Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Little Study in Anarchy

A short but violent storm hit here yesterday, and while I was largely unaware of it in my dark little cubicle, it wreaked a bit of carnage outside. On the way home from work, I came to a very busy intersection of two major roads where the traffic lights had very recently gone out and there was not yet an officer on the scene to impose order. Behind my anxiety and eager desire to get home, I found the situation interesting on a conceptual level. What would happen, I was curious to know, in the absence of some kind of arbitration of order, without the presence of law? Last year an acquaintance of mine tried at great lengths to convince me that any kind of prescriptive law or governing body was by its very nature repressive and restrictive and that the only truly free and happy society would be found through anarchy. In the absence of these repressive orders, he argued, there would not be violent chaos but some kind of spontaneous and natural order that needed no enforcement by some kind of higher power. I disagreed with him completely, much to his frustration and mine.

I know my traffic light situation was a weak comparison to an entire society bereft of laws, but it was a chance to see how people would behave in a suddenly chaotic situation. There had already been a minor accident, which I assume happened before anybody even noticed the lights had gone out, but it had been moved out of the way. Long lines of cars streamed out of all four exits of the intersection, and for a moment there was brief confusion. Then, I am pretty surprised to say, a kind of spontaneous order did indeed develop. There was some kind of mass agreement between most of the cars to behave as if the light was still working. One direction went and, after a while, came to a gradual stop and then the other direction was allowed to go. It was a little bumpy, and people were obviously nervous, but the system seemed to be working. I was impressed.

But then there was the jerk in the SUV. You know this guy. He’s the one with the worldview so narrow that he can’t see past his own interests and desires, and has no concept of the greater good. He’s the one who sees other people only as obstacles, and every situation only as a competition. This philosophy is rampant in our country. I myself know whole families raised in this belief. Though clearly some kind of tentative order had been established and it was not his turn to cross, SUV guy decided that all that really mattered was that he had the bigger vehicle and the guts to really press the gas, and that all of us timid cooperators would have no choice but to give way. This would be bad enough except that a large number of other cars, inspired by the SUV’s bold action, decided to throw out all caution and fight for themselves. The system pretty much broke down completely leaving one car, which had pulled into the intersection during the appropriate time to turn left, stranded in the middle. And since you’re going to ask – yes, that car was mine.

This was a good example of why I don’t think a lawless anarchist paradise is actually possible, as nice as it may sound sometimes. Sure, MOST people would, left to their own devices, probably be more or less decent and rational, and treat each other more or less with respect and courtesy. But the problem is, and always has been, the SUV guys among us who see in the absence of law only opportunity for them to “win” and to dominate. It's generalizing and an oversimplification, but its these guys, and those who follow them, who make all the complicated, detailed, circuitous, and unorganized laws our Congress has passed in the last couple hundreds years necessary. I know it kind of ruins my cool intellectual anti-government Marxist image, but I am not, nor have I ever been, an anarchist. The rule of law, in my book, is the lesser of two evils.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Matt Gets a Job (with a wry and extremely critical attitude)

One grows accustomed to all surroundings, of course, but on the first day my fresh eye was drawn to the foreign, the strange, the slightly off – so that by lunchtime on Monday I felt unsettled by the nagging feeling that something was decidedly odd about my new place of temporary employment. It looked nice at first - high ceilings, marble floor in the lobby, ultramodern flourescent lighting, but upon closer inspection there were cracks in the fa├žade. Many of the lights were broken or barely working, and a crack in one wall let in a stream of curious local bugs. Immediately on entry I noticed a sign: “No Smoking – No Weapons.” I was delighted by the implicit assumption behind the sign that these two rules were of equal importance and severity, and then immediately horrified by mental images of a cigarette-smoking gunman running rampant through the building.

