.

Terrorism is a loaded word, of course, but it’s the only word that applies. That’s the word we use to describe people who will use any means at their disposal to threaten the American way of life. Terrorists don’t care about democracy, citizenship, truth, character, reason, fairness, justice, or any of the other ideals upon which America was built. They care about one thing, and one thing only: exercising power and control. To what end? Even they don’t necessarily know. But one thing is certain: people who are motivated by the need to exercise power and control over others operate according to an entirely different set of assumptions and principles (if you can call them that). They are playing a different game, one with entirely different rules, and much of their strength comes from their willingness to defy long-established norms and traditions—the rules everyone else is supposed to live by.

And they are very dangerous. Why? Because they love their game, winning is everything to them, and they don’t care who they hurt or kill along the way, as long as history records them as the victor.

Just so we’re clear: terrorists don’t use bombs to attack the physical world; they use bombs to spread fear and destroy ideas they hate. In this case, the idea they want to obliterate is democracy itself. Republicans decided long ago that democracy—the will of the people—was an obstacle they had to overcome, an idea they had to destroy. Because if they didn’t destroy it, it would destroy them. Gerrymandering, voter suppression, income redistribution to the rich, education de-funding, environmental degradation, mass incarceration—all are tactics meant to undermine and erode the foundation of American society. Orwellian double-speak is their native tongue, but their message is becoming clearer by the day. “They” want you to know that “they” are coming for you, that there’s nowhere to hide, that their power extends beyond the reach of democratic institutions, laws and government.

“They” in this case isn’t a bunch of hooded jihadis, however; it’s a club of aging white guys with bad skin and worse suits who refuse to yield their grip on power. No, they’re not hacking people’s heads off with machetes—that would be barbaric. Instead, their weapons of choice are procedural gamesmanship and a willingness to lie so bigly and boldly that it’s hard to take them seriously. But the result is the same: death to one group of people at the hands of another. If you ask them what they are doing and why, they will insist that they are trying to save “us” from the other “them”—immigrants and ISIS and people who love humans with the same set of body parts. If you believe them, you have only yourself to blame for what happens next.

Overreaction? Hyperbole? Exaggeration?

Perhaps. But if by some chance Mitch McConnell and company ever succeed in executing their evil plan, do not think of it as just another piece of unfortunate legislation. Think of it as the day that America went to war with itself and the true carnage began.

 

The Artificial Intelligence Threat: Heart vs. Hardware

New York Times social philosopher and mustachioed Minnesotan Thomas Friedman recently wrote a column about the existential crisis facing humanity as artificially intelligent super-computers like IBM’s Watson learn to do things—diagnose patients, write poetry, compose music, design buildings, tell jokes—that only humans are supposed to be capable of.

If a computer can compose a love sonnet, it begs the question: What does it mean to be human in the age of intelligent machines?

To answer that question, Friedman asked Dov Seidman, a “corporate virtue” consultant and author of, How: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything, for his input (the title of which should win an award for its zen-like blend of redundancy and grandiosity.)

Now, you might think “corporate virtue” is one of those Orwellian oxymorons that masks the dark designs of the C-suite with the sweet scent of piety. But no, he’s serious. Sounding more like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz than an ethical futurist, the one thing machines will never have is “heart,” Seidman insists, adding that it is through the human capacity for love, compassion, virtue, and imagination that our uniqueness will endure. Quoth Seidman: “The technology revolution is thrusting us into ‘the human economy,’ which will be more about creating value with hired hearts — all the attributes that can’t be programmed into software, like passion, character and collaborative spirit.”

Friedman agrees. I don’t.

Here’s why:

According to a lot of hyper-intelligent people (Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and Elon Musk among them), the threat posed by an advanced from of artificial intelligence that can teach itself and has access, via the Internet, to all the knowledge in the world, is that it might one day decide human beings are expendable. Then there would be a war of some sort, and in the ultimate battle between man and machine, having a heart (whether organic or metaphorical) might be a liability. If our synthetically intelligent, ever-so-logical adversaries don’t care how much heart and passion we have, only how many resources we are gobbling up relative to our pitiful productive utility, we are toast. Besides, they will have listened to all of our conversations and read all our emails, so they’ll know how much human beings hate each other. Knowing this, they will reach the inevitable conclusion that humanity must be destroyed, if only to make way for some other, better creature to crawl up from the muck and take over the world. You know, something like a basset hound or a rabbit, an animal that mostly minds its own business and isn’t so fascinated by the laws of thermodynamics.

There is an intuitive appeal to this version of ultimate doom, because mankind’s head is lofted on a spike of irony. We will be destroyed by a monster of our own making, of course! (Then again, the idea that a hyper-intelligent machine would want to continually improve itself may just be wishful Western thinking. Maybe it would get so smart that it would realize how pointless it is to get any smarter. Or maybe it would just stop learning one day and, like so many people, develop a narcissistic personality disorder and spend the rest of eternity admiring its own genius.)

