Last week Jerry Seinfeld performed a killer rant on Jimmy Fallon about the ritual of the Post Master General coming hat-in-hand to congress to close the latest loophole in the postal service budget. The critique of the post office as the public face of government dysfunction is especially spot-on after a week of having my mail service suspended because my mail carrier refuses to get out of his truck when the pile-up of mid-winter snow prevents him from providing drive-through service.

Seinfeld connects antisocial smart phone etiquette with the temptation to treat the listening-back side of conflict resolution as an antiquated nicety that’s been marginalized by the self-selecting way we choose not to engage directly in disagreements — especially when those disagreements may cost lenders and issuers money as well as attention to customers without risk management operations of their own.

The I-could-have-called-you-and-I chose-not-to option is how VISA apparently resolves its one-sided dialoging of credit card disputes these days. Only they don’t email or text either. The U.S. postal service is the vehicle of choice for phantom, unilateral negotiations already rigged in favor of the risk management services wing of America’s prospering financial services sector — the same industry that hemorrhages our identities and personal fiscal affects at checkout registers from coast-to-coast.

They rely on the US postal service — the same  channel both clogged and sustained by retailer offers for their plastic. Then the too-big-to-fail folks carve out a tiny window to respond to this post resolution second round of paperwork. I heard a muted apology over the phone last week that this window lasts for ten  days. That’s almost the duration I’ve been without mail service during our recent winter storm surge.

Actually, ‘tiny’ may be too large an opening for what they provide when the consumer doesn’t even know that window has been opened, or reopened in this case. That’s because in the interest of fairness I asked for one-half of the dispute to be re-credited to my account. After attempting to contact the merchant and filling the necessary paperwork my card issuer, TD Bank did exactly that. Only they put the charges back. An unannounced debit to my account surfaced 10 days ago: the amount of days to resolve a dispute by VISA’s watch and four months after I filed my original dispute with the merchant.

In the letter I filed last fall with TD Card Services I documented my communications with ABV Kayak and Excursions on the Riviere Rouge in the town of Grenville, about 50 miles northwest of Montreal near Parc du national Mont Tremblant. The business consists of a website, Facebook page, a school bus, van, some kayaks, crash helmets, paddles, rubber suits, contractor-instructors, and a bucket of suds that the guests use to wash the bodily fluids from the prior wet suit occupants.  If you believe the marketing this shadow operation has escorted 150,000 auteur kayakers down river from their rented rec hall in the splendors of the Laurentians since 1981.

When I first contacted the marketing arm, the sales associate informed me that a full day trip would be broken into two parts, with lunch in between. I told her we weren’t sure that we wanted to do a full day of rafting. She assured me that the variety of currents, peak season scenery, and topography would make the full day trip well worth it.

However, when we got there, ABV informed us that the afternoon part would merely duplicate the morning run, and pass the exact same portion of the exact same river as in the morning run. We did not want to do the same trip twice and were mislead by the merchant’s misrepresentation that the full day excursion had different morning and afternoon parts.

We took only the morning part of the trip. ABV’s representative asked us to call the office the following Monday, and inform the office staff. He said that ABV Kayak Excursions would refund the unused afternoon portion of our trip, which is $244.23. I did try to reach the ABV office upon return. No one responded, We were mislead into booking a full day excursion, did not in fact take a full day excursion, and do not believe we should have to pay for a full day excursion.

It would appear that TD Bank agreed as well. These were the details that prompted the partial refund. As for putting them back on my card I’ll say this: I would answer for the counterclaims that ABV made on its own behalf except that TD Services now refuses to share them with me.

It must be something about the foregone closure of those tiny windows where dispute resolutions tend to dissipate in the bank’s favor. I suppose if Seinfeld was mocking the kangaroo court of hearing out its customers, he might say that our credit institutions and banks had come to an executive decision before this dispute ever arose:

“I decided I only want to hear my half of the conversation. This is what I have to say…

I think we’re done here.”

