Sunday, February 15, 2015

Confessions of a Neophyte Marathon Maniac

Well, I did it. I’ve become an official Marathon Maniac! My friend Scott told me about the group a while ago, and when I looked at their website, this is what I found:

“Are you addicted to running marathons?
·       Do your thoughts switch to the next scheduled race immediately after finishing a marathon?
·       Are you signed up for more than one race right now?
·       Do you look at the race schedule more than once a week?
·       Do you start to feel down when you haven't run a marathon in a while?
·       Are your closets and dressers filled with marathon t-shirts?
·       When asked about your racing from non running people, do you find yourself talking with great passion to the point that the person that asked the question regrets ever asking?
·       Do you plan all your vacations around a marathon race?”

And my answers were: yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. It was clear that these were my people. Clinically obsessed marathoners who are just in it for the good times, and who don’t take any of it too seriously. So the seed was planted, and I set up a race schedule that would get me into the club. To meet the lowest level admission requirements, you have to run three marathons in 90 days. I did St. Louis on October 19, Rehoboth Beach on December 6 and Jackson, Mississippi on January 10. When I got done with the race in Jackson, I went back to the hotel and showered, and before I even got dressed, zapped off the e-mail with my racing bona fides to the Marathon Maniacs admissions committee. The response came two days later. I was in! Maniac #10,578. The welcome e-mail said it all:

“Dan, at last you have found refuge, a place where you can call home, where the Maniacal can feel Normal again, and once again be treated like a normal human being. Welcome To The Marathon Maniacs AsyLum!!!! [sic]”

I was so excited. In the club! I told all my friends and went immediately on-line to buy $50 worth of Marathon Maniacs stickers and low-quality running-wear. Maniacs are always very visible at races because they all wear absolutely hideous bright yellow shirts. And they all hang out together and look like they’re having the best time of anyone. I always kept an eye on the group, nonchalantly sneaking glances out of the corner of my eye. But I was a little intimidated. Didn’t think I could really engage since I wasn’t a member.

What’s fun about the Maniacs, and unique in the running world, is that their focus is on longevity and fun, not pace and rankings. As a group, they’re not particularly fast. Some finish races way up at the top of the list, but a lot of them just slog along at whatever pace they like. More important than setting a personal best time is saving enough energy to throw back some beers and party with their friends after the race. And a lot of them are old, which, to me, is the most inspiring thing of all. If I ever become one of the sinewy 80 year-olds who runs 10 marathons in a year, which are commonplace at any Maniac gathering, I’ll feel like I have succeeded in life.  

It’s refreshing not to talk about numbers all the time. People are just inherently very competitive. And when you do something that is very obviously quantifiable, like running races, people always want to know about the numbers. When someone asks “how did the race go,” and you tell them that it was great because you met some really nice people and the scenery was magnificent and the hills were just right and there was an awesome sense of camaraderie at the after-party, they look at you like you’re an idiot. What they mean is, what was your time and pace and overall ranking.

As even the most neophyte-level Buddhist can tell you, the key to happiness is to stop comparing yourself to others. Live your life as it is. Stop trying to perpetually figure out how great you are relative to others. However gorgeous and rich and brilliant and talented you are, there will always be people out there who are better. And however bad you think you have it, there will always be two billion people who are much worse off.

Maniacs are much more about good times and community. It’s not about the numbers. And yet…

My three marathons in 90 days earned me the very lowliest Maniac membership status available – one star, bronze. There are ten levels. To get one level up – two star, silver – you have to run three marathons in 16 days, six marathons in six months or eight marathons in a year. To get to the top level – ten star, titanium – you have to run 52 marathons in one year, 30 marathons in 30 states in one year or 20 marathons in 20 countries in one year [Note from my editor, Leslie, “don’t even fucking think about it”]. Once you become a Maniac, you’re in for life (or for as long as you continue to pay your $15 annual dues). You never have to re-qualify. The initial bliss and excitement of getting my official Maniac number lasted about a week. And then, of course, I started thinking, wouldn’t it be kinda cool to move up just one star? It’s great to be in the group, but who wants to be a one star anything? Sure, we’re in it for the good times. And yeah, the whole experience is not something to be quantified. But c’mon, let’s face it, isn’t two always better than one?