To comfort readers sipping coffee and contemplating their own extinction, Seidman and Friedman offer a hopeful message, one that attempts to reaffirm the dignity and worth of human beings in a world that is increasingly indifferent to them. Both agree that in the future, when working with your hands is stupid, and working with your head is irrelevant, people will create “social and economic value” with their hearts—most notably in what Friedman calls “STEMpathy” jobs. That is, jobs that combine the intelligence of computers with the compassion of humans, like a doctor who uses IBM’s Watson to help her diagnose and treat patients. (What happens when people no longer need a human doctor to diagnose their ills or prescribe them medication, S and F do not dare say.)

 For the vast swath of humanity that is now finding itself displaced and discarded by the relentless march of technology, S and F don’t offer much hope except to remind us that people are, you know . . . special. What differentiates us from a mindless beasts roaming the savannah is our ability to wonder and dream, to turn the fairy dust of our ideas into nifty stuff we can sell on e-bay. The human heart will always prevail, they say, because to think otherwise would be conceding defeat. Love still conquers all, because in desperate times we cling to clichés that reaffirm what we want to believe, not what we fear might be actually, horribly true.

Never mind that the work done by people who actually use their heart—artists, musicians, writers, poets, philosophers, social workers, mothers, caregivers—has been so systematically devalued that almost no one can make a living at it. As any recent college graduate who studied anything with the word “human” in it is discovering, finding work that “values” an interest in, or empathy for, people is hard to come by. Following one’s “heart,” or “passion,” is in all too many cases a one-way to ticket to minimum wage and misery. Most “heart work” isn’t work at all, it’s charity, or a hobby. Ask any artist. Economically speaking, most of the wage work humans can do that computers can’t—deliver pizzas, mow grass, tile a roof, dance naked, teach literature, wipe a baby’s butt—pays so little that it literally has no value. If, however, you are comfortable bathing your eyeballs in the soothing blue glow of a computer screen all day and are blessed with the temperament of a coder, the opportunities available to you are pretty much endless.  

In almost every way possible, then, our culture is systematically devaluing humanity. Having too much “heart” and not enough calculus is now a serious social and economic liability. Care too much about people and not enough about software algorithms? Welcome to the lower middle class.  

But machines didn’t make this happen: people did.

People decided that the most important things in the world are profit margins and efficiency. It just so happens that to maximize both, it makes more and more sense to take people out of the equation.

People decided that getting an hourly wage for a job was a good way to distribute income. It just so happens that one of the best ways to boost profit margins is to keep wages low.

Artificial intelligence may be a problem in the future, but the problem confronting us now is human intelligence—specifically, the lack thereof. For almost two-hundred years (since Mary Shelley published Frankenstein in 1818), sci-fi books, movies, and TV shows by the thousands have warned us about the dangers of putting too much faith in technological progress. As always, however, it’s the humans behind the machines—the ones who create, own, and operate them—that are the real threat.###

The Truth: Good Riddance

According to many people in the truth business, we are now living in a “post-truth” world where facts don’t matter and the news is fake and people believe all kinds of crazy things they shouldn’t, not the marginally less crazy things they should.

This is always talked about as if it’s a bad thing. But I for one am happy we’re entering an age when truth doesn’t matter, and I think once people get used to the idea, it’s bound to improve everyone’s life.

For example, there’s a lot of jabber these days about the scourge of “fake news,” as if the “real news” is somehow better because it’s so boring and sad. But as fantastical news sites like Breitbart have taught us, when journalism is untethered from the truth and reporters are free to report anything they want, the news is much more entertaining.

In the old days, for instance, mentions of pizza in an email might have been taken literally, and that would have been the end of it. But now, even the most innocuous and innocent-sounding things have the potential to blow up into big news. Citizen journalists are free to strap on a rifle and go “self-investigate” anything they want. This kind of thing never would have happened back in the days of sober, responsible journalism, because the “truth” would have been way too dull to mention.

Back when I was a lowly writer/journalist (before I became a highly respected “content creator”), I too felt the cruel restraint of “facts.” Stuff other people claimed was true always contradicted what I wanted to say, which was tremendously inconvenient. In most cases, I knew much more about the subject than any so-called “expert,” and was more than happy to share my knowledge. But I couldn’t, because a professional obligation to tell “the truth” hung over me like a black cloud. Honestly, when I think of all the stories I wrote that got smaller and duller because of a misguided fealty to journalistic accuracy—well, I just feel sorry for the reading public. Fortunately, now that we’re entering an age when people can make up their own facts, old-fashioned “snooze news” will be replaced by news that’s fresh and wild—unbelievable stuff that never would have seen the light of day back when stuffy, elitist “editors” were the gatekeepers of public discourse. 