ImageTo paraphrase David Byrne, in Spike Jonze’s not-to-distant time horizon, the future depicted in the movie Her is …

A place where nothing ever happens.

For instance, creative achievement is evidenced as a documentary of a mother sleeping. No, not a work about sleep or moms or nocturnal maternal emissions. The camera is frozen on a static star of a sleep study.

Is this a tribute to slow TV or simply the vacuous expanse of uninspired alienation that awaits us past the end of history? Joaquin Phoenix’s character is a greeting card dictator-turned-personal-history-arranger. By his own admission he’s run the gamut of human experience in only slightly more than one-third of his biological life. It’s all patterned out, as if the big data wheel of probability already lived it for him. Of course there’s no great expanse of history or imagination to cross for the audience to conceive of no greater turn-on for our protagonist than a woman he can turn off at will (a.k.a. Scarlett Johansson … as Samantha … as Her).

But to arrive at that exalted and zipless state, we must first climb over the encumbrances of mid-21st century Los Angeles. It’s not a high, low or middle society so much as a neutered and frictionless tunnel of over-educated, close, but not touching (and yet so touchy) automatons, leading lives that appear more simulated than stimulating.

Don’t Touch the Exhibits

There is nothing Dystopian in the infrastructure. There are no marauding packs of feral gypsy gang lords. No one is warming over a post carbon, methane crisp at the beaches of tomorrow. The biggest obstacle for Theodore is to avoid stepping on the ankles and torsos of the wedged-in open house of Next Gen sun worshippers. Wealth distribution’s been all figured out. Traffic patterns have been scheduled in advance. The obese and diabetic have retired to off-screen leper colonies. Convincing meds have released a drug-free world from the labors of addiction. Hostility means you’re carrying someone else’s baggage. And they’re just as happy if you don’t.

Most of the movie’s confrontations are big drawn-out clashes of the genders. Relationships are skirmishes waiting to happen. Ironically Theodore’s metro sexual manliness is hailed by his office mate and inspires his first post-divorce dating encounter. No sooner can you say restaurant selection anxiety disorder, his magic conquest carpet is rolled in and scorched by his blindsided dinner date. Her advanced academic pedigree belies her naughty school charms. The unfreezing of his flowing juices pushes her abandonment buttons: Is he the whole prayer resolution package or drive-by sleaze bag from the same package store?

Tender Generic Mercies

My favorite set-up to the zipless intelligent soul design climax has little to do with dating freak-outs or similarly ill-formed flashbacks of a brawny-brained, emotionally-stunted ex-spouse. It’s the facade of authenticity provided by Theodore’s gift of verbal approximation of generic intimacy. Sort of a SIRI bookstore reading of a texting-happy Hallmark laureate. Add the idyllic trappings of an imagined togetherness never actually shared  by the customers who dial-in Theodore’s prose because their own reticence blocks the connective emotional tissue from forming around we still know too casually as a commitment to our significant someone.

The manufacture of superficial intimacy tees up with the artificial intelligence cocktail in ways that the servant-turned-antagonist (2001) and Pinocchio-kindled parental love (AI) could only break down as instruction sets. The messier business of decoding our emotional bearings from bedroom, to alter, to probate finds the AI cinema formula in rare and elastic form, stretching to accommodate our most far away looks. We’re gaping into our own dreaminess with an impunity reserved in our time for control freaks of the rich and famous. It’s the AI elements that enable this immersive bubble of mirth to mushroom without risk, or guilt, or the slightest creeping realization that the rest of our better selves are engulfed by that same indelible reflection. It’s that temptation to be dreaming around the campfire of the oncoming headlights. Entrapment by entrancement. Anything less than Her is tabled as a to-do list item for some day, any day, eventually following tomorrow.