Then there were the doors, which are somewhat narrower than average yet very tall, reaching right up to the ceiling. Each one is identical, without any markings or indication of what lies behind them. In the main lobby where we waited for twenty minutes or so on Monday morning I could see three identical doors on the main floor, and looking up the stairway onto the landing of the second floor there were three more. People filed in to work and each entered a separate identical door – it seemed no two people entered the same one. It was totally bizarre. Even more bizarre was that each and every arriving employee had the same reaction once they saw the group of us temps waiting in the lobby. One by one they would enter, stop abruptly as if in surprise, taking us in, and then all at once there would be a flash of recognition and then a brief dismissive laugh. Then they would carry on their way towards one of the creepy doors.

Once in the actual work areas, I faced the usual array of cubicles and desks and bustling employees, as well as motivational posters and billboards on the walls. All corporate offices use their share of slogans and catchphrases, of course, but something felt wrong about this one setting as its goal service that was “beyond tremendous.” It seemed absurd – just the sound of the words coming off the mouth makes me think of something a badly-costumed alien would say in a 1940’s sci-fi movie. (Universal Pictures is proud to present “THE CREATURE FROM BEYOND TREMENDOUS!!!”) And where many companies may recognize employees on a weekly or monthly or even yearly basis, here they had decided to be more efficient and had a single billboard recognizing “The Employee of the Moment.” No picture, just a stapled piece of paper with a name on it in small print.

We were subjected to a morning’s worth of online orientation and instruction. Our instructions about workplace rules were accompanied by pictures of smartly dressed men and women of business illustrating each point. My favorite came along with guidelines on how to deal with spam e-mails. A young woman in an attractive and powerful outfit sat on the granite steps of some imposing institution with her laptop in front of her. She gazed at the screen with disbelief and disgust, her hands thrown into the air in shock and annoyance. “More spam e-mail?” she seemed to be thinking, “It just keeps coming! It’s unjust and wrong and somebody should do something about it!” Her facial features were so exaggerated that she had to be either a model or a musical theater actor. ((NOTE: This underhanded attack at musical theater people is done in lieu of an angry and bitter blog entry I recently wrote and then, upon returning to a normal state of mind, decided not to post.))

I found favor with the powers that be, I guess, for not long after finishing our training another new worker and I were separated from the main group of new employees and taken upstairs. I knew immediately that this was a step up. Not only was I working on the second floor, but the cubicles there had higher walls. As any good American can tell you, the degree of personal privacy and amount of elevation from ground level is directly proportional to the level of importance on the corporate ladder. There we were trained on our primary objective which, I am glad to say, at the end of an entire weeks work at the office I have yet to actually perform due to the IT department taking their sweet time. The woman who trained us had a strong attitude towards the company that could only be described as conspiratorially passive aggressive.

“THEY don’t know that I know how to do this,” she would say, showing us some back door through the bureaucratic red tape, “but we won’t tell THEM, will we?” She looked around, expecting the corporate powers to jump out and catch her in the act.

“Ah-ha!!!” They might say, “We knew somebody was trying to be efficient rather than follow complicated regulation procedures!”

Like most good American corporate workers, she had no clue and didn’t care about the big picture.

“Where do all these things we are typing come from?” you might ask.

“I don’t know,” she’d reply, “They scan them in some where, I think. Maybe a different branch. Maybe upstairs. Wait, do we have an upstairs? Well, they scan them in scanner thingys.”

“And what happens to these forms after we type them?”

“You put them in this box over here and eventually they disappear. As long as you do more each day than you did the day before, you’re set. Nobody will bother you.”

And that is the plight of the worker in corporate culture. You are a piece of the larger machinery, a cog in the works that cannot possibly understand the many complicated parts that make up the whole contraption. So you come in each day, give your eight hours, have endlessly repetitive conversations with your co-workers (“How was your weekend? Where are you going to lunch? Same place as yesterday? That sounds great!”) and generally try to maintain your dignity and humanity in a situation that makes that very difficult. It’s only my first week, but every day around 3:30 in the afternoon or so there comes a moment when I stop my work, turn and look around the room at all the people in their little cubby holes typing furiously. The hair on the back of my neck raises and I get an unfamiliar queasy sensation in the pit of my stomach.