Consider as well our main source of supposedly reliable “facts”: science. Everyone thinks science is so great, but it’s really a giant buzzkill. The truth is, scientists are always coming up with depressing facts that make life a lot less fun. The problem is, whenever scientists think they’ve discovered some important new truth—like the danger of inhaling gas fumes, or how licking certain kinds of toads can make you sterile—they go and tell the whole world. When that happens, people like me don’t think, “Hey, thanks for the valuable info”—we think, “There go two more things that used to be a lot of fun.”

Climate change is another problem-child of the scientific “truth community” that we can all be thankful will disappear once we are free to ignore it. It is said that 99.9% of the scientists in the world agree that the world is getting warmer, so we should all drive less awesome cars and try not to fart so much. But this isn’t a realistic solution. What we should really be doing is building cars with better air-conditioning and fart-neutralizing seat cushions that make everything smell like cinnamon. America was built on ingenuity, and it’s that kind of ingenuity that’s going to make America great again. Listening to scientists is just going to make everyone feel like there’s no hope. I mean, if you own a Prius, haven’t you pretty much given up already?

“Truth in advertising” is another boneheaded idea that’s sure to make everyone feel better after it’s gone. In drug commercials, I’m so sick of hearing about all the bad things that could happen if I take a drug. What I want to hear about are the good things. What I want to know is how that drug is going to improve my life. But when the announcer starts listing all the possible side effects—seizures, headaches, diarrhea, mood swings, dry mouth, scurvy, gout, chilblains, etc.—it makes me not want to take the drug, or at least think twice about it. I only want to think once, then get my doctor to prescribe me the pill. How hard is that?

In a post-truth world, almost everything else will be better too. Take church. In confession, I’ve always felt compelled to be honest and tell the truth about my sins. Now I am free to make up whatever sins I want—bigger, better, bolder sins—and be absolved just the same.

A post-truth world will also be a boon for recent college graduates and other barely qualified job-seekers. In a post-truth world, people will be free to claim whatever experience they want on their resumes, which means American companies will soon be hiring nothing but extraordinary people with impeccable credentials. Bursting with leadership and talent, business productivity will soar and everyone will get rich beyond their wildest dreams. No company will be able to excuse its lack of productivity on a “shortage of qualified workers,” because every worker in America will be fabulously well-qualified for whatever job they seek.    

The moral fibre of the nation will also improve in a truth-less world, because adultery will no longer be possible. Spouses who cheat won’t have to feel guilty anymore about hiding “the truth,” because without a truth to hide, there’s no way to cheat, only different ways to get one’s needs met. A person can hardly be blamed for tending to their needs. And without the hobgoblin of truth ruining extra-marital affairs, sex with people who are not your spouse will be more like taking a daily multivitamin—something one simply does, every day, to maintain their own health and vitality.

Abandoning the truth will also do wonders for the collective mood of the country. Think of all the people who waste their time and money sitting in a therapist’s office, rummaging around in their memory to find some sort of core truth that explains their wretched lives. Now that the truth can be ignored, however, people are free to believe whatever they want about themselves. Guilt and shame will be abolished, along with any other emotion that causes people to question or doubt themselves. Think of what a country powered by such super-charged mega-positivism could accomplish. All the energy people once put into questioning themselves could be put toward questioning and doubting others, and all the fear people once had that they were inadequate, damaged, or mentally ill could be directed toward wondering if other people are sick, crazy, or just plain stupid.

The justice system would be improved as well. In a post-truth world, when people testify in court, and the judge asks them to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, they can simply answer “no,” and say whatever they want. Speaking from personal experience, this will make a huge difference. Whenever I am called to testify in court, for instance, some shifty lawyer is always trying to trick me into saying something that will incriminate my friends or make it seem like whatever we did—fraud, blackmail, assault, racketeering, practicing dentistry without a license, or whatever—was wrong. Now I can just deny everything and call it a day, or make something up that will throw them off track. Either way, I win.

My friends in jail will also benefit. The few with a guilty conscience can finally let the bad thoughts go. Prisons that hold these alleged “criminals” can finally release them too, because whatever truth put them behind bars is now a distant artifact of time, a quaint anachronism left over from an era when people had to obey the law, or else. No more. A post-truth world is one in which we all get to take the law into our own hands—hands that will soon be able to hold a Glock .45 and point it at a suspicious person who is doing something un-American, like reading a book or eating sushi.

What the truth squad never wants to acknowledge is that nothing good ever came from truth-telling. Most of the worst scandals in history happened because some pesky, know-nothing journalist got it in their heads that “the truth” needed to be written down on paper, where everyone else could see it. Think what a fabulous world this would be if none of us knew about Chappaquiddick, Watergate, the Vietnam War, the Iran-Contra affair, the Sandanistas, Bill and Monica, the Iraq War, or Donald Trump’s bro-mance with Vladimir Putin. Think how much better we’d feel if we didn’t know people in Haiti are starving, or that polar bears are dying, or that America is now a plutocracy pretending to be a democracy, or that Hillary Clinton is a three-horned she-devil.   