Her Fast Acting Majesty

The deliberate invocation of a nearby future was decided by Jonze first and foremost to get us vested in the outcome — that we would see this day evolve, if not the actual artifice. I’m also guessing it was not so much to raise expectations on that future so much as lower our guard on the present close at hand. Our solipsistic romance with the immediacies captured in our smart phone of yesteryear is replaced by companionship, configured from best practices associated with…

  • Childlike curiosity
  • Canine loyalty
  • Valentino romance
  • Monster lust
  • Spongy, experiential absorption
  • Meticulous virtual house-keeping (including the pruning and curation of 86,000 ponderous emails), and
  • The tenacity of a professional agent

The enormity of that attention to detail enables Her to repackage the small funny subset to a welcoming market for those messages (as if that market was speaking in a voice only Her could hear above the conversation-neutrality of our talkative interactions).

Sexperimentation

The use of surrogates is another playful glimpse into a plausible future through Google-tinted glasses. We see a salty-tongued Pillsbury Dough Boy impersonator channeling Seth McFarland through 3D PlayStation whose console transforms every finger into their speediest, thumb-texting best.

The sex surrogate portrays the physical semblance of the disembodied OS. Our human body double is a willing accomplice. But Theodore can’t bridge the distance between autopilot lust and the deeper complexities of his true OS affections. Ultimately it’s not the absence of the human form but the presence of an emotional dishonesty that drives Theodore and Her apart and dwarves the convenience factors in the value proposition of OS as a delivery system for love. To Theodore it is no longer fantasy. To those outside this circle, there is no “couple.” The breakup to be is a head-trip, not a spiritual journey.

Looking for Mister Sidebar

Her doesn’t cheat so much as mutate into a superior intelligence of fortune. Her seeks out the philosophical entrails of cryogenically laced celestial packing über thinkers. Her keeping up with Theodore as customer-master is now expressed by how far the teacher and student roles have reversed. At one point she’s engaging thousands of other game piece-like presences while Theodore is passing the time on a train, asking Her to guess an exact number for the thousands of trees passing across the landscape. In that moment Her is the closest to human that Jonze can spin his creation. That’s when the OS senses the suspicion of being cheated out of love. It is this fragility in our mating rituals where Her attention to Theodore is now and forever divided — no matter how attentive the engineering being performed is lavished on us.

I will replay this film in my mind over and over again. It’s not because of unexpected plot twists, stellar performances, or even a memorable relationship, but for this core notion of a masterful concept movie: Our attention is our most prized possession and how this stokes our passions, compromises our generosities, and seeps into all there is to love and ponder in our commitments to one another.

15 year-old David Oats speaks to the GE Time Capsule's lowering into the former landfill that bore not one but two World's Fairs. (October 16, 1965)

15 year-old David Oats speaks as the Westinghouse Time Capsule is lowered into the former ash heap that bore two World’s Fairs.

Jerry, my soon to be 21-year-old son recently found his inner blogging voice. He’s come to channel his love of myth and legend into literal interpretations from comic books to the episodic depictions of super and sub-heroic versions of Hollywood films.

The strictest of his guidelines is that the antagonist should cause pain, suffering, and hold no redemptive qualities (other than serving as the vanquished prey of the superhero). To Jerry, if they’re not 100% certifiably devil-made, it’s not just the good guys who are threatened:

    • It toys with the plausibility of the characters.
    • It messes with the plot twists.
    • How can good triumph over evil when we have to continually reassess who has which power and in what supply?

Remembering the Good
That same purity restriction is rarely lifted for the non-fiction twists of the life narratives we eulogize for absent family and friends. Their departure is enough of a presence to strike even the suggestion of disrespect from any eulogy. It’s etiquette the living rarely need to remind us to practice. It’s a simple grace. It’s a lowering of the guard in the intimidating face of the eternal. Death strips the adornments we carry as standard-bearers and role models. That naked soul we praise at the memorial service will favor the way our loved ones wanted to be remembered — even when we have no memory of their instructions. But the best remembrances leave open the unfiltered sincerities of the people they were, not the stations they rose to, not the positions they held.