And so it goes. I’ve found my home in the Marathon Maniacs. I made it into the club. And I hope to keep running and running for as long as I can, and drinking beer with awesome, enthusiastic compatriots every time I cross a finish line. But maybe someday, somehow, I’ll figure out how to move my ranking up just one tiny little notch.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Holy Fucking Shit is Modern Commercial Air Travel Awesome! A Short Treatise on Complaints from First World 2015.

Dedicated to Leslie, who flies a lot and never bitches about it.

It’s so annoying when people complain about everything. But I guess it’s something I need to get over since about 96% of all human communication is complaining. There are varying degrees. Not all complaining is really complaining. A lot of it is just a way of interacting with our fellow humans. People like to talk to each other. Coming up with things to talk about is hard. Finding something to complain about is easy.

Complaining can happen anywhere. But the cosmic-epicenter-universal-ground-zero-hub of complaining is the airport. If you were new to this planet and stopped in at an airport, you’d think that life on earth was so horribly, unbearably oppressive that continuing to live would hardly be worth the effort. You’d be amazed that more people didn’t drown themselves in a vat of Orange Julius just to make it all end.

On the one hand, it’s true. Air travel sucks. The overhead bins always get filled before your lowly scumbag zone 4 boarding group gets called. The sandwiches are shitty and stale and not even free. The guy in front of you put his seat back, and yours is in front of the urinal puck-smelling toilet and doesn’t recline. Your civil rights are violated by some TSA teenager in another city looking at x-ray pictures of your tits / balls when you go through security. It’s an all around bubbling inferno of horribleness.

On the other hand, flying is vastly more accessible than it was a generation ago. If you focus less on the horror of add-on fees and focus for a second on the overall cost of a ticket, even with a checked bag, a premium gang-banger mucho legroom class seat and a seven dollar lite beer, flights today cost a fraction of what they used to. And, in the larger picture, whereas if your great grandparents wanted to cross the country they had to rustle up a posse and wagon train along a dirt path for nine months, you can now swipe through a few screens on your iPhone app, pop onto a 3,000 ton 747 (which somehow, unfathomably, can actually get up off of the ground and fly six miles above the Earth, which is unbelievable on a whole ‘nother level) and be just about anywhere in the country in four hours. Oh, and there’s wifi. If you want to go visit your grammie or follow your bliss or escape to an all-inclusive Sandals resort with a pool bar or do whatever it is that you people do, it’s exponentially easier now than ever before.

Some things truly, objectively suck. When your body rejects a heart transplant because someone accidentally wrote the wrong blood type on the label on the transport cooler, that sucks. When your mom gets shot to death in a carjacking gone awry, that sucks. When your malaria vaccine spoils because the nearest refrigerator to your village is fifty miles away, that sucks. And some things are clearly first world problems. Slow wifi. When your entrée is served so soon after your appetizer that you hardly had time to take two bites. Starch on your shirt when you specifically said no starch.

But most things only suck or don’t suck relative to other things. If you compare air travel to a first class trip 30 years ago, it sucks. If you compare it to how things always worked from around the time of recorded history until 1950, it’s pretty mind-bendingly astonishing. And if you compare almost anything in life to the way 95% of the world lives, chances are it’s relatively phenomenal.

“Oh, well – first world problem” is a useful expression. If you say it before you complain about something, it’s an acknowledgement that you have some tiny modicum of self awareness and that, while it may not prevent you from complaining, you at least understand that your complaint may not, in fact, be all that massively troubling in the grand scheme of things. If someone else says it to you, what they may be saying, in a slightly more polite way, is “yeah, well, um, how ‘bout shutting the fuck up.”