“WHO AM I?” I shout inside my head, “WHAT AM I DOING HERE? AND WHY THE HELL ARE ALL YOU PEOPLE HERE TOO?? WHAT ON EARTH ARE WE DOING???”

But my wallet is a starving and famished lump against my buttock, and in the distance I can hear the sound of my bank account letting out of the screams of its dying agony, so I turn and start to type.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

DMV Blues

When I lived in Utah, I thought that I couldn’t wait to leave. I wanted to quit the state like a bad job, and leave the entire place behind me. Sure, I had many friends and loved ones who I would leave behind, but I was unsatisfied and restless and found myself growing more irritated with the land where I finally discovered what it was like to call one place home. I think, in retrospect, that it was merely the desire to move on to the next phase of life, the next step in my progression through life, that drove me away, and Utah itself was actually rather blameless. In fact, since my self-imposed exile began, I’ve only grown more fiercely attached to the state I still think of as home.

After all, nothing increases your fondness for home like living someplace much, much worse. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve been quite happy here in South Carolina, and have surrounded myself with good and inspiring people (many of whom actually were born and raised here). But it doesn’t compare. Seriously. Beautiful green scenery, warm climate, near the ocean, steeped in history and tradition - none of it comes close to comparing with my mountain-top home. I feel like I should provide concrete examples. I could talk about the humidity, which should classify as cruel and unusual punishment. I could talk about the terrible drivers, the willfully ignorant, the shocking gap between rich and poor, the obstinate racial divisions, and about how almost every place here looks old and dirty.

But I’ll talk about the DMV instead. South Carolina laws regarding motor vehicle registration are just baffling, and every year when I’m forced to go through the process people near me start getting sick of hearing the phrase, “it’s not like this in Utah!” In order to renew the registration on my car, I have navigate a bewildering labyrinth of various buildings, lines, and cynical state employees. You must present the title of your car, and trying to explain that your car is a lease and therefore the title is not in your possession is like trying to explain general relativity to a rowdy kindergarten class. Last year when I went through this process, I eventually got my car registered, but in order for that to happen a DMV big-wig lady had to offer some special arrangement that bypassed the usual procedure. My situation seemed highly irregular, so I guess nobody leases their car in this state. One of my friends came along for moral support and when we finally left hours and hours later, he was pissed. So was I, but as usually I merely fumed inward and blamed myself. He ranted and raved about the inefficiency of government and his rights as a taxpayer while I naively defended the system like the good idealistic citizen I am. This argument lead to a sketch I wrote and am including at the end of the post.

This year I put off going back to that horrible place until the last possible moment, even though I was fairly sure that last years compromise should allow this years visit to be relatively painless. When the last possible moment finally arrived, I went through all the necessary steps: I went to the county treasurer’s office and paid my vehicle taxes (always surprisingly high), filled out all the necessary paperwork, etc. etc., waited in line at the DMV only to face the exact same crap as last year. In fact, I found myself faced with the very same lady who had reached a solution last year but who, this year, was certain nothing could be done. .I was fully aware of how surreal the situation was as I tried repeatedly to explain to this woman that the irregular situation detailed in my records which she peered at with disapproval was a result of the solution she herself had proposed exactly a year before. I was asked to wait while she got some help, and ended up sitting there for well over two hours. I watched her bustle back and forth, laughing with other employees, helping other angry citizens, and generally ignoring me.

Eventually, somebody somewhere either came the same conclusion as last year after following the exact same process, or, more likely, just got tired of dealing with it, and suddenly I was allowed to process my registration renewal without explanation. I was grateful, and even more grateful that by this time next year I would no longer be residing in the Palmetto State.

I’m certainly not the only person who has had DMV woes, here or elsewhere. That inspired this little sketch I wrote last year:

A line at the DMV. B speaks a bit unnaturally loud.

A
Can you believe this line? I mean, we’ve been waiting for… what, an hour?

Crowd mumbles assent and complaints.

B
Not that long, surely.

A
Feels like an hour. This is absolutely ridiculous…. Our government at work, huh?