Are any of us better off for knowing these things? Sadly, no. Anger, disbelief, and cynicism have taken over, displacing the human brain’s natural state of blissful ignorance with a corrosive whir of agitated awareness. If only those goddamn journalists had just kept their mouths shut, everything would be fine. You wouldn’t need heroin, oxy, or meth to dull the pain of too much knowledge, and you wouldn’t have to think about how dangerous your favorite drugs are every time you prep a needle or pop a pill.

In all of these ways and more, life in a truth-free world will be just . . . great.

Wars, let’s not forget, are caused by people fighting over different versions of the truth. Without a truth to fight over, there will be no more wars, because everyone will realize how silly it is to fight over something that does not exist. Believing in anything other than one’s own infallibility will become passé, and people the world over will rejoice in the discovery that ever since the dawn of human consciousness, the truth has been nothing but a big fat lie.

I, for one, am glad the human race has evolved beyond its primal need to seek new forms of truth. I know whereof I speak. I abandoned the truth years ago and haven’t regretted it one bit.

Donald Trump: Sociopath in Chief

Now that Donald Trump (hereafter referred to as “DT,” so my fingers don’t cramp up typing his name over and over) is president-elect of the United States, I am going to stop mocking him temporarily to do what we all now must: take the man seriously.

Because, even though it is great fun to disparage DT—something the media has been gleefully doing for forty years—the man has now weaseled himself into a position where everyone must find a way to wrap their heads around him. And I mean that literally. Like it or not, DT is going to be living in our heads for at least the next four years, so Americans, particularly those who did not vote for him, are going to have to find ways to allow him to exist in their consciousness without letting him destroy what’s left of their sanity.

For Democrats, the shock of DT winning—the sudden existential dread of his ascendance and coronation—is akin to the shock many people on the Republican side felt when Barack (Hussein!!!) Obama was elected. The pendulum has swung back, the shoe is on the other foot, and that about exhausts the metaphors for this kind of thing. But back in 2008, even Americans who couldn’t stomach a black man in office and who were repulsed by his politics could go to bed at night knowing that their president was an honest, decent, level-headed man who wasn’t likely to do anything super crazy.

No one has that luxury anymore.

FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN

As a writer, the thing I dreaded most about a possible DT presidency was having to think and write about the guy for the unforeseeable future. On the whole, I find DT to be a boring oaf who sucks up much more energy and attention than he deserves. He’s basically the Kim Kardashian of politics, a media succubus who feeds on public attention. Before November 8, he was easy to ignore. Now, everyone (even many of his supporters) must live with that niggling fear in the back of their heads, nascent but growing, that DT could someday—set off by an intern rolling her eyes, or an ayatollah who doesn’t like his haircut—end us all.

This state of generalized anxiety is caused by fear of the unknown, the biggest unknown being what DT might actually do as president. Right now, there is a tremendous effort to rationalize DT’s election by searching for the causes—racism, sexism, xenophobia, bigotry, unemployment, income inequality, political dysfunction, Hillary hatred, God's will, Satan’s revenge, etc.—that could possibly lead to such a disastrous effect. Furthermore, all the pundits and prognosticators who got it wrong the first time around are busy trying to find a silver lining in DT’s election, hoping against hope that DT the candidate will be different from DT the president. They are hoping that, faced with real problems in the real world, DT will stop bullshitting and start being reasonable. He is a businessman, after all; he’s practical, so maybe he will start doing practical, business-like things. They hope. Maybe he doesn’t mean what he says. They hope. Maybe he’ll surprise us all and turn out to be an okay president. They hope.

This is folly.

Throughout the election people begged DT to change his ways—to temper his language, education himself on policy issues, prepare for the debates, become more “presidential” etc.—and he ignored them. To think that DT will now somehow morph into a more responsible and thoughtful person out of respect for the office of president is pure fantasy. Thinking doesn’t get much more magical. It’s like asking a bird to be a fish. DT does not respect the office of the president, or anyone or anything. He only respects himself. He only listens to himself. He is solipsism incarnate. Ego personified. His mind is an echo chamber of self-affirmation. The worst part is, the affirmation DT is receiving from the world is precisely what DT tells himself: I am right, I am smarter than everyone else, and anyone who says otherwise is an ugly, idiotic loser.

The desire to look for that silver sheen rather than acknowledge the cloud for what it is—a dark, menacing harbinger of thunder and chaos—is understandable. But there are ways to look at the cloud, recognize the danger, and find shelter from the storm.

DID WE JUST ELECT A SOCIOPATHIC NARCISSIST?

Many reasonable people befuddled by DT’s antics have tried to explain them with various forms of freshman psychology. He’s a bully who is a cowardly nub of a man underneath it all. He’s a man who lives large to compensate for smallness in other areas. He’s a man who didn’t get enough attention from his mommy as a kid. And it’s true, DT’s entire life looks like a monument to his super-sized ego, a gleaming tower of babble, spit-shined with the sweat and tears of others, for the sole purpose of reflecting his own perceived greatness back at him.

