The Uncomfortable Truth About Those Adorable Little Hand-Bound Notebooks

I am, for lack of a better word to describe my professional life, a writer.

That means I get a lot of writerly gifts, which is not as bad as it sounds. Could be worse, at any rate. What do doctors and lawyers even get? Neckties or earrings, I imagine, depending on where their presentation falls on the gender continuum, and then those books of lawyer/doctor jokes and various novelty desktop items. Grim stuff.

Writers at least get things of use. Notebooks and pens, mostly, or sometimes reference books (although those can feel a little pointed coming from someone who knows your prose), and of course from those who know us and love us, alcohol.

So I consider myself something of an expert when I break to you a piece of bad news about those gorgeous little hand-bound notebooks that crafters sell at art fairs and such: actually writing in them is an unbearable, unmanageable bitch of a time.

handbound-leather-notebooksNo, really. I mean it. They suck. I’m sure they were a luxury back when we didn’t have enough spare paper to even wipe our asses with, but this is the 21st century. We can do better than four lateral inches of paper bent savagely toward a crooked binding and tied up with a leather thong.

You can’t write much on one of those pages, you know. A college-ruled spiral notebook isn’t glamorous, but you can at least get a paragraph onto a single sheet in them. Cute little pocket-sized notebook with a celtic knot stamped on the leather binding? Not so much. Three, four sentences, max, and the half the page that’s closest to the spine is going to be illegible when you look back over it, because your knuckles were banging the other page the whole time. And that’s just for righties. Lefties have it even worse.

Now, I don’t say all this with any sense of emotional or intellectual superiority. I’m the same as the rest of you; I want to fucking love those little things. They’re great. You feel so writerly holding one. But you can’t write in it for shit, and that sort of defeats the purpose, unless the purpose is to feel writerly rather than to be writerly, and I do enough of the former and not enough of the latter as it is already.

Oh, and they don’t actually fit in pockets. Did I mention that yet? Fat spines and bulky bindings, characteristic of the craft fair breed of adorable little hand-bound notebooks, do not cram into pants or jacket pockets effectively. The big belly pocket on a hoodie can take some of the smaller ones, if you don’t mind looking like you’re pregnant with a LEGO person. But I suppose if you own adorable little writer notebooks you probably also own an appropriately grungy messenger bag (maybe with some buttons), so that one might be less of an inconvenience to the average user than it is to bagless me.

Anyway, I just thought you should all know. And don’t worry, I’ll still use the ones you give me. I will write my notes and my drafts and my scribbled thoughts for later and my secret yearnings and my World of Warcraft character’s in-game poetry in them, because I love the romance of longhand writing and the warmth of using writerly gifts that people gave to me, a writer, because they knew that I was one.

I just won’t be able to read any of it later.

It’s Time to Stop Venerating Religious Beliefs

athiest-empty-setHere is a thing that may not be comfortable to hear, but that is by any evidential standard true, and that deserves more public acknowledgement:

Codified religious beliefs are fiction

The things described in works like the Vedas, the Torah, and the Bible are stories. Some are, at times, historical fictions, although most are for the largest part purely fantastical, but they are not true records of any real events.

Most people can grasp this, at least at the literal, factual level. Apart from the genuinely delusional, most of us understand that there is no cosmic entity that exists and identifies itself as the God of Isaac and Abraham, and that personally delivered stone tablets to Moses on Mt. Sinai at a specific date in history. Likewise, no Indra ever killed Vritra and set rivers free thereby, and at no point did a divine father-god impregnate a Jewish woman named Mary, whose son died and then physically rose from his grave.

Those things never happened in any way more real or meaningful or verifiable than the defeat, in a magical world just beyond a London alleyway, of an evil wizard named Voldemort by the plucky schoolboy Harry Potter. All fall into the same category: fictitious, fantastical fables.

That being the case — and regardless of what feels comforting or empowering to believe on a personal level, in terms of factual truth that is the case — we need to recognize that religious ritual is functionally an expression of fandom, no different from the expressions of fans of other forms of fiction. If you’re really into the Torah, maybe you wear a tallit and cover your head; if you’re really into The Hunger Games, maybe you get a mockingjay tattoo and do that three-fingered salute thingie. It’s all the same.

Only of course it is not the same, culturally or legally. A faddish diet like veganism or paleo is just that — a fad — but a religious diet like keeping halal or kosher is something that public institutions are typically required to accommodate, and that private institutions will be criticized for failing to accommodate. A burqa or a turban may be worn to school (although there is at least debate over that, from time to time); a Spider-Man costume or a baseball cap most certainly may not.

