LenTake a Shortline bus an hour North and West of New York City and you’ll find yourself in the middle of Sterling Forest, a big old hilly wilderness full of rocks, deer, day trippers, and mosquitoes the size of quarters.  In the summer there’s a Renaissance festival.  In the winter there’s a small ski center.  That’s it for miles and miles – oak trees, treacherous little rocky streams, and ticks full of Lyme disease.

On one side is the town of Tuxedo – a glorified stop on the Appalachian Trail consisting of a post office, an old stone bank, and a historic library.  Somewhere embedded in the library’s foundations is a turn-of-the-century 10-pin bowling ally straight out of Rip Van Winkle. In the late 90’s a small deli moved next door with magazines and candy bars, and it was a BIG FUCKING DEAL.

In the midst of all this pristine dirt and poison ivy, some quirk of politics or bribery has carved out a tiny housing development up the side of Laurel Ridge, a little mountain off of Route 17A.  It’s a tiny pocket of lawns and wooden shingle siding, waging a bloody battle with with the strangle vines and leaf-mold of the deep Catskills.  Another quirk of politics means that it’s zoned, not for the schools in Greenwood Lake a couple mountains over, but for the  distant Monroe-Woodbury district way over in the valley.  Which is a good thing, because Greenwood lake was a real heroin-fest, if elementary-school rumor could be believed.

 In 1985, my parents, newly back in the States so I could get an American education, moved into the most decrepit house in Laurel Ridge.  For a pair of penniless hippies a good school was worth more that a reasonable residence, but the Catskills had definitely won this time. Rotted beams and carpets, gaping holes in the walls… it was huge, a ramshackle 8-bedroom monstrosity built into the side of a hill, and every ceiling was choked with spider webs.  You could knit a sweater from the sheer volume of webs. No matter how many times you picked them off the ceiling fans, they’d be back again the next morning with a big fat hairy spider sitting right in the center, grinning and waving his middle finger at you.

Lenny showed up shortly afterwards. He was probably in his late 20’s, with a long nose, high cheekbones, and long dark curly hair that seemed impossibly exotic. One morning he was suddenly there, balancing on a step-stool in the second floor hallway. Lenny was the Handyman. Lenny was here to Fix The House.

In the dark hours before school I’d stand in my nightgown chewing on a frozen Eggo waffle and watch him spackle the hallway (No one can spackle like Lenny, my mom would boast to me, age 6 – she had yet to make friends in the neighborhood). He used careful zigzag strokes with his hands, up and down and back again, slowly, methodically, patching the torn shreds of the house together with white paste.  When he caught me watching he would pull a mock serious face and bellow, “I’m going to spackle your nose!” and I would squeal and hide behind the couch.

The woods are so so quiet.  For a place only an hour away from Manhattan, it’s completely possible to go mad from the sound of the blood singing in your own ears at night. My parents, transplanted from 10 years in the heart of Geneva, probably felt it even more. On evenings when they were home Lenny would join us at dinner, our strange little family all sitting around the dining room table together.  Lenny was friendly and polite, and my parents were opinionated and lonely, and they talked long past when the last shake-n-bake chicken cutlet was gone.

Lenny was religious – not the good-deeds-and-strong-community kind of religious, the kind of religious that costs it’s practitioners a lot of money. It was a small born-again church with rules I didn’t understand, like allowing divorce but not remarriage.  The sect had only a couple dozen adherents, all of whom spent every waking moment earning and donating the cash that would change their fate from Hell-bound to Saved.  Out of earshot, my mother speculated that perhaps the basic duality was comforting for Lenny, whom she described, with a sigh as a ‘simple soul.’ I had no idea what she meant, but all grownups are complicated when you’re a kid.

One night he brought us a pamphlet called “I dare you to believe in Jesus” which he was very proud of having read all the way through. My parents asked him to tell us about it with honest curiosity, but he became confused and overwhelmed, and we changed the subject.

My father asked if he was planning to join his church’s board, but he said no, God had another plan for him.  God would show him the way. He didn’t know what what it would be, but he was sure it would be wonderful.

In the meantime, Lenny helped out.  Soon, he had moved in.  His ramshackle quarters down by the train tracks had been condemned because of the the illegal dump in its backyard (years later it was proved to be a favorite mafioso spot for stashing bodies). We certainly had room for him – in fact, once he’d removed some of the terrible wood paneling it turned out that the entire basement was a complete, self-contained apartment. He even had his own entrance.

My parents spent their evenings waiting tables at the Duck Ceder Inn a couple towns over to save extra cash for home repairs and college funds, and within a couple months, Lenny had become my full-time babysitter.  Each night after they drove away in their crisp black and white uniforms we’d reheat leftovers and sit across from each other at the dining room table making terrible puns until bedtime, which was always later than it was supposed to be if I promised not to tell. The next morning the culinary spoils of my parent’s evening would be on the kitchen counter: complicated little cakes or shreds of chicken with strange sauces.  Or sometimes, nothing at all – “It was bad food and not enough of it!” my mother would announce.