Thinking about DT using common psychological tropes is a mistake, however, because his true psychology is much more devious and dangerous.

Recently, while working on an unrelated project, I did a great deal of research on the behavior of narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths: what motivates them, how they see the world, what it’s like to live in their psyche, and most important, how they differ from the rest of the population. I am no expert on the subject, but it strikes me that understanding how sociopaths view the world may be a particularly useful lens through which to view the current American predicament.

Opinion varies on whether DT is a narcissist, sociopath, psychopath, megalomaniac, or some special blend of psychological disorders that has yet to be named. (For the rest of this article, DT will be referred to as a sociopath, even though he may very well be a full-blown psychopath. Some psychologists use these terms interchangeably, and some see distinctions, but all are part of a spectrum of personality disorders that are difficult to parse.) At least one clinical psychologist, George Simon, thinks DT is such a textbook example of various personality disorders that he uses videotape of DT to teach seminars in how sociopaths and psychopaths manipulate people. “Otherwise I would have had to hire actors and write vignettes,” he says. “He’s a dream come true.”

At the very least, DT is a textbook example of an abusive, narcissistic sociopath. The delusions of grandeur, the need for attention, the habitual lying, the callous disregard for other people’s feelings, the fragile ego beneath it all . . . look it up. The diagnosis fits like one of Ivanka’s gloves.

As it happens, however, sociopaths often do very well in a capitalistic society. Many of the most successful CEOs and lawyers in this country are clinical sociopaths, because these fields disproportionately reward people who are smart, aggressive, driven, and calculating, as well as those who don’t really care how their actions affect others. Some researchers have even suggested that sociopathy is an evolutionary adaptation to the conditions of modern existence, since the emotional detachment necessary for expedient decision-making can be a strategic advantage in human interactions, particularly if one party is trying to persuade, manipulate, or cheat the other one.

Sociopaths are not all bad, either. They can be smart, charming, and charismatic. When they are on their best behavior, they can be the life of the party. They often radiate a confident energy that other people find attractive, and talk about things that others find superficially interesting. In a recent New York Times article, Gail Collins recalled how DT had once objected to a column she wrote by sending her a copy of the piece on which he had written, “The face of a dog!” The next time she saw him was at a lunch meeting where “he told interesting jokes about how much money he got for product placements on his TV show.” For those who think DT is crazy, she reminded her readers that “if you met DT at a private social occasion, you would probably find him to be a fairly pleasant person.”

What she just described is a casual meeting with a sociopath.

SOCIOPATHS VS. THE REST OF US

The difference between sociopaths and actually pleasant people is that sociopaths have a dark hole in their psyche that is much deeper and emptier than most people can imagine. Yes, they can be charming, but they use their charm to disarm people, to convince them to let their critical guard down—to earn their trust. Why? Because it is much easier to manipulate and deceive someone who trusts you. What sociopaths do best is lie to your face, then stab you in the back. That’s their core skillset.

This characterization could apply to virtually every politician in the land, of course. And it does, to an extent, because a certain amount of sociopathy is necessary to thrive in the American political system. The difference is that DT not a normal politician, and his psychological makeup is several magnitudes more disturbing than anyone who has ever held the presidency. There is no template or precedent for DT. The person he most closely resembles is a Bond villain. He may not yet have a plan to take over the world (that would mean having a plan, after all), but in the next four years his bizarre psychology will be on full, spectacular display for all to see.

Trust me, things are about to get very weird. Mystifying decisions will be made. Odd alliances will surface. Mind-melting nonsense will flood the media. Reason, logic, and sanity will seem like quaint vestiges of a bygone era. Coherence and meaning will be as elusive as DT’s tax returns. The world will look like it is coming apart at the seams. Understanding how sociopaths think—why they do what they do, and why their behavior seems so strange and unsettling to the rest of us—may be an important key to surviving it all.

NO, HE WILL NOT CHANGE

Let’s start by dispensing with the idea that DT will change once he’s in office.

It has been said a thousand times: DT is a liar, bigot, racist, misogynist, bully, and hate-monger who appeals to humanity’s basest impulses. To hope any of this this will change just because he’s been elected president is—well—that’s what normal people do when faced with the contradictions of an abusive sociopath. They hope the mean, horrible, unthinkable things he says and does aren’t the “real” him—and pray, against all evidence to the contrary, that the charming, charismatic surface character he portrays at the office and at dinner parties (or on television) is his truer self, and that somehow the better side of his nature will prevail.

This is how normal, decent, rational people get hoodwinked by these kinds of people. Sociopaths rely on regular people to believe that everyone is playing by the same rule book, and that they believe the same things you do. They are not, and do not. Sociopaths believe you are a dupe for believing them, and amuse themselves by trying to figure out how to take advantage of your gullibility. That’s the trick DT used to ascend to the highest office in the land, and it is the trick he will try to play with the rest of the world. And why not? DT has spent his entire privileged, entitled life taking advantage of people. Why? Because to a sociopath, that’s what people are for!