It is considered rude to point out this inconsistency. The fact (and again, it is fact) that religious texts are not true records of any real events goes largely unspoken in modern life. This is a useful reminder that “rude” is usually whatever threatens to undermine the cultural capital of the people who have the most of it already. It is also something that needs to change.

To be clear, this is not a call for a ban on religious expression. People should believe whatever irrational things give them comfort, and practice those beliefs in whatever way they see fit, so long as it does not harm others. There’s nothing inherently wrong in covering your head and praying to God, any more than there is in donning a plush suit and claiming to have the spirit of a wolf. It’s easy to see how either or both could help a person through life, and neither should be prohibited — though by the same token, neither should be privileged.

But let’s stop pretending that one is spiritually superior to the other, or that the plush-suited furry is in any way less rational than the pious churchgoer who dresses up sharp on Sunday.

Best of 2014: The Top 10 Posts from MA101

The numbers never lie, they say, at least us “they” that never darkened the door of a math class more advanced than trig. You viewers made the call with your clicks, and now here they are: the top 10 most-visited pages on the Misanthropology101 website this year.

Don’t blame me — I just write ’em.

10. There’s a Reason Your Netflix Subscription Sucks

I know why this post still gets a lot of hits — angry people are still Googling “netflix sucks,” out of some vague cathartic impulse — but the information in it is completely and permanently out of date. It is no longer relevant or accurate. Which is kind of cool, when you contemplate that the post’s only from 2012, and realize just how much media consumption has changed since then.

9. Fun Midwestern Facts: Miracle Whip =/= Cool Whip

This is important information everyone should have. It’s also apparently enough of an issue that “miracle whip vs. cool whip” is actually a search with some SEO value. Go figure.

8. Sex Ed Website Scarleteen Goes on Strike — and We’re the Management

This was a cool experiment in fundraising. It also has a happy ending, since the threat of “strike” worked and the website raised enough donations to keep its doors open. If you didn’t read it the first time around, check out both the blog post and the links to the “strike” announcement in it, which has been updated to cover new developments since I wrote my post.

7. Gawker; “Ladies of Manure 2013 Calendar” Both Full of Shit

Without question, this post is responsible for my most dubious inbound search terms.

6. Drink Coffee; Do Stupid Things Faster

This links to a pretty well-written post about how coffee works on the brain, but in and of itself is a pretty shitty post. Sometimes better SEO really does win out against better content.

5. The Top 10 Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read

My fist-ever post that could be described as going anything vaguely resembling viral, this one still bears all the hallmarks of an amateur blogger’s early forays into click-baiting. It’s slipped somewhat in the standings this year, which I’m fine with, but continues to generate an endless stream of aggrieved comments, some of them arguing with people who posted years ago. Unless the language is truly offensive, I usually put ’em on up.

4. National Republican Congressional Committee Goes Phishing: Bogus Donation Sites in Dem Candidates’ Names Send Money to NRCC

This was actually in the way of breaking news (I got there before a couple of TV shows that covered the same story), and I hope was of real use to some people. Then again, the sort of people who make impulsive campaign donations without reading fine print are probably not the sort of people who enjoy MA101, so I suspect I was mostly preaching to the choir. In either event, it was undoubtably one of the slimier and shittier campaign tricks from a slimy and shitty campaign season overall.

3. Nike’s Big Butt Ad Is Fake, Just Not as Fake as You Think

I’m still fascinated by this one. And not just because I’m fascinated with butts.

2. On the Etymology of Ejaculation – “I’m Cumming” vs. “I’m Coming”

It’s nice to know that this weighs heavily on other minds as well as mine. It also continues to generate interesting and well thought-out comments, years later.

1. Drink Classier: The Difference Between “Neat,” “Straight Up,” and Other Useful Cocktail Terms

It’s not a bad post, but it’s not a really interesting one, either. I credit its popularity this year to the broadly interesting subject matter (and its attendant weighty keywords) rather than to any special insights on my part.

The Strange Trade Secrets of Christmas Tips

I tend to both despise tipping as it’s practiced in modern America and to do it excessively because all other options would make me a terrible human being. This is not, I think, an uncommon sentiment, at least among people who stop and think about it for a moment.