Once Lenny asked her if he could cook for us instead. He drove to the local IGA but he quickly became overwhelmed at the enormity of the task.  By the time he returned home, with a single container of mushrooms to show for his efforts, he was close to tears.

In the Fall he’d help us rake the property, an epic three day sweatathon that involved scouring the dirt of the forest floor with a variety of implements. Wire rakes snagged on roots and rocks as we herded the leaves into drifts taller than myself, mountains of leaves that ate all recognizable landmarks.  It was much too thick for anything as effete as a leaf blower; sometimes we used shovels. Lenny was an expert at the wide swinging motion required to beat the dried curls out of the pachysandra. It was a ludicrous, Sisyphean activity. At night we’d all ritually dose ourselves with Advil and check our necks for ticks.

In the spring he would come to my school chorus recitals.  One year we sang the folk classic “The Marvelous Toy ” with its numerous farting and splatting sounds. He really really liked it. “It went Pthhhh when it stopped” he crowed happily all the way home, sitting in the back of the minivan while I giggled.

Now that he was living rent free, why didn’t he take a class at the Community College suggested my father.  With his spackling skills and some basic business savvy, he could really do things. Lenny declined.

In fact, Lenny had no education at all, and no bank account or mailing address.  He had managed to survive so far, assisted by a gentle hopefulness, and the fact that he was, I now realize, outrageously good looking in an 80’s kind of way. God was guiding him, he said. God would provide. God had sent us to him just when he needed it. Its true, he admitted,  he wanted his own house and a wife and family, but they would come when God was ready to give them to him.

I didn’t understand what any of it meant, but it certainly sounded important and meaningful. As puberty loomed off in the distance and I become dimly aware that not everyone lived alone on top of a stupid mountain in the middle of a stupid forest, Lenny’s philosophy was an intriguing ray of light in the stifling greenery. Surely this was freedom, freedom with no ties or baggage,  wandering where the winds of fate decreed, trusting in providence and the kindness of strangers, the romance of independence.

Lenny became an inconsistent constant in and out of our lives. Sometimes he would be gone for years. Then suddenly, one morning there he would be again, rewiring a ceiling fan, clearing the vines from the roof, replacing the broken glass, as if he had never left.

At some point he acquired  an ex-wife and a couple of kids down in Florida. He didn’t talk about them though.

Puberty came and went, and the old carpets were ripped up and replaced by shiny new hardwood. The rotting back porch I once fell through was replaced with a new wooden model, with a railing and screens to keep out the mosquitoes. The house was running out of bad.

My mother found a friend on the other side of the Ridge just a couple of miles away. My Father began training for the local volunteer Ski Patrol.  The light at the end of the green leafy tunnel that was college slowly grew closer.  Lenny left for Fort Myers. Then he’d come back with a hard luck story about a business partnership gone sour, or a job he’d turned down because he hadn’t felt ready for it. Then he’d be gone.

Sometime in late high school Lenny showed up again. It had been a long time, long enough that the occasion merited what had now become a rare formal dinner in the dining room. I took a break from SAT prep, and my Mother called in sick to New City Library. My Father left his office early, giving who-knows-what excuse  to the secretaries.

We sat around the table chewing through a giant steak and asked Lenny about his travels. He said he’d been doing well. He’d turned down some more permanent jobs because he still was’t ready for them but he was sure there would be more. He had seen his kids recently. Things were hard, but he still believed that God had a path for him.

He had discovered Karaoke. On Wednesday nights a local bar had a machine, where he’d sing God Bless America. “The room goes silent every time.  Just dead silent.” he told us proudly. It felt weird. A middle-aged man singing Karaoke by himself was weird. The earnestness of his emotions made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t exactly embarrassed – it was Lenny, who used to spackle my nose – but we all tried not to catch each others’ eye.

The following Fall I left for college and I never saw Lenny again.  But my parents did. It was a couple of years ago, my mother called me as I walked through Union Square on my way home from the office. I remember the day because we had just finished launching a big project at work, and I was feeling pretty damn good about the world. “Guess who showed up at our door last night,” she crowed. I knew at once, before she even said his name, that it was Lenny.

This was a more difficult feat than it sounded. My parents had gotten the hell out of Laurel Ridge the second the school wasn’t needed anymore. They had sold the house for a sizable increase and resettled in southern Virginia. It was on top of another mountain, and the trees were just as thick, but the food was a lot better.  Tracking them down would have been difficult, especially for a man who admitted he’d rarely touched a computer.

However he did it, he had showed up for a night, along with his new wife. My mother hadn’t asked if this meant his religion had modified its stance on remarriage. Things were already awkward enough.

Lenny was a old man now. A lifetime without health insurance had left him physically battered, his back stooped, the cheekbones hidden by sagging skin and broken veins. He looked tired, distant, bewildered by the progress of the years. A man who had spent his life waiting for his God to tell him what to do.

His new wife was tiny, silent and resentful, or maybe just distrustful, observing my parents from under her thin mousy brows over the stir fry. At any moment it seemed she might make a break for the door. They had met at church just recently; who knows what stories Lenny had told her about the wacky Jews with which he had spent a more than a decade.  She was a baker, Lenny said. She had a stable job decorating cakes at their local supermarket.