B
I for one feel rather optimistic.

A
You do?

B
Yes. My experience today has been fairly efficient, and this line is relatively short.

A
Relative to what?

B
Well, compared to the lines they have in communist China. We are lucky. I hear the Chinese wait in lines that last for days, and are expected to sleep standing up while they wait.

Crowd tsk and shake their head at the silly Chinese.

A
The Chinese have to go to the DMV?

B
Of course.

A
But I thought nobody in China had a car, they all rode bicycles.

B
Well now you know why. And I can’t imagine what waiting at the DMV was like in Iraq under Sadam.

Crowd nods and murmurs approvingly at B’s points.

A
Well, I don’t know....

B
It makes me proud to be an American, you know? The line stands as an example to all other nations as a representative of the free society we live in. (Hums the national anthem)

Crowd begins to join in the hum.

A
Are you serious? This is the most inefficient waste of time. We’re drowning in a sea of red tape! We pay for these services, we are the taxpayer, and we should demand a more efficient process! Where are my taxes going? That’s what I want to know!

B
I for one love to pay taxes.

Crowd continues national anthem.

B
It makes me proud to live in land where I am free to work and then pay a sizeable portion of my income to support public assets that benefit us all. Just think of all the wonderful things we get to enjoy each day as the result of taxes. Public roads, schools, city and state governments, and the best damn military in the world. Think of our troops! We must support them! And I don’t know about you, but considering our troops have fought and died to protect our freedoms, I think it is a small price to pay to stand here in this line with the proper paperwork in order to support and honor them. God Bless America!

Crowd applauds and a few wipe tears from their eyes.

A
What the hell are you talking about? How does standing in this line support our troops?

B
Are you saying you don’t support the troops?

Crowd grows suspicious and threatening.

A
No, I do. I do! Of course I do. I just think things could be handled in a different, more effective way.

B
Well I for one trust in the wisdom of our elected and appointed leaders, who are much better informed than us. And I don’t know about you, but I think it’s a small price to pay to endure this process in order to live in the land of the free and the home of the brave. I’m Proud to Be An American!

Crowd sings “At least I know I’m free!”

A
Why are you listening to this guy? He’s not saying anything! He’s just mindlessly repeating empty catchphrases!

B
(Shakes head sadly) You are lost, my friend. You have no patriotism, no American spirit – the spirit which guided our noble forefathers to this promised land. I don’t think you’ll ever be happy living in your hateful little liberal world of revolution and rebellion. And I don’t think you support our troops at all.

Crowd hisses. “He doesn’t have a magnet on his car!”

B
Come my friends, let us pray to the God of America for this man’s soul.

Crowd and B form a prayer circle. A’s number is called and he hurries up to the counter.

A
Thank you, just in time. I need to renew my driver’s license.

C
I’m sorry, sir, I need a proof of citizenship. Good day.

A
I have my passport.

C
(Eyes the passport suspiciously) I see. Well, I need proof of social security as well.

A
Got my card, here.

C
Fine. But you need proof of residency in this state. Sorry.

A
Here’s a utility bill to my address in state, my student ID card to the state university, and a satellite image showing me moving into a house in this state.

Beat

C
You’re a troublemaker, aren’t you.

B
He doesn’t support the troops!

A
Shut up! Don’t listen to him. Please, can you just renew my driver’s license?

C
(Very irritated) Well, sir, I’m afraid you’d need to present your birth certificate. Next!

A
I have it here. As well as the birth certificate of all my next of kin, and my neighbors.

C
(Raises an eyebrow) Medical proof of a recent physical and eye examination?

A
Got it.

C
IRS receipt proving full payment of US taxes?

A
Here.

C
Have you filled out Form 11-B, sir?

A
Form 11-B, 11-A, 11-C, and 11-F. There.

C
You’re good. (Begins to type on computer) Mother’s maiden name?

A
Colson.

C
Her mother’s maiden name?

A
Um…. Smith.

C
And her mother’s maiden name?