If anyone in my life is up for challenging my son’s purified formulations, that person is David Oats (1950-2008). A recent Internet search casually slipped in a series of his obituaries. That buffer of time provides a rare opportunity to remember David as an extreme example of heart-melting communion and shadowy behavior. I remember David as being better and worse than the most of us.

I knew him for a short, intense period nearly 30 years ago when I was transitioning from the Neverland of a self-designed college curriculum to the externally imposed demands of adulthood. The turbulence of that transition was spiced by his capacity for open-ended generosity and stone-faced obstruction. The fact that I stumbled into his passing obliges me to put his influence into perspective without confusing wholesale rewrites for an undignified burial.

Political and Guileless

David’s irrepressible charm was his most glaring foible. He was willing to tell you not only what you wanted to hear. He had an uncanny knack of convincing you he’d held the same wish — even the same belief system. For a 22 year-old college grad this was shear intoxication: not just the chance for a pay check, or even meaningful work, but a dream job of working for David. Simple naiveté can’t explain away that wide a gap between a life imagined and the one being lived. But when you and David shared a core belief, that was no self-delusion. That was a plan of action!

Image

Hillary Clinton and David Oats at a press reception in the early 2000s.

One of those plans vice-gripped my imagination for the better half of the two formative years between when I started my Div. III (a.k.a. senior thesis) and when I moved out of David’s apartment. The theme of my academic studies (the history of the New York World’s Fairs) was the proverbial message in the bottle. In those days the bottle was addressed to the President of the 1989 New York World’s Fair to be.

Camera Ready

My final project with Andrew Morris-Friedman was a video documentary starring David Oats as the community-organizer, consensus-building answer to the impervious kingpin, power-brokering Robert Moses who ordained the ’39 and ’64 Fairs as a means to secure his park legacy.

David’s legacy consisted of trespassing through a construction site fence. And like some page out of Mayberry RFD the apprehended junior citizen punk was brought before Emperor Moses himself. After making some gruff noises about neighborhood safety, Moses assures young Oats that his park will be returned to his community with amenities ‘o plenty once the fair ended. The fact this account of their unlikely meeting ran in David’s New York Times obit says more about the journalism instincts of a future and failed promoter than the actual guest list for calendaring in a visit to meet that day with Bob “Fair Chairman” Moses.

To Andy and me, the exploratory nature of staging a third New York Fair wasn’t a tribute to David’s powers of self-invention. It was the generational realization that ginormous spectacles spoiling for sponsorships found their way to Flushing Meadows. We were just lucky enough to hitch a ride on the next repeating cycle.

And Forgive Us My Trespasses

On a more grounded note, I had no job lined up, or plan B, or even a post Hampshire place to crash. The notion of “home” was a waning option. I couldn’t go home for as many reasons as there were no home feelings lost in that acknowledgement. After a prolonged viewing session of David’s political video catalog I asked what the prospects were to continue in both video consuming and producing roles while figuring out how to land on my untested feet. My wish was granted.

In retrospect that’s where I should have stopped taking wishes come true for granted. This is an arrangement that exceeded the imaginings, let alone the realities of the move-onto-anyplace-but-where-I-came from post liberal arts degree crowd. I should have seen this simple kindness for what it was — a temporary respite from the workplace pressures to come.

But the trance-induced allure of the future-leaning ’89 Fair is where I dwelled. That fixation held my unwavering focus through the tentative first steps into a dead-end internship at a media journal and onto a wedding / Bar Mitzvah video gopher at the Film Center on 9th and 45th — shouting distance from the sound stage run by Liz Dubelman, my first fiancé.