So it’s in that mindset — already grumpy at the institutionalized passing-on of wage costs from the employer to the customer, and further aggrieved by its current seasonal tie-in to a religious holiday mutated and metastasized into a ritual of consumption — that I have to admire whatever genius thought up the Christmas card (with handy return address) left by the newspaper deliverer around the holidays.

holiday-tippingFor those of you who have never received a physical newspaper delivery, the system works something like this: year-round, you see more or less (generally less) of the person who puts the newspaper on your doorstep, or at least flings it in that general direction. Come Christmas time, you’re expected to find this person and tip them a little bonus cash by way of gratitude for an undeniably thankless job, adjusted up or down depending on how close to the doorstep the paper actually gets most days.

Since the odds of your delivery person catching you face to face on any given day in December are already not great, even before you start ducking back inside to avoid them when you see them coming down the street, most deliverers nowadays will leave a nice holiday card along with the paper some day in late November or early December, with their home address printed in nice, clear letters on the envelope and often on the inside of the card as well. Hint, hint, hint.

At this point you, unless you are a terrible person or your papers have just straight-up gone missing for most of the year, reply with a card of your own that contains at least $20, and maybe more if you’re conspicuously living the good life. (Remember, they see your house every day, and have a pretty good idea how flinty you’re being if you lowball the tip. If starving writers like me are coughing up $20 from run-down apartments in the city, people with sprawling suburban lawns should probably aspire to do a little better than that.)

It’s a neat and efficient way of cutting out the random-chance-encounter element, and I really have to wonder how that particular trade secret got spread. Like, do the paper deliverers say to the new guys, around the water cooler or whatever they have, “Oh, be sure to do the Christmas card thing for Christmas tips!” And just what does the cost/benefit analysis work out to once you balance the cards and envelopes against the inevitable jerkwads who don’t tip?

I marvel at this deeply entrenched system, and wonder how it first came to be. Is the initial author of the Christmas card with return address scheme remembered in his profession as an innovator, perhaps even a savior? Should we pause to shed a tear for the database workers who, rather than delivering physical papers, organize and hotfix the streaming of online subscription news services, and who will never see a holiday tip unless they steal it directly from your bank account using your payment information? Am I overthinking this just a tiny bit? Whatever — tip your delivery person, if you get a paper delivered. They’re making it easy on you.

Five Years of Blogging at the Void

ma101-logo-geoffrey-cubbageDo you know, I almost missed this year’s blogoversary?

That’s not what the cool kids are calling them now. The cool kids now don’t even have blogs. But here we are, five years after the first post went live on what was, at the time, supposed to be a blog about writing fiction. (Years later I expounded, honestly I think, on why that was a terrible idea.)

I sometimes feel like WordPress has changed more than I have over these last five years. The design changes; the content stays about the same.

That’s not a bad thing. I like my content, by and large. I’ve perhaps grown more critical, leading to more and more posts discarded as not quite good enough for the public (which has led in turn to less updates), but the ones that survive usually strike me as relevant. Sometimes even a little important, who knows? At least two (the one about street harassment in World of Warcraft and the one about Belle Knox’s Wikipedia page) prompted action elsewhere. I can legitimately claim to have changed the face of the internet, and not just as a citation on Wikipedia’s “Hot Toddy” entry.

Not bad, for a pro bono gig by a guy who thinks “pro bono” is giggle-worthy.

It’s a mark of professional growth, I think, that the blog is becoming more of a professional liability than an asset, but I don’t plan to take it down or stop posting any time soon. Quod scripsi, scripsi. Call it a useful safety net for my sanity: it prevents me from taking a job with any outfit so hopelessly conservative that they’re going to hold, say, a post about a porn star’s historical relevance against me.

Here’s to five years, in other words, and perhaps to five more. Who knows what the internet will even be like by then? Perchance I’ll be beaming my dick jokes directly into your brain.

Onward to Year Six!

“The Fifth Element” Was Ahead of Its Time — And Ours

Fifth_element_poster_(1997)Man, what even happened to movies since the 90s?

I know, I know, aging Millennial bitching about not being the cool young kid anymore. But I went back and watched The Fifth Element the other night (for those of you that weren’t around back then, it was a 1997 cheesy sci-fi blockbuster, and let me just say how terrifying it is to me that you’re old enough to read and understand these words), and man was it good.

Not like, A Good Movie good. The Fifth Element will never be A Good Movie. But it was a good movie, you know? And it had everything that you don’t see on-screen in blockbusters now.