Pause. A thinks furiously.

C
I’m sorry, sir. Better luck next time. Next!

A
Wait! It’s Wilson! Wilson!

C
Ok…. Sir. This is the Department of Motor Vehicles. Nobody is allowed to make it through the line the first time through, its departmental policy.

A
But I supplied every piece of information you have asked me for! I have brought with me every single relevant or irrelevant personal document I’ve ever received! You have failed to stump me, you failed to catch me lacking, and I demand that you renew my driver’s license right this instant!

C
Sir, there’s no need to be rude. Alright, then, we’ll process your paperwork.

A
Thank you.

C
I’ll just need the 25 dollars processing fee.

A
What?

C
25 dollars?

A
I know! I know! I… I forgot my checkbook.

C
(Huge smile of satisfaction) I’m sorry, sir, we can’t process your paperwork without the fee. See ya!

A
(Desparate) I can’t wait in that line again! Can anybody lend me 25 dollars??

Crowd boos him and calls him a terrorist liberal. A runs away.


B
GOD BLESS OUR SUPPORT OUR TROOPS GOD BLESS PROUD TO BE OUR TROOPS AMERICA TROOPS AMERICA TROOPS…… (hunches over, broken)

Two men in suits enter, and carry B off for repairs. Crowd and DMV lady salute.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Pictures from my Solo Show

As I mentioned briefly in my last post, I had the distinct opportunity to create a solo performance and bring it to life. Here are some pictures from my show, "David & Jonathan":





Friday, April 04, 2008

Thoughts as Grad School Winds Down

My, this blog is certainly dusty. Anybody here? Hello? I really need to clean this place up. Maybe a change of curtains and a loveseat in the corner would make me want to be around the blog more often.

We are nearing the end of my second year of graduate school, and hasn't the time just flown by. I played Romeo, wrote and performed a one-man show, and now I'm in a play set in 17th century France in which I hide for an entire act in a very small harpsichord. Fun stuff.

It's looking like I'll stay here in Columbia for the summer and most of the fall. At some point around December I'll head up to Virginia to work for a regional theater as an intern. I'll play Romeo again in a touring, up-to-date, totally hip production that tours to high schools. And then I'll be graduated! Time really has gone by quickly. Not sure when I'll be back in Utah, but I miss all my friends and relations terribly.

Oh, and one other thought: that thing you've always wanted to do, that ambition or secret passion that you've told yourself again and again you would get to one day (writing a novel, being in a play, taking a scuba diving class, learning to read Latin, or whatever)... DO IT! Seriously. You'll be glad you did. I always wanted to write a play. Somebody made me by making it a requirement to graduate. Then I got to perform it in front of everybody. The sense of accomplishment is amazing. So I've learned my lesson - just do it. It's worth it.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Update

So I actually found myself with a little free time today, and thought I would put something up here for anybody curious about what I am up to lately.

It's a very busy semester! I'm in the process of rehearsing Romeo and Juliet, which has been taking up the bulk of my time. We open on February 22nd or something, and are running alternately with a production of the Tempest in the same space. Playing Romeo is nuts. I have notes in my journal from my time in London about the various actors I saw play the part over there, and I was very critical. Now that I'm in their shoes, I'm much more sympathetic. Of course, once there are some pictures I'll put them up here.

The second show of the semester was supposed to be "The Inspector General" but it got canceled for reasons passing human understanding. Still no official word on what will take its place, so for now we are just not thinking about it.

This semester we also have to prepare a showcase for theaters considering us for internships, as well as write, rehearse, and stage a one-person show which serves as our master's thesis. I just completed yet another first draft for my show, which will inevitably lead to another first draft. Maybe someday I'll finish a second draft. It's a frustrating process.

So all of that plus homework, plus teaching undergraduates, plus trying to find time to breathe leads to one exciting semester. By the end of the second week I was already facing major nervous breakdowns. But when I really stop to think about it, there's nothing I'd rather be doing than this right now.

I'll try to update more often. Send me an e-mail, friends!