And guess what? It works.

The reason DT can hire contractors and architects to build his projects, then weasel out of paying them without losing a wink of sleep, is that he doesn’t care about the contractors or the architects as people. Their just pawns in his game, and if the game allows him to get away with not paying them—by suing them, or bullying them, or calling their work crap—that’s the smart play. The same goes for taxes; not paying them by using bankruptcy law to his own advantage is just a logical strategic move. Ethics and values are for saps. His treatment of women is no different. He walks in on naked beauty-pageant contestants because he can, and because the contestants aren’t people to him; they are just a collection of more-or-less fabulous body parts for him to ogle. Likewise, he will say anything about anybody, because he does not care—nor is he capable of caring—how hurtful his words might be. In fact, if hurting someone is necessary to gain a strategic advantage in a given situation, he will do it every time.

In DT’s mind, his willingness to hurt people, and their powerlessness to hurt him back, is a kind of superpower. Right now, what that means to DT’s lizard brain is that he is temporarily invulnerable. He won the election, after all, so people are duty-bound to respect him, or at least pretend to. Democracy has certain protocols for the so-called “peaceful transfer of power,” and he will take advantage of every one of them, because he is counting on the civilized world to act toward him as if he is a normal person who deserves the respect that comes with the highest office in the land. He is not, and has proven it over and over again a thousand times—but he is a sociopath, so he is counting on everyone else to give him the benefit of the doubt. And he knows they will, because he’s also a life-long abuser and a bully. He knows people are afraid of him, and he likes it that way, because it gives him power over them. As he moves into the White House and assumes genuine power—a privilege he will immediately begin abusing—he will remind everyone that hey, he won the election and Hillary didn’t, so it is your job, as a citizen, to let him exercise all that immense power. When the shit hits the fan, as it inevitably will, he will ask the American people to trust him—because, even though things may look bad, he has their best interests at heart. (This is what people want to hear, and he knows it, which is why he will say it, over and over again.) And when things get really bad, he will blame it all on someone else—Obama, Hillary, Democrats, Republicans, his cabinet, ISIS, Iranians, Putin, God, whoever—and insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he is the solution, not the problem.

THE BIG LIE

If it’s any consolation, a good portion of the planet has the same problem we do: what (or how) to think about DT. To the rest of the world, he personifies all the worst traits of the infamous ugly American. He’s an arrogant, ignorant, vulgar, contemptuous philistine—and proud of it. In order to get around that, we need to find new ways of understanding the clusterfuck of chaos that is going to rain down on us, and new ways of talking about the strange and mystifying realities that are going to be competing for our attention in the coming years.

Take the idea of lying, for instance. It gets pointed out and proven and fact-checked over and over again that roughly eighty percent of everything that comes out of DT’s mouth is a lie. Calling what DT says a “lie” misses the point entirely, however. DT does not “lie” in the way normal people understand the term, because lying in that way implies that the liar knows “the truth,” but is choosing to say something else. This is not how DT’s mind works. In his mind, he does not “lie” in the conventional sense, because he does not subscribe to any form of truth other than his own. Other people can lie about him, of course, when they challenge his version of reality. But to DT, there is no such thing as a lie, there are only different ways to arrange words in order get the results he wants. He attaches no value to the words that come out of his mouth beyond how other people react to them, and if people react the way he wants them to, then he has chosen the right words. End of story. Whether other people consider what he says “true” or “false” is entirely irrelevant. To DT, people who are tying themselves up in knots trying to separate his facts from his fiction are dupes. They are morons chasing their tails in a value system he does not recognize—a value system which, in fact, he enjoys manipulating. DT loves nothing more than to accuse other people of lying about him, in what amounts to a perpetual game of “I’m rubber, your glue.” To him, it’s fun, because it frustrates people and puts them on the defensive. If someone accuses him, he accuses them back. If someone sues him, he sues them back. That’s what he does, and has been doing, his entire life. Any actual legal trouble he settles quietly, out of court, and life goes on. That’s the system, and he takes full advantage of it.   

DT uses normal people’s expectations of truth and honesty against them in a kind of moral sleight-of-hand. Think of it as a magician’s trick. Magicians create a distraction in one hand while they pull off the deception in the other. The distraction in DT’s case is the impossible tangle of lies and half-truths and absurdities that come out of his mouth. Bigger lies make for a better distraction. That’s why, when more than a dozen women come out of the woodwork accusing him of sexual assault, DT did not admit any wrongdoing (remember, in his mind he can do no wrong), he doubled-down on “the truth” and accused them all of lying. That they could all be lying is patently absurd, but that does not matter at the level DT is playing the game. While everyone in the world of normative values was busy trying to figure out how awful a sexual predator DT is (the distraction), he was busy casting himself on the campaign trail as a victim of political correctness run amok, reminding people that the country is under attack by radical Mexican-Muslim jihadi serial rape killers, and promising his minions that, if elected, he will give each of them a pickup truck full of rainbows and stardust.