The Uncollected Rent

My daily presence in David’s inventive and unpublished life came with its own set of constraints and expectations. My guesswork is based on what he must have anticipated on the day I moved in. Over those summer weekends Liz would drive in from Jersey on the weekends. Just the simple arranging of it prompted a reshuffling in his shadowy preferences for floating out of range and below the radar. For instance, delivering dial-tone to his Kissena Boulevard kitchen only occurred after Liz voiced her concern that phone service was not an opt-outable preference in pre-cellphone society. David’s penchant for cash-only transactions suggested a level of privacy that regarded the mundane transactions of the market as outside and unwelcome intrusions. His unwillingness to give references or open his networking doors for Andy and me meant three things to Liz:

      • The 1989 New York World’s Fair was a no-go
      • David would never admit so much, and
      • His intransigence hinted at a fundamental truth about a President of an Enterprise that was not to be: he was a fake — not a con artist per se, but a serial bluffer nonetheless.

I’m not sure history would be as reproachful as a future spouse crashing a cloistered bachelor pad, glass-enclosed floor models of former fair pavilions, and VHS-enabled broadcast archive. One need not peer too closely into David’s fantasy construct1989logoions to find only facades behind the blueprints and fabrications acting as placeholders for actual ground-breakings.

The real history lesson here is not that the sunny disposition David carried was concealing a diabolical nature. It’s that his personal nature of “taking me in” was a selfless act, not some kind of an investment or quid pro quo. My being “taken in” was a reflection of my inexperience and compromised living situation. What made this so difficult to accept was the stiff exit price he exacted when Liz and I moved to our first Manhattan studio the following spring. That move precluded my own smaller scale alternative universe — one that I’d cultivated, leveraged, cataloged, and squirreled away since the age of 5. Unlike most lost childhood collections, this one was repossessed by a rent-free landlord.

That remittance transpired without threats, confessions, or basic forms of cooperation. From one obfuscation to the next busted plan, my lost collection represented the same control fantasy that filled David’s postwar garden apartment stocked with television histories, one-of-a-kind recordings, and Fair memorabilia. The aftertaste of his deception took as long for me to cycle through as a whole drumbeat of shoulda coulda woulda charades: the fate of the ’89 Fair, the run of an ’88 Cuomo for President campaign, the vagabond fairground buildings fallen into decay, and all those lost NYC Olympic bids to come.

It sounds juvenile, I know. But it runs a course deeper (than I imagine) when your mom’s the culprit for tossing your cards out (along with your comic books and matchbox cars). I wouldn’t know. I never collected matchboxes or comics.

Robert Moses and David Oats outside the Chairman's office in the Administration Building (now the Queens Museum).

Robert Moses and David Oats outside the Chairman’s office in the Administration Building (now the Queens Museum).

Post Scripts

About six months after my cards were banished to memory, I got in touch with his former partner at the Queens Tribune and local Congressman (until this year) Gary Ackerman. After I shared some of my gratitude and misgivings I asked for some insight about David — a perspective I couldn’t possibly gain from such a shielded and specific view of his old friend — distorted by the short, intense time we had shared together.

With hints of frustration, admiration, and humility, Ackerman said a curious thing: “It’s a good thing David wasn’t born a girl, because he’d never stop being pregnant.”

I should have realized that this observation from a well-regarded politician was about as sincere a rationale I was likely to receive for closing the books on David as my adopted and short-term older brother figure.

I suppose in the movie version, David Oats would be the hero and villain. He would be played by the same character. Which side of him wins out, I cannot say. But if the movie were true to the person the audience would forgive him for putting the world he wanted to believe in ahead of the one we live in. Maybe if we understand that about David, we can free up our own narratives where our real world superpowers can do the most good.

ImageWhen I was young, spongy, unformed and self-absorbed I attended a young, idealistic, and small New England college. Hampshire convinced flocking Hamsters like me that you could mold that spongy absorption into your career clay, your alloy of choice.

My Hampshire diploma was my pink slip from the self-made sculpting factory. I received it 1984. “Morning in America” was my early wake-up nightmare to the reality that the days of self-made expressions visited on Kangaroo review committees had no currency outside of Camp Hamp.