So, no need for everyone to stop complaining. The world would be eerily quiet if that happened. A little more self-awareness is all. Similar to “don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all the small stuff,” I’d say “don’t complain too loudly about first world problems, and they’re all first world problems.” If you’re moderately healthy, have enough money to feed yourself and buy a magazine, aren’t living in fear of someone in your own house, and have one or two friends, things are probably pretty much OK. Complain for entertainment purposes, but don’t take it to heart. Consider spending a tiny little bit more energy appreciating how outrageously fucking amazing so much of the world is, and a tiny little bit less energy complaining about soggy airplane food.  

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Fifty Shades of Free Beer: Michelob Ultra vs. 16 Mile Cage Fight Bold Pale Ale

The Rehoboth Beach Marathon was one of my favorites ever. When I was explaining to other people why I liked it so much, I found myself jumping right to a description of the free beer at the after-party. The free beer, donated by 16 Mile Brewery, was the liquid embodiment of all that was great about the race, and, in the bigger picture, of everything that makes it fun to hang out with other human beings.

A while back, I came up with a patented six-point marathon rating matrix, and one of the categories was, free beer. All of the other categories had a 1 to 5 range. But free beer was binary. Unenlightened as I was at the time, I said that “This factor is simple. There either is free beer at the finish line or there is not free beer at the finish line.” 1 or 5.  Oh how very naïve I was.

There’s some variety in the free beers served at the end of races, but the one you see all the time is Michelob Ultra. Michelob Ultra is watery shit swill beer. Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with watery shit swill beer. It has its place. If you’re in a situation where the goal is to stand around and drink for an entire day – fishing, jazz festival-ing, watching a friend work on his car, neglecting your marauding children at a neighborhood barbecue – watery shit swill beer might very well be exactly what you want. An 18 pack will only set you back about $15. And there’s almost no alcohol in it, so you can pound down a dozen or so of them and wake up in the morning fresh as a spring day and ready to coach tee ball or teach Sunday school.

What absolutely makes my skin crawl, though, is the advertising theme that goes along with Michelob Ultra. It’s marketed as the beer of athletes and beautiful people with active lifestyles. In the ad, a chiseled, handsome young investment banker bounds out the door of his Manhattan skyscraper at lunch to go x-treme roller blading with his hot, fawning coworker (who, as obviously implied, will probably screw his brains out later that night or, hell, maybe even right then and there after an intense bout of shredding through the city). But none of that changes the reality of what the beer is: Watery. Shit. Swill. Basically 12 ounces of liquid marketing. The icing on the cake is that the main promotional face of Michelob Ultra was, right up until the time physical evidence came to light that 85% of the blood flowing through his veins belonged to someone else, Lance Armstrong.

So, when you finish a race, rip the tab off your bib and exchange it for one free Michelob Ultra (others available for purchase for cash, $4.50 plus a valid drivers license), that’s all well and good. But the scene after the Rehoboth Beach Marathon, organized by the Rehoboth Beach Running Company, was in a whole different stratosphere. Race registration included entry into the after-party. All runners got a neoprene frat party bracelet that got you in, and non-runners could buy one for $20. The after party had a DJ and a big buffet with a full spread of breakfast stuff and lunch stuff. Once you made your decision about whether you wanted a pile of bacon and eggs or a stack of burgers and dogs, you got to the 16 Mile Brewery beer trailer. And the beer trailer had these spectacular party attributes:
  • 3 kinds of delicious, local beer – Seed-Free & Joy, Cage Fight and Tiller Brown!
  • No line!
  • No limit!

Post-marathon hydration be damned! This was a party! I sat down with some old guys who had run the race a bunch of times (“you’re not exactly who we were hoping for, but sure” said one of them when I asked if I could sit with them; the other of whom turned out to be a Delaware judge). They told me that, yeah, the after party usually went on for hours, until the sad moment when the beer trailer got hooked up to the truck (and even then, folks could usually finagle one more round). Fun times and camaraderie all around!

The beer was from the heart – genuinely good and with no aura of bullshit marketing. And the same was true about the race in general. No big corporate sponsors, a quirky packet pick-up in an upscale sushi restaurant, friendly volunteers. No VIP tent, available for an extra price, separating the group out into after-party haves and have-nots. No five-page registration questionnaire demanding information about your finances and spending habits. Just a big fun setup designed to get people to hang out together and have a good time.