Seriously. In no particular order: female orgasm (via tactfully offscreen cunnilingus). Realistically bad cops and military — not Dr. Strangelove caricatures; just a bunch of blunt instruments who only know how to do one thing, and keep doing it over and over again regardless of whether it’s what the situation calls for or not. More people of color than I’ve seen in a movie not specifically about minority culture or history for literally decades now, doing everything from being the President to being baggage handlers (just like in, you know, the real world, but not the world we see in movies most of the time).

That fantastic “Sleeping Beauty” moment where Bruce Willis kisses the sleeping Milla Jovovich, who wakes up, puts a gun to his head, and tells him “never without my permission.” We believe his abject apology, too — he feels sincere when he says “You’re right, you’re right. I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have done that. It was wrong to kiss you.” And not just because of the gun, although it’s pretty awesome that she doesn’t put it down or appear particularly forgiving even after he apologizes.

And don’t let’s forget Chris Tucker’s character Ruby Rhod, who was basically the walking definition of genderqueer: we don’t know what they’re identifying or presenting as; they’re just doing their thing and being sexy. Sometimes in a dress! Sometimes not! The clothes aren’t the point or the problem. It’s awesome.

That’s not to say it’s a perfect movie, either in terms of cinematography or representation. It’s a classic Bechdel test failure, with a classic Strong Female Protagonist (TM), who we’re told is a godlike alien “perfect being” but who needs a couple of old white men to plan her every move in saving the universe. She barely even speaks, has trouble walking for half the film, and needs Bruce Willis to come save her from a guy with a gun despite having martial arts directly programmed into her brain (this two years before Keanu Reeves knew kung fu in The Matrix, mind you). And yes, the perfect being decides to manifest itself as a young, skinny white woman, despite coming from what appears to be a race of intergalactic steampunk hedgehogs.

But it’s still a blockbuster that wasn’t just ahead of its time in the racial and sexual diversity of the world we see on-screen. It’s ahead of our time, now, seventeen years later, and that’s a thought so depressing it might just take another underrated 90s classic to cure. Cookie’s Fortune, anyone?

Let’s Get Mad About Inadequate Infrastructure, Not Backpacks and Wide Stances

MTATwitter and Tumblr have been full of self-righteous commuter nannies for years, but according to BuzzFeed, a New York MTA spokesperson is now promising an official campaign against that perennial transit scourge: people who take up too much space on the train or bus.

Pause to think about that one for a moment. Overcrowding on public transit is clearly a problem, at least on some lines and at some hours of the day. Faced with that problem, the MTA is spending taxpayer money…to chastise taxpayers about how they’re sitting.

Not to run more busses, or build more train lines, or improve the seats themselves, mind you. To tell you, the commuter, how you’re Doing It Wrong.

If you’re lauding this as a good thing, congratulations: you’re blaming individuals for an institutional failing! The name of the game is Divide and Conquer, and you’re losing.

Are there assholes who take up space they don’t need to on public transit? Sure. (There are also very large people, people with bad joints, homeless people who carry all the property they own in this world wherever they go, and lots of other people who can’t help taking up space.)

Would a campaign to get the assholes to scrunch in a bit make a measurable difference in rush hour overcrowding, even if it achieved 100% Asshole Penetration? No. (Although if Asshole Penetration is a thing you’re into I can recommend some good stores.)

And would any of that matter if cities ran enough public transit to actually meet public demand, with — dare we say it — spare seats built into even peak hour estimates? Again, no.

The reality is that on any given bus or train car, you might be losing — upper end estimate here — as many as three or four viable seats to jerks taking up more space than they need to. That sucks, but changing it will not make crowded cars less crowded. Occasional, individual space-wasters are not the root cause of overcrowded busses and trains.

The problem is an underfunded infrastructure that can’t possibly meet demand, and that has been built from the ground up to prioritize personal cars over mass transportation. You could lock every public transit commuter’s body into a precisely measured sheath for the ride, and it still wouldn’t turn “not enough busses” into “enough busses.”

It’s no surprise that the MTA wants a campaign against leg-spreaders and backpacks, because that actively encourages you, the taxpayer, to be pissed at someone that isn’t the MTA. But you’re a sucker if you fall for it, and you’re a sucker who’s choosing to blame someone who can’t solve the problem instead of someone who can.

Solving it costs money, of course. Self-righteousness, as always, is free.

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