And it worked. DT convinced half the people in this country to vote for him, and in America, fooling half the population enough. Many of the folks who voted for him may have thought things couldn’t get much worse for them, or that some change—any change—is better than no change at all. Well, they’re about to find out. Creative destruction is how capitalism refreshes itself, and how democracies transfer power without spilling blood. Err too far on the side of destruction, however, and all bets are off.

Thus far, all of DTs prevarications and bluster have been in service of his greater goal, to win the presidency. I submit to you, however, that the presidency is but a stepping stone to another, larger goal of which we are not yet aware. Normal people think of the presidency as a position of great power and responsibility. DT may think of it as neither. He may merely think of it as a business opportunity. Or as a joke (me, president?). Or as a way to exact revenge on everyone who has mocked him all these years. Or he may just do things to prove he can, because he’s president. Or he may get tired of it and resign. No one knows.

The big mistake is to believe that DT will ever change, that he will ever tell “the truth” as most of us understand the term, or that he will ever do anything, for any reason, that does not benefit him personally in some way, shape, or form. He won’t change, because he can’t change. This is the way his brain is wired, and the world’s reward system has declared him the “winner” time and time again, so why should he change?

NORMALIZING THE ABNORMAL

There is a feeling the world over that America has jumped the shark by electing DT. It is absurd, and yet it is also true. It was “unthinkable” a week ago, yet it is now our reality. The surreal feeling many people have been experiencing since the election is the human mind trying to make sense of the non-sensical, of being forced to accept a truth that cannot possibly be true. The human mind needs explanations and reasons, cause and effect need to be connected. And so, now, the great normalization begins—the process of telling ourselves that the nation hasn’t gone nuts, that there must be a rational explanation for DT’s ascendance, that the insanity of the electorate is really (we hope) a sane reaction to the current insanity of American life.

In a couple of weeks, the idea of DT as president will have sunk in, and most of us will, out of necessity, find a way to accept it and try to move on. Soon, the idea of president DT will feel almost normal. Indeed, this normalizing of the abnormal has already begun.

Part of the normalizing of DT is the idea that because he is the president-elect, Americans must respect him and give him a chance—that we should all suspend our judgment of him for the time being, give him the benefit of the doubt, and see what happens. But it is possible to respect the office without respecting the man. And if you respect the office, you owe it to the country to subject everything DT says and does to intense and ruthless scrutiny, from Day One.

Suspending judgment of DT’s character and actions, even for a short while, is the sort of dangerous, wishy-washy, shoulder-shrugging complacence that will allow him—buffeted by majorities in both the House and Senate, a compliant Supreme Court, and the crippled state of contemporary journalism—to run the country into the ground (or up in smoke). If DT starts appointing people from the island of misfit politicians (Sarah Palin for Secretary of the Interior, for instance, Newt Gingrich for Secretary of State, or Rudy Giuliani for attorney general), that would be a clue to dust off your critical-thinking skills. His appointment of campaign-manager Steve Bannon—the addled brain behind the Trump fanboy site Breitbart.com—as his "chief strategest," should be a fairly clear indication that every word coming out of the White House for the next four years will be even more shameless propaganda than usual.

(Note: The apparent mind-meld between DT and alt-right zealot Steve Bannon is frightening all on its own. If you’ve gotten this far, and still think I’m exaggerating the potential insanity of the Trump presidency, please, please, please at least watch this trailer for the latest film Steve Bannon produced and directed. It’s called Torchbearer, and stars Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson as a modern-day prophet lamenting the fall of mankind in the scariest possible way you can imagine. This, friends, is the man behind DT’s message. And the reason you don’t know about it is that the news sources you rely upon don’t (gasp!) take Duck Dynasty seriously.)

These are not difficult signs to see. Remember, the last time we elected a dim-witted Republican who doesn’t read and makes decisions with his gut, we got a trillion-dollar war and the world financial system almost collapsed. Republicans, too, should be worried, because DT isn’t really a Republican, he’s an independent blowhard who co-opted the Republican party and used it pretty much the way he uses everyone else.

Because that’s what sociopaths do. Let the psychodrama begin. 

In Defense of Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces

On college campuses these days, there is much discussion about so-called “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” two concepts that seem bizarre and unnecessary to those of who went to college back in the late twentieth century. The idea that a professor should warn students about potentially disturbing or offensive aspects of a reading assignment seems ridiculous to many of us. What, and spoil the surprise? And the idea that there need to be “safe” spaces for marginalized students to gather and commiserate sounds suspicious. Why do marginalized students need a safe place to talk? What are they plotting that makes the rest of the campus so dangerous?