The bigger the company, the more diffuse its ownership, the larger the customer base to sell to, the more bland and generalizable and scalable its products have to be. Small, local operations are so refreshing, not for any kind of moral / smug / Michael Pollan reason, but because they’re just more fun. It’s OK to make a buck in the process, but when that’s the only goal, it shows.

Big races organized by big national corporations are usually the ones that give you a ticket for one Michelob Ultra. It’s at the little ones, organized by runners for runners, like Rehoboth Beach, where you’re more likely to get a Cage Fight Bold Ale (“Boxing gloves? You mean Bitch Mittens”) like the one from 16 Mile Brewery. And what could be better than that?

Now that I’ve become more of a grizzled marathon veteran, I have learned the folly of my former ways. “Free beer or no free beer” is a gross oversimplification. There are fifty shades of free beer. And 16 Mile Brewery and the Rehoboth Beach Running Company really know how it’s done. 

Click here to learn more about 16 Mile Brewery, Georgetown, DE.

Click here for information about the Rehoboth Beach Running Company. 

Click here for information about the Rehoboth Beach Marathon.

Click here for an article about Charlie Sheen calling Lance Armstrong a douchebag. 



Thursday, October 2, 2014

Don’t Get Me Wrong. I Love Corporations. Really.

Friends often ask me, regarding my blog, something to the effect of, “dude, does your boss know you write this shit?” The short answer is, yes. The DanJanifesto is on my resume. For real. The longer question is, “how can you go to work every day as a business lawyer - mergering and acquisitioning and joint venturing and corporate financing - when you have so many horrible things to say about corporations?” And the longer answer is… 

The system is supposed to work like this: the people (via government) set the rules; capitalism (via corporations) works within those rules to make the most money possible and “expand the pie”; and the people (via taxation, via government) decide who should get how much of the pie. It’s when that basic structure starts to fall apart that I get all agitated. 

I believe that corporations are justified in doing anything and everything not prohibited by law and, further, that they should not be expected to even consider any factor – moral, social or otherwise – so long as what they are doing is legal. My general super leftie disposition notwithstanding, I’ll go to bat for Wal-Mart’s right to pay below poverty wages to full-time workers, Apple’s right to set up international shell companies to shelter profits from US taxation, and BP’s right to permanently ruin a massive chunk of coastline in exchange for penalties equal to a few day’s revenues. However unconscionable those practices might seem, If they’re legal, if they maximize a corporation’s profits, then that’s their prerogative, and it’s what they should do. 

When companies pretend to care about the world beyond maximizing shareholder value and say things like “being environmental / treating our employees well / supporting our community is not just a good idea, it’s good business,” it’s disingenuous, not to mention stupid-looking. It might not be 100% percent bullshit 100% of the time. Sometimes, for purposes of building goodwill with customers, or even for cold, hard business reasons, it turns out to be true. But, then, when it’s not true, it’s not. And when a choice has to be made between doing what’s “right” and what maximizes profits, profits win out every time. Period. 

If a company can maximize its profits by paying its employees sub-poverty wages or by destroying the environment, and we the people think workers deserve to make more and that forests need to be preserved, the solution is not to protest the company, but to change the rules. And we the people, not companies (who are not people; I’ve voiced my opinion on that issue plenty), are the ones who should decide what the rules are.

And that’s where things become problematic. Companies are doing more than trying to maximize their profits within the rules set by the people. They’re trying to set the rules themselves. The most fundamental problem with how the rules are made these days, in my humble opinion, is that there is no meaningful countervailing force to the intense concentrated interests companies have in certain very precise, industry-specific issues. If an environmental regulation would negatively impact some particular industry, it makes economic sense for that industry to lobby, with all its might, within one dollar of bankruptcy, to make sure the regulation doesn’t get passed. It could be the case – and I think it very often is – that the vast majority of the population agrees with a regulation, and that if every person who agreed would contribute one dollar to fight for the regulation, it would breeze through the legislative process and become law in a flash. But when there is no centralized structure for the masses to express that preference, it can’t compete against the targeted, coordinated message of even a very small minority. Absent any kind of meaningful counterforce, the industry wins.

