You’ll notice they’re both wearing suits… that we paid for.

All of the names related to today’s learning have been redacted, because it’s just too much to deal with. And really, the specifics don’t matter. It’s the pattern. Always look for the pattern.

Nora and I just refinanced our home loan, taking advantage of lower interest rates. We always prefer to do business with people and groups we like, rewarding them for their prior good work, attempting to build a longer relationship. So we used a mortgage lender affiliated with our retirement investment company.

You know what? It’ll be simpler if we just use letters.

We have our retirement accounts with financial group A. They have a division (A1) that does mortgage work, so we used A1 for the refinance. At the closing, we discovered that A1 had already transferred ownership of our loan to mortgage lender B. We hadn’t even signed the closing documents, and there was already another partner in the deal.

Before we could even make our first mortgage payment, we learned that Fannie Mae (C) had bought the loan from B, so that B could have more money to make more loans. That’s what Fannie Mae is: a liquidity engine that lets banks keep lending the same dollars over and over without having to be big enough themselves to cover it all. But B will continue to be our “mortgage servicer,” which means they’re handling the bookkeeping of our payments and the escrow for taxes and insurance, so even though we bought the loan from A1 and it now belongs to C, we pay B.

Good so far?

So we called B today because we wanted to clarify a small inaccuracy in the property taxes, and we were told that the tax component of the escrow payment was only an estimate, that B would pay the actual billed amount of tax, and that we’d re-balance the escrow account when the annual tax rates are recalculated next summer. B uses a different company altogether, D, to actually make the phone calls to county offices and insurance companies to verify actual rates; according to our very nice customer service rep at B, all the mortgage lenders hire D to do this for them.

For every transaction, so many people in line with their hands out, demanding their vigorish to organize the game. Every time you spend money, there are invisible people skimming their percentage to lubricate the proceedings.

When a farmer sells milk, they don’t get the $4.50 per half gallon that organic milk costs in the supermarket. The farmer sells it to the coop for processing, who sells it to a packager, who pays a distributor, who gets it into the grocery store. And each of those intermediaries gets paid. The farm price for raw milk in Vermont is about a sixth of its final retail value; about 85% goes to all the others in the sequence.

I was corresponding with a friend who’s an adjunct college teacher. She told me that she was finishing a twelve-week graduate writing course for eighteen students, a course for which she’d been paid $2,000. So the teacher’s cut was $9.26 per student per week. Each student was getting a rich and closely personalized intellectual experience for about the cost of a mocha frappuccino and a pumpkin scone plus tax. She should have a tip jar.

The school charges each student twenty-six times that much, just so you know. Or, to calculate it a different way, our beleaguered teacher receives 3.8% of the total tuition for the course.

When you buy a $28 hardcover book, the author gets about $2.25. (And then subtracts 35 cents for her agent.)

When you buy a pound of Rainier sweet cherries for eight bucks at Whole Foods, the field picker got twenty cents.

It’s really astounding how many people have their hands out, and how little of the final take actually goes to the worker. We support all of those invisible skims every time we offer our labor in the marketplace, and pay them with every transaction.

The Reliquary of Unknown Writers

Language of the Birds, by Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn. San Francisco, 2006-08.

I have discovered my next project. A repository of sentences created by the unpublished and unseen writers all around us.

In every endeavor, there are those few who are celebrated and remembered. That celebration necessarily obscures the contributions of the multitude—anonymous on the field—who also played our necessary roles. There are so many writers whose work, crafted with every fragment of attention we can muster, will never reach publication. Will never reach readers. Will never move those who would most benefit from it.

The heroes will have their statues and awards, as heroes do. We will have our own reliquary of the works we have brought about—a reliquary containing shards, scraps, the fossilized remains of our dreams. We may never be known, but in this space you will see the artifacts we have made. They come to you, as fossils do, incomplete. Without context, without attribution, with precise histories unknown. They are left for you to interpret as you will… and to honor, for a moment, the unknown writers who have brought them into the world.

This project will bring us one tiny passage from each of the larger works submitted. Will remind us that even in the least fan-fiction, in the least eighth-grade short story, grace is possible. We watch the world carefully, we writers. We bring news from the front, forecasts of emergent climates, signals from space. We are secular oracles, carrying prophesy that we do not entirely understand ourselves.

Each passage will bear its own magnetic charge, which may draw readers slightly away from their planned course. We may find ourselves subtly rearranged by forces too small to be seen.