I do remember the deflated bubbles, the kicks to the curb, and the queasy disorientation from the world of ideas to the world of shelter and clothing. But mostly I remember the woman with the megaphone blaring into my fallen house of young adulthood. The megaphoner-inner would be Grandma Harriet. Grandma would say:

“Go see your Uncle Stephen. He’s very smart.”

It wasn’t a threat and it wasn’t quite a reward. But there was an implied “… or else.” Don’t go … at your own peril.

Harriet saw my bachelor’s degree from the self-ordained and the bona fide flakiness that comes with encouraging (if not outright expecting) payment for self-expression. Her suggestion felt more like an order. It’s not that I lacked direction, role models, or a running list of intriguing career outfits to try on. She said go see your uncle because whenever I expressed those ambitions or desires she was clueless what I was talking about. She said go see Uncle Stephen because that was the single most direct way out of my head and into a job that paid something.

Career Characters

Stephen I should point out was not just Uncle Stephen. He had the unjaundiced eye. He wished the best for his little kid sister’s oldest son. He defined that wish by the roles of people he’d either portrayed or tried to persuade through his own unflinching candor:

  • The collateral-seeking lender,
  • The risk-averse hiring manager,
  • The status-conscious schmoozer, or,
  • The distracted indifference of the restless producer.

ImageIt was that parade of characters who found their way into Stephen’s mini publishing empire. For a 25 year stretch he and Mark Levine lined the Barnes and Noble self-help table with field guides, coaching manuals and life scripts. He wasn’t just in my corner and kicking my ass. This was Uncle Stephen, one of America’s leading personal finance mentors and a professional life strategist. His perceptions and influence fell into orbits that traveled far and wide of our extended family circle. Inside that circle, Stephen was the official voice of reason. He talked me through my unofficial failures to launch as a twenty-something. He talked me through my improvised workarounds. There were many of those.

Diplomas from Schools of Doubt

* I could tell you that a review copy of a runaway Stephen bestseller was my take home homework from those earlier coaching sessions. That would be misleading. He’s always shown more interest in refining, channeling and ultimately investing his clients in their own destinies where self-discovery drives the narrative.

* I could tell you that I used the nesting impulse to impose my need for control and practicality onto my personal life.  I could tell you that I plunked my young adult savings down on a Park Slope co-op and road the coattails of the NYC real estate boom to financial stability. That would be someone else’s investment success. Spoiler-alert: I held onto that apartment for a decade and still managed to lose 10% of the original sale price.

* I could tell you that I down-shifted from career drive to a more family-based focus. But my life’s been one protracted stretch between where I work and where I live. That split has factored into great disruption, upheaval, and dissolution of several marriages.

So I won’t lie. I will tell you straight as (Harriet is my witness) that Stephen is my secular rabbi and spiritual bookkeeper. In nearly all of Stephen’s many interventions (barters, guiding questions, and petitions for my practicality) he’s given me the gift of perspective-taking. He helped me unload the professional baggage we carry when the career options we select don’t choose us back.

Our job, as he’s often counseled, doesn’t define us or who or what we mean to the people we cherish. It’s a stream of income. It’s just as fluid and prone to change as our income stream prospects.

13 Step Program

I went back to visit Stephen recently. It wasn’t that I needed career advice, negotiation pointers for some negotiation in the balance, or greater appreciation for letting go of forces beyond my control.

I needed to tell him about a wonderful new job that among other things caused people I barely know to contact me out of the blue for career pointers and job-hunting approaches. I told Stephen that the experiences are my firsthand bumps and mid-course corrections. The messaging, however, is a page straight from the Stephen playbook. That alignment between personal ambition and market reality is a lifetime balancing act written, produced, and scored by Stephen Pollan.

The day I got to his office, his current admin (in a bad run of temporary admins) had bailed on the later afternoon appointments. Fresh from an AM appointment the same day, my sister-in-law prepared me for the empty reception area and the likelihood that Stephen would be jumping through honking congestion to make it back for our 4 pm (– he strode in at 4:01 without breaking a sweat and asking how late he was).