When people get frustrated with this result and point to corporations as the culprit, I think they’re going after the wrong target. Whenever I hear any kind of message about “corporate greed,” I pretty much tune it out, because it almost always misses the real point. I wouldn’t necessarily go as far as Gordon Gecko in saying that “greed is good.” I’d say something more like, “greed just is, like gravity.” The profit motivation, a.k.a. “greed,” is what fuels capitalism. And capitalism really does do a spectacular job – a better job than any other system we’ve seen on Earth so far – of advancing progress and expanding the economic pie.

But a larger pie in and of itself is not always better. Distribution matters. Similar to “greed,” the terms “socialism,” “redistribution” and “class warfare” – at least as they’re generally tossed around by the media in this country – are pretty good indicators that whatever screed follows is not going to be very meaningful or informative. “Redistribution” in particular. The word is a sneaky, not-so-subtly loaded term, implying that there is some cosmic, natural order defining who should get what cut of the pie, and that any RE-distribution of the goods is unnatural. It’s a ridiculous premise, just like the idea of “free” markets. Every game has rules. Having no rules is, itself, a set of rules. Human beings don’t exist to serve the needs of markets. Markets exist to serve the preferences of people. And people should set the rules.

The question of who should be entitled to what relative portion of the pie gets pretty philosophical pretty fast. Business owners may be the most visible catalysts of progress and creators of wealth, but the forces that underlie any business success are vast and often invisible, and usually include some significant contribution from the government. We the people should determine the distribution. There’s no “re” about it. It’s a democratic choice. Nobody is intrinsically entitled to anything.  

When people howl about redistribution, they’re usually just complaining about paying taxes. To sound less complain-y, the protests against taxes are usually said to be based on some larger philosophy. In particular, good ol’ Ayn Rand. I certainly don’t believe the idiot Randian / Atlas Shrugged notion that if people have to pay too much in taxes they’ll decide to drop off the grid and stop enlightening society with their creations. That whole idea seems to me like an entirely clueless notion about human nature – that people will stop competing if they don’t get to keep 100% of the fruits of “their” noble work. People compete because they love to compete. If people had to pay a 95% tax on each dollar over $1 billion, that additional dollar would still be an extra point on the scorecard of who’s “winning.” More is more, and after you’ve reached the point where extra dollars have no impact whatsoever on how your life is actually lived, the value of an extra dollar lies purely within the realm of philosophy. (There’s another more mundane matter of people simply not understanding how marginal tax rates work, and thinking, incorrectly, that there is ever a situation where, after taxes, a person would take home less by making more if making more would bump up his tax bracket). As long as human beings like to show off and measure themselves against others (“by height” says Ty Webb to Judge Smails – sorry, couldn’t help myself), they’ll keep working hard even when taxes are high. 

OK, so, got it? We the people should set the rules. Corporations should compete all-out within those rules. We the people should decide who gets to keep the spoils. And we should all stop complaining about paying taxes.

And that, in a nutshell, is how someone can be an angry, verbose, blogging leftie and still go to work as a corporate lawyer every day.  

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Talking to Kids about Class Warfare

Dear Gravy Train Dan,

I am a piss poor single mother trying my best to raise my little Johnny on my own. Johnny has started noticing that we always get hosed by the rich. He's been asking me difficult questions about class warfare. I want to be honest with Johnny, but he's only six. Is it too soon to start talking to him about class warfare?


Piss Poor in Peoria

Dear Piss Poor,

Not too soon at all! Little Johnny's feelings are natural. Class warfare is everywhere. And it's a tough subject. But if you avoid talking to little Johnny about it, he's just going to learn about it from the Internet, in-between searching for porn. You need to be proactive about helping Johnny understand all the ways in which the game is fixed. Johnny needs to know that, as a poor six year-old, there's pretty much no possible way he's ever going to have a fair shot at a prosperous existence.