These scraps will appear at random, unsequenced, as though by hand of fate. They will not be searchable. They will not bear the name of writer or story. They will simply be sentences, which is all the writer ever has.

The reader can use each sentence as it arises, as they choose, as readers always do. Sometimes as pleasantry, sometimes as divination, sometimes as meditative koan, sometimes as a spur to writing of their own.

This project will grow over the coming months, and probably will look different than I currently imagine it. But now it exists already, because it has been named. Because it has been made into words.

It will be a beautiful landscape, a monument to labors unseen and unacknowledged. A landscape that will reward our patience and consideration.

I have been bitten by many innocents, but sometimes that’s what kindness gets you. 

Before Utah they carried their clothes in sacks on their backs. His father taking them from beet farm to beet farm. In Nebraska, the harvest took every ounce of their energy. 

There is public property that is not meant to be touched. 

The new god said: Worship me and I will save your children both in life and in death. 

There were no lentil salads in Orlando. There were no fresh scallops atop a bed of greens. 

He didn’t think of himself as a lawyer. And he felt the pressure coming on of not only having to speak and behave as though he were one – well, in fact, he was one – but also to speak and behave as though he were comfortable being one and thinking of himself as one. 

You’re not even twelve and yet I have nothing to teach you. It would be easier to produce the ordinary, to be ordinary. But I know you won’t settle for that. I fear for you. 

It is this easy access to casual voluptuousness that so agrees with her. 

I tried really, really hard to think of her as a colleague rather than a girl with pretty fingers and a cute haircut. 

But that was all in the days before she started secondary school where the art teacher started in on her, filling her head with notions, turning her sights on different landscapes.

Swimming Against the Current of Unearned Confidence

There’s a nineteenth century saying—variously ascribed to Mark Twain and Josh Billings and Will Rogers (probably not) and Artemus Ward and Kin Hubbard—that encapsulates how I feel about the world today:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

There’s a vast crowd of people who get their information from Facebook who believe that mail-in voting is a scheme for massive voter fraud, even as they aspire to more “local control” over elections, local control that’s been demonstrably (and almost definitionally) uneven.

The birthers are back, this time wondering if Kamala Harris is eligible to be VP. “I heard it today that she doesn’t meet the requirements… I have no idea if that’s right.”

Nora was called to the town office today to review the one minor-party ballot cast in last Tuesday’s state primary, to see who got the one write-in vote. The Board of Civil Authority (BCA) members present, along with our state representative and our town clerk, representing both major parties, unsealed the ballot bag and took careful notes along the way. But they were told firmly by a state representative from another district (a friend of the clerk) that what they had done was ILLEGAL. Not merely that it didn’t comply with best practice, though I haven’t looked up the state code to see what it says, but ILLEGAL. The BCA members appropriately called the secretary of state’s office and described what they had done and why, and were reassured that it was all perfectly acceptable, and thanks for checking.

Stupid people lean on their caps lock, both figuratively and literally. They seem to equate loud with true, repetition with fact. The concept of slowing down and looking something up has never once occurred to them. And in the time it takes me to look up and debunk one bullshit thing, they can broadcast seventy-four more. The ratio is off. And when they’re disproven, they back away from it, and say, “I just thought it was funny.” Honest, I spent a whole Saturday back before the 2016 election carefully looking up each so-called fact that someone had sent me in a giant group e-mail, taking each one apart with real statistics, and sent it to the fellow who had first forwarded the nonsense to his group. His reply? “I just thought it was funny. Something to think about, right?”

No. No, it’s not something to fucking think about. It’s something that should never have made it to the table in the first place, because it makes no sense. Don’t be stupid.

I was reading an online comment a few years ago by someone claiming that Social Security was imminently about to go broke because of the aging population. Well, that’s a claim that can be tracked actuarially and investigated in both policy and finance, but he followed that by saying “75 million Americans retire every year now.” And that’s just stupid. Do the arithmetic. There are about 330 million Americans altogether, from birth to advanced age. A lot of them are under 18. A lot of them are already retired. So let’s just guess that there might be 250 million Americans of working age. A third of them are going to retire every year? Every single American will be retired in the next three or four years? Really?

I mentioned this to my correspondent, who became wildly belligerent. “Just ’cause you don’t like it don’t mean it ain’t true,” he said. Well, that’s correct. I don’t have to like it or not, but I do know that 250 divided by 75 equals bullshit.