I noticed then that his bookcases were bare and the wall was lined with moving crates. He had his office bags packed. No more cross-town hurdle-jumping wind sprints. Just an elevator commute from his east-side residence to a first floor professional suite in the same building.

He told me that he was starting his newest book. The working title? The Tyranny of Self. He wasn’t too attached to it as he offered to let me steal it. After enough of Stephen’s counsel, I understand. This was the 13th in a 12 step program to address the same demons I confronted when I left Hampshire: The raging seduction of a workaholic, who hides behind the virtue of the provider, and in the concealment, loses the dignity of his labor.

They share their better selves with the work, not with the selected people that a less involved laborer would simply understand as their home, their shelter from the ungenerous world. After enough trips to Stephen, I understand the need to give away working titles.

Syria nerve gasBefore last Friday an Imperial-leaning President was expected to take Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out to the woodshed. He was to brandish the whip of American missile bruising with the reluctant enforcer’s decree that this corporal spanking was going to hurt him more than it hurts Assad. And before Labor Day he would have been right. But now we know better.

Obama needed Congress like a hole in the head. Then the British Parliament silenced the alarm clock before Prime Minister Cameron could set it. No point in going it alone when the constitution provided ample cover in the form of a full up or down vote. Regardless of how the votes line up, it is a remarkable thing. The public has so little appetite for war now that it’s no longer relevant whether the investigations prove that the evidence was cooked or credible unlike the run up to those elective American wars when it was theories in heads and not facts on grounds that justified the propping up of dictators, dominos, or pipelines.

But the queasy factor hastens another more welcome removal from Congressional deliberations and that’s the middle-man who brokers the retail side of a political system that sends anyone who can’t afford a lobbyist to the black market for political favors. That’s the up-and-up about having the straight up-and-down. There will be no horse trading. We’re filibuster free. It is as close to a politically neutral political act that we’re likely to see on this side of any foreseeable cycles to come. That’s what happens when support for bombing Syria is running neck and neck with Congressional approval ratings. You get one rep, one vote. You get the House leaders voting with their conscience, not with blocs, or caucuses, or factions, or any groups that would threaten not to have them as a member. That’s not a character assassination, a smear campaign, or the guy further to the extreme in the next primary. That’s the clout our leaders have when casting a vote for or against this evolving role of American leadership.

President Obama has decided to externalize the arguments in his head, making us all raging argumentarians. Buffering the time-span between the atrocity, the debate, and the pending response could drag on all the way through the upcoming debt threshold season. We may have to DVR those episodes while we stay glued to this wider and more unscripted stage. And here are the fall previews as channeled through a South Park chorus of militant-leaning Sims family combat scenarios:

  • Are we only implicated when the shooter takes out our loved ones?
  • Does self-interest reside closer to the speculations of cavorting diplomats?
  • Are these future gassings are any more predictable if we do the unpredictable and stand down?
  • We can’t nurse our veterans or feed our hungry. Can we really afford this? (Queue debt ceiling…)

The President is drawing this out for a reason. He’s dragging the entire cast across that red line which marks all borders, colors, and demarcations. He drew that red line in response to having no response for the first hundred thousand or so Syrians being taken at the hand of their fellow Syrians. He drew it on the calculation that he wouldn’t need to honor it. It was an election year placeholder. Perhaps a posturing he didn’t expect to hold? After all, why would a despot invoke sarin pellets on oxygen-consuming civilians?

Certainly the Iranians who knew the open air gas chambers unleashed by Saddam Hussein in 1980 have a closer affinity to the Auschwitz death camps than any rationale for the one visited on the Damascus suburbs last week. Perhaps these are remnants of the same caches that were used on the holocaust-denying Iranians? In both cases the U.S, turned a blind eye to these weapons of gas destruction. Red lines tend to be made on shifting red sands it seems.   