Kids pick up on class warfare at a very young age. Why just this past weekend I saw some outrageous class warfare at place built just for kids - Six Flags.

What kid doesn't love Six Flags? The thrill of the rides. The fun and games. The treats and prizes. A day pass is $39. A little steep, but even the most Dickensian little Oliver Twist can usually cobble together some change from his paper route and treat himself to one thrilling summer day at the park. And you'd think that, once your little guy bought his ticket, he'd be able to frolic with kids from all walks of life - rich or poor.

Turns out, that's not the case.

I'm a Big Brother Big Sister volunteer, and when I took my pals Spectaculario and Stupendizoid* to Six Flags, we checked in at the front gate, ran straight to Goliath, one of the massive, towering twisty-twirly roller coasters at the park and..... realized that the line was over an hour long. About half an hour into the line, I saw the first advertisement for the Flash Pass, some kind of "preferred" admissions ticket. By the time we got toward the front of the line, I realized that what our $39 ticket really bought us was the right to wait in lines for 97% of our time at the park, and go on maybe four rides during an all day visit.

* Names have been changed to protect the identity of children who would be devastated if they ever had any idea what was going through my mind for the 9 hours I spent waiting by the exit of amusement park rides.

So I ducked out of line and went to the Flash Pass office to learn more. Turns out, Flash Pass is just a way to pay more for the right to cut in line. For $30 per person (silver) you get some priority. For $55 per person (gold) you can go straight to the front of the line of all rides but one. And for $85 per person (platinum!) you can cut in every line in the park. I'm not a one percenter, but I'm fortunate enough to be able to drop an extra $110 (I got gold passes for my buddies, not one for me) to make things more fun for my friends. I didn't even have to run it by the marital finance committee.

I met Spectaculario and Stupendizoid back at the Goliath exit and told them the great news. Remember that one hour line you just had to wait in? No more! That line is just for poor schmucks who can't afford gold-level Flash Passes. For the rest of the day, kids, you go to the special entrance on the side just and march yourselves right the fuck up to the front of the line!

I've heard that Disney has this same system, but that they do a better job of hiding the rich kid lines so that it's not so obvious to the poor kids just how screwed they are. But at Six Flags, it's all right out there in the open. The unwashed masses have to wait in the endless, boring zig-zagging line while, right next to them, the rich kids saunter on by, straight up to the front of the line, onto the ride and back again, over and over again, as many times as they want. You can see the anger and frustration in the poor kids' eyes. Those guys cut in line! It's just... not fair! Why do they get that special treatment? Because they could afford the Flash Pass? Because they're rich?


Real class warfare requires more than just grumbling and dirty looks. It takes organization and hard work and Molotov cocktails. But the seeds were there at Six Flags. Brewing and fomenting in all the kids who used to think that all kids, rich and poor alike, were equal at Six Flags.

Six Flags isn't doing anything wrong, of course. It's just a business, trying, like any other business, to separate a few suckers from their dollars. It has no civic duty to provide everyone with the same level of service. And, for a poor kid, waiting in the long lines at Six Flags is good practice for going out into the real world. Government programs may get slashed, but there's still a nice a la carte menu of services available to anyone who can pay for them. Limited health care? Crappy schools? Speeding tickets? Minor felonies that require a good lawyer? No abortion providers in your state? Meh. Those are all just problems for the poor, minor inconveniences as long as you have the funds. You can walk right past the line and get on the ride.

So, Piss Poor, little Johnny probably already has a sense of how crappy it is to be poor, and how many problems can be avoided by having a rich dad. But if there's any question in your mind, how about a trip to Six Flags? It's only $39. Well, actually, if Johnny brings a friend, with $20 parking, $12 chicken fingers, $4.99 fountain sodas - unless you buy the $13.99 value jug, which gets you unlimited $1 refills - maybe a $19 tee shirt or something, and, of course, the $85 platinum Flash Pass, you're looking at more like $450. But it's a small price to pay when you consider what a first rate education in class warfare little Johnny will get.