The internet has fully weaponized the Dunning-Kruger community, and the mob has seized the day. But Dunning and Kruger themselves have posed the remedy:

Dunning and Kruger suggest that as experience with a subject increases, confidence typically declines to more realistic levels. As people learn more about the topic of interest, they begin to recognize their own lack of knowledge and ability. Then as people gain more information and actually become experts on a topic, their confidence levels begin to improve once again.

So there’s today’s lesson. Slow down, look it up, ask other people if what you just said makes sense, and work harder to learn more before you speak. Peer review is just as self-corrective in community life as it is in intellectual life.

A Great Idea, Strangled by Bad Ones

This fall’s COVID shambles is laying bare an awful lot of things about higher education that had long been comfortably ignored by the day-to-day habits of moving forward in a normal way. We’re discovering that really bad politicians make really bad college presidents in those states that were misguided enough to have elected them in the first place. We’re discovering the power of peer pressure, that as soon as the Big 10 conference cancelled fall sports, the Pac 10 followed within an hour with its own announcement of the same decision. You go first… no, YOU go first...

We’re discovering that we didn’t really need standardized tests after all, since they really mostly measured family income. The information provided by the SAT was redundant to that from the IRS.

We’re discovering that the “college wage premium” is no longer a reliable investment, but that the loans taken out to get that promise are non-negotiable.

We’re discovering that tenure-track faculty will not now nor ever take concrete steps on behalf of their contingent colleagues. In a time of fear, everyone scrambles for the lifeboats, and the weak will drown.

We’re discovering that any college leader found doing vile, criminal things is gently protected and sheltered in order to protect the reputation of the institution. It isn’t until years, or decades, later that we discover how many victims were silenced, and how many professional colleagues knew and did not speak.

We’re discovering who gets the golden parachute, and who gets the brick.

We’re discovering that a university will be brought to economic panic for reasons that have nothing to do with education. Because its “teaching hospital” lost half a year’s revenue of lucrative elective surgeries, or because the TV licensing for its football program didn’t come through. We’re discovering how gigantic and invasive the parasites have become… and we’re discovering that the endowment must never ever be touched. We may be in a torrential storm of unseen scale, but the “rainy day fund” will be kept dry before any of the members of the community.

In an epic rant published yesterday, sportswriter Drew Magary argued that our current moment provides the perfect opportunity to kill off college football forever, and with it the NCAA, which has reliably proven itself to be always anti-educational. (Sally Jenkins said the same thing in The Washington Post.) But one line in Magary’s piece yesterday was larger than that. He wrote: We’ve reached a point in history where it’s crystal clear that American universities are where corruption goes to get laundered. 

College sports is big and visible. But college sports is not alone in stealing time and money and attention from the real work of higher education. We have constructed a massive, beautifully outfitted sailing ship, and have forgotten the destination.

Vampire Stories

No, not that kind…

I once knew a doctor who said that, in his own training, his residency director had given him a can’t-miss tool for quickly diagnosing someone with depression. “When they leave your office and YOU’RE depressed, they have depression.”

Why is so much of contemporary literature compelled to leave us in worse emotional shape than when we picked up the book in the first place? Why is meaningless, unrequited suffering the go-to mode for serious fiction?

I just finished a book about half an hour ago, and no, I won’t tell you what it was. You might love it, and I don’t need to prejudice your reading. (Except toward things I admire. I have no compunction whatsoever about recommending books I admire.) Anyway, this book was shortlisted for a couple of important European literary prizes, it’s got lots of quotably lyrical passages, and when I finished it, I fired up this website and started this essay because I needed some little shot of lifeblood after that story had drained it all away.

Vampire books are everywhere. Books with vampires as characters, to be sure, but more importantly and more harmfully, books that suck all of the optimism and gumption out of us, leaving us with only one life lesson—the same lesson I wrote months ago about a different book: Well, we’re all fucked.

I wonder if these books make their authors happier. Like literal vampires, maybe those writers live longer and more joyful lives through ingesting all of the joy and hope they’ve sucked away from us. I know that Zuckerberg will live to be older than Methuselah simply by virtue of hoarding all of the time that he’s stolen away from billions of innocent people.

Please, my fellow fiction writers: deliver us some hope now and again. Let a character be healed, let a story rejuvenate its readers. If you need to mimic a mythological character, let it be a bodhisattva and not another vampire.