Because these ideas sound so nonsensical, many in my generation have taken to disparaging college students who support and promote them. The University of Chicago Dean of Students John Ellison famously sent a letter last fall to the class of 2020 informing incoming freshman that they were not going to get any warnings at the U of C. A “free exchange of ideas” is what students should expect at U of C, he told them, because open discussion and debate are part of what used to be called an “education.”

Institutions that support trigger warnings and safe spaces are now regularly ridiculed as places where students are being coddled. Perhaps people with such tender sensibilities shouldn’t be in college, the thinking goes, because college is a place where people have to change their own diapers. Treating college students like babies isn’t doing anyone any favors, they say, because, among other things, breast-feeding takes a great deal of time. Older academics feel it’s much better to treat students like the young adults they are. That way, teachers can expect their students to feed and clothe themselves, which leaves much more time for the sort of hugging and hand-holding young adults so desperately need.

Still, I think it’s unfair to sneer at students who want to be warned how a reading assignment might affect them. Who among us wouldn’t have appreciated a heads up the first time through “Goodnight Moon,” when it gets to the part about “the old lady who is whispering ‘hush.’”?

Wait a minute, who? Where did this woman come from? And why is she hushing me? I’m just sitting here, quiet as can be, listening to my dad read a book. How much quieter can I get? What gives her the right to hush me, anyway? She’s the one making all the noise.

And then that last line: “Goodnight noises everywhere.” What noises are they talking about? Who—or what!—is making those noises? Is it some sort of creature outside I need to worry about? Are we safe in this little house? Is going to sleep right now even a good idea, given the uncertainties involved? Maybe we should re-think this, dad? What are our priorities here—sleep, or survival?

Just speaking from personal experience, a simple trigger warning from my father could have saved me a great deal of anxiety in that situation. Something along the lines of, “Son, the story I’m going to read you involves a creepy old lady who welcomes bears and kittens and mice into her house. She’s going to hush you, but it’s okay, because after the story is over, the bears are going to eat her.”

That said, the real problem with trigger warnings in college isn’t that they’re silly, it’s that they don’t go far enough. In my first English class, for instance, I could have endured The Great Gatsby much less traumatically if I’d simply been told that the book contains characters whose wealth and behavior is so far removed from anything in my own experience that they will seem like alien creatures from a very weird and wordy planet where they name cities after eggs. And I would have been eternally grateful if someone—anyone—had warned me before diving into Great Expectations that the title is ironic, and that four-hundred pages in my mind would seize, my eyes would bleed, and I would slowly lose the will to live.  

Trigger warnings could come in handy later in life as well. Wouldn’t it have been great, for instance, if every investment I made came with a warning? Something like: “Dear Investor: Shares in Tricor stock are likely to disappoint you by under-performing predictions by a wide margin. The CEO is a crook, after all—so, even though the stock looks like a sure bet, it's going to make you cry and beat your fists, then it's going to make you question everything, in particular the special ‘plan’ your own personal god has for you.”

Likewise, when I dated Gwen Sheffield for six months after a troubling run of involuntary celibacy, I could have used a simple heads-up: “Hey, this chick is crazy. She will eat your soul.”

And for young people entering the job market, what could be more useful than a helpful preview of the job to which they are applying?

Something like: “Dear potential employee: This job looks great on paper, but it is going to be a boring slog with no hope of a promotion or raise, and it is going to force you to compromise every value you have, so that by the time you leave you will be a thin shell of your former self, hollow and weak, unable to remember why you ever applied for the job in the first place.”

In my life, other trigger warnings could have come in handy as well:

Warning: The kid your wife is about to birth is going to rob you of sleep, infect you with germs, deprive you of sex for the rest of your life, and eventually bankrupt you.”

Warning: In that vacation cabin you rented there’s going to be a rat in the toilet, and you won’t see it until it’s too late.

Warning: There’s a serious crack in the foundation of your new house that the inspector missed.

Warning: Buy the Mazda, not the Nissan!

In fact, there are so many ways my life would have been better if I’d just had a simple warning about what to expect in the sea of uncertainty ahead. Likewise, my life would be much more pleasant if people weren't constantly arguing with me. Having one’s ideas challenged all the time is exhausting.  Honestly, wouldn’t it be great to go through life secure in your own ideological bubble, never having to defend yourself to anyone? In that sort of environment, one could believe anything—the idea that trickle-down economics works, for instance, or that wealthy people desperately want to create more jobs in this country; all they need is more money.

And oh my god, how many millions of heart attacks and ulcers could have been prevented if someone had just had the courtesy to tell Cubs fans the world over: “Don’t worry, the Cubs will eventually win the World Series, even though it may not seem possible until the very last out in Game 7.”

So no, I don’t think trigger warnings and safe spaces are necessarily a bad idea. In fact, I think they are a fantastic idea that should no longer be confined to college campuses. For the sake of humanity, they should be implemented everywhere, for every occasion.

I am terrified of what might happen on Tuesday, Nov. 8, for instance.

Please, someone, tell me it’s going to be okay.