Yours in brutally honest child rearing,

Gravy Train Dan

Friday, July 25, 2014

Maybe People Aren't All F%@&sticks After All*

It's easy to think that the world made up of a bunch of fucksticks. And while they are certainly out there - you don't have to walk far to encounter all measure of idiots, douchebags, ignoramuses, assmunches, morons and outright fucksticks - I posit to you that perhaps people are generally more OK than all that, and that a lot of the universal ill will we all have towards humanity may be mostly the result of too much media consumption. Getting to know a person on a one-to-one basis is a whole different ballgame than viewing humanity by means of the corrupted goop that is spoon fed to us through screaming pundits and women's health magazines and gas pump TVs and urinal ads.

As with a lot of questions, you can figure out a lot by following the money. The media-industrial complex is not public service; it's big business. Its one and only goal is to make money. People are nuanced, complicated and (I'll go out on a limb; I think it's true) generally thoughtful. But nuance, complication and thoughtfulness don't sell stuff. What does sell stuff, and what is the basis for limitless reserves of cash-suckage, are two of the fundamental underpinnings of human nature: self-affirmation and schadenfreude. If you think along these lines, you'll see how neatly just about everything that gets fed to you on TV or ads in the subway conforms to this rubric by depicting nothing but the very most fuckstickish back alley of humanity.

The emotion that schadenfreude-based messages elicit are something along the lines of, wow, I may be below average in terms of looks, intelligence, wealth, sex appeal, marketable skills and personal hygiene - and, let's face it, basically a loser - but at least I'm not THAT guy. And self-affirmation operates by painting your preferences, biases, political leanings and worldview as so obviously, simplistically right and the opposing views as so ridiculously, maniacally insane, that it's an easy lob-ball, grand-slam to bolster your self-image and be comforted in knowing that what you believe and the way you live is so clearly superior to The Others. For all that to work, everything about everyone has to be dumbed down and blown up into an exaggerated, absurdist caricature.

The polar opposite of all that is meeting a person one-on-one. There is a scientifically proven direct, negative correlation between intimate, meaningful engagement with individual human beings and belief in universal fuckstickism. Everyone thinks their neighborhood is the best neighborhood in the world. "Once you get to know the people in [any town in any country anywhere in the world], you realize that they're all really great. We'd do anything for each other. It's a really tight knit community." So it's good to know your neighbors. But it's also good to meet some people in another neighborhood, and even in another state or - gasp - another country. Distrust of foreigners is usually just simple provincialism.

Leslie and I were in Lake Okoboji, Iowa last week, which all of our friends on the east coast thought was outright hilarious. The underlying assumption behind all of the chuckles and raised eyebrows was that Iowa - one of the most flyovery of flyover states - must be full of hicks and yokels (the rural incarnation of fucksticks). But, lo and behold, just about everyone we met was kind and interesting and had the same cosmopolitan access to the Internet and Under Armour tee shirts and pomogranitinis as the hipsterest of Brooklynites. We met a group of beer-gutted cyclists who shared their Coors with us and told us about their careers as a heavy equipment operator, cosmetologist, and promoter of a start-up company with a patent for an advanced sunglasses strap. And we met a guy at breakfast at the Mall of America Embassy Suites who was working all night, every night at the federal reserve installing check processing software and who, like me, ran marathons all over the country. And we met a spiritual yoga lady at a hippy coffee shop who, in response to a guy who said that maybe the reason there was no wifi was because people were meant to get away from it all, made the very valid point, "yeah, well I need wifi to find a good Google map to show me where to go to get away from it all."

It's the same thing everywhere. Cities, towns, dude ranches, lakes, Hong Kong, Elmira. Folks are alright. The barriers you assume exist everywhere may not be barriers at all. So take out the ear buds! Turn off the TV! Leave the house! Say hello to the dude sitting next to you! Sure, there are some fucksticks out there, but most people are pretty cool.  

*This post is dedicated to my friend Josh Schultz, without whom I may never have been enlightened with the term "fuckstick."