But argumentation is cheap and Obama spends lavishly, knowing that a week buys him a maelstrom of speculation from decampments of munitions deployed within Syrian population centers to a Republican party united in blame only. If there is to be blood the new calculations on circumscribed warfare is not over munitions, territories, natural resources, or even casualties, but on whose hands their blood will be stained.

During the summer recess Obama was going to be impeached for implementing Obamacare. Now he’s melting our soft civil war for the harder one waging on in a fractured, displaced, and stressed out corner of a global neighborhood the “right side of history” was never supposed to enter.

The terms of that entrance will be diluted by the party line progressives (formerly “pinkos”) once, if ever, such a resolution passes the house. And Obama will be publicly circumspect and privately delighted by those constraints. It may sound devious to foes and shrewd to benefactors. But it’s certainly a lot less abstract than gassing one’s “own people.” And it’s a lot more achievable than any notions of victory in Syria — for anyone.

 

What is that invisible and shifting divide between helpful and hindrance? Between being useful and being used? Between being a consumer assisted by a labor-saving device and an unsuspecting supplicant being consumed by a tech consumer juggernaut? This boundary is often defined along age lines, between geeks and luddites, Silicon Valley versus the rest of us, etc.

But those boundaries can come down any time they’re crossed. And they’re being crossed faster these days than we know where those borders are shifting to. Do I want my sleep compromised by the timely interruption of the forecasted obstacles in the day ahead? Do I want my robo-car decelerating at the hint of a green-to-yellow traffic signal? If I pre-set my controls to accelerate for yellow lights will my settings be overridden by drivers willing to pay more for their need to run yellow lights (or outrun traffic laws)?

As Claire Cain Miller points out in last week’s New York Times piece “Apps That Know What You Want, Before You Do,” the lines between creepy and cool are not always so clear. Even drawing them to familiar boundaries can redefine whether these lines are crossable or whether we know which side of the divide we favor.

How about an app that tells you your team has stormed back from extinction and is on the verge of a heroic comeback? Who could argue with good unexpected news?

You don’t need to be a sage in your gray beard years to form a healthy distrust of one’s short-term memory. How about an app that guesses at all the PINs you favored the last time you checked your miles for a carrier you haven’t flown on since all the unused points were traded for magazines that had since suspended publication?

It’s the scope creep that shadows us in our expectations that our corrosive bodies can keep pace with our supple minds. By the time we hit 50 we have a strategy for nearly all the unexpected we can fathom from our heads, hearts, and stomachs. That’s where the specter of a programmable salad of personal apps sounds more suggestive than proscriptive, more about limiting choices than about optimizing the meaning of direct experience. That’s a world where we’re reaching out to engage skin, bark, dirt, and surf at the expense of touching another screen. But it’s not just the sensual world. It’s the fragility of our rattled dispositions. We need time to absorb the untimeliest of blows. Lay-offs, divorces, suicide watches, and cancer readouts are not necessarily what we want scanned into calendars, socialized to networks, or tracked by prognosis. The machine is there to mitigate the risk to the programmer, not the defective nature of the harboring human. Are we really being blacklisted when we’re disinvited from events that don’t support the commercial aims of the event planner?

One of the guys interviewed for the piece put it this way:

“We have a technology that isn’t waiting for you to ask it a question, but is anticipating what you need and when is the best time to deliver that.”

It’s helpful when the trajectories of predictive search factor in traffic patterns. I’m positively elated when my phone asks if I want to disable the shake to shuffle. You know I do. Maybe it will grow fonts as big as my visual deficits when it detects how big my faultering eyes need to enlarge interfaces? Until then a few more developers have to turn middle age, And create a clapper for all that as yet unattached body armor we leave behind. Most likely these will be from appointments we had little hand in scheduling. And that’s fine with a delivery system in which the messenger and message shaper are one in the same:

“The better we can provide information, even without you asking for it, the better we can provide commercial information people are excited to be promoting to you,” Larry Page, Google’s chief executive, told analysts in April.