That’s wonderful, said my mother! At last what you always wanted.  What a great way to start out a new life together.

Well, actually, Lenny qualified, shortly before their courthouse date an acquaintance had offered him the opportunity to relocate his car for him across the country. The payment was good. But Lenny’s soon-to-be-wife didn’t have any time off at the grocery store. They had stayed up all night, praying to God for guidance, kneeling on the carpeted floor of her room. Did God want them to take the gig?

Apparently he did – in the morning they decided to leave.  She had quit her position at the grocery store, and now they were on their way to deliver the car to California. Once they got there, God would tell them what they should do next.

My parents sat in uneasy silence for a few moments, rendered speechless by the perversity of the situation.  Finally, my father cleared his throat.  I can picture him putting on his best ‘Father voice.” Then he told this joke.

“There’s a pious man, who’s spent his whole life praying to God.  And he’s caught in a flood.  So he climbs up onto his roof and he starts praying: Hey God, my faith is strong. I know you won’t let me drown. Save me from the water. And his neighbor comes by in a boat saying, hey, the water’s rising, get in!  And the man says, no, my faith is in God, he’s going to save me. And his son came by in a boat saying, get in!  And the man says, no, God is going to save me. And the Mayor came by in a boat saying, get in!  And the man says, God is going to save me. And he drowns.  And he gets to heaven and stands before God.  And he says, God, why didn’t you save me? And God says, what do you mean – I sent you three boats!”

Lenny laughed at the story, but he didn’t really seem to understand what my Father was trying to say. The little wife didn’t say a word.

At last the meal was over, and my Mother put them in one of the upstairs guest rooms. In a moment of privacy she slipped the woman some new lingerie she had planned to return to Macy’s. It was a gross impropriety, but she said it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. It was only their second night together as man and wife, and the woman had seemed so completely bewildered and overwhelmed by it all.

Perhaps the delicate lace and bows could tie their fragile relationship together for long enough.

The next morning before the sun was even clear of the mountain they had driven away in their borrowed car, off and through the woods, to whatever their God had planned for them next.

stop-sign-744192_960_720Let’s say you’re a new startup, a startup that shows some signs of possibility. Let’s say you’ve grown beyond the “I’m jobless, so I’m working on this little idea so I won’t have a gap on my resume” stage (you know what I’m talking about).  Well then, you know who has some great advice for you?  Absolutely everyone.

It’s a weird phenomenon experienced by every fledgeling startup, the unbelievable enthusiasm with which outsiders want to pass startups around from hand to hand hot-potato-style.  Not, allow me to qualify, to render any type of actual assistance in the monetary or manpower departments. That would be too close to some type of real help.  But advice?  Or yes oh yes oh yes.  Everyone in the world suddenly has an expert opinions on exactly what the startup is doing, how they are doing it, and, most importantly, who is the next person in line who you absolutely must talk to in order to get their opinion.

For a new startup this can seem amazing. They might even be a little star-struck. Look at all these experts who are taking the time out of their busy day to give us encouragement!  Look at all these great connections we’re making! Look at all this fantastic advice!  This networking is really going to come in handy if we ever get around to actually doing anything…

And of course, therein lies the problem. Meetings take time, which the advice-givers have lots of (if they didn’t, please believe they wouldn’t have taken the meeting). The startup does not have a lot of time. The first couple of months of any new company is a rush to overcome the event horizon that sucks most good ideas back to earth before they ever leave the atmosphere. Startups have a choice about how they use those precious few moments they spend wafting through the air before gravity kicks in. Don’t waste it.

There are no new ideas in the world.   Any thought passing through your head is already grubby from the thousands of other heads it’s visited first. Ideas are fun, but they’re absolutely worthless without the implementation to back them up. Which means that, beyond the initial planning phase, wasting time talking with a series of potential, hypothetical  mentors can be absolutely pointless. Talking can’t refine an idea, only trying out various implementations can do that.  Which is precisely what a startup isn’t doing if they’re spending all their time ooing and ahhing over their role model’s wonderful office furniture and complimenting them on their custom espresso machine.

Most experts don’t actively set out to drown young startups with  buckets of well-meaning advice.  It’s flattering to have your opinion asked.  It feels good.  And often the suppliants were referred by a well-meaning friend or colleague, someone for whom they want to do a favor. It would be rude to decline. And of course,  inhabiting the role of advice-giver puts the givee in their professional debt, something that they can call upon in the unlikely event the startup does in fact become a success.

How often do experts honestly have anything to say that will materially help a new company, an organization they know absolutely nothing about besides what they learn during a single, hour long meeting over tiny bottles of water? It’s difficult to say. The ties of “doing a favor for a colleague” are fulfilled no matter that gets said. Having an opinion is easy, and having a strong opinion is impressive. Ask enough people and it’s possible to get enough opinions to cover every possible contradictory course of action. Multiple opinions can just be paralyzing. And of course, that’s not even counting the most popular type of mentorship of all, just passing the supplicants off to someone else.

Here is a rule of thumb. Any meeting that ends with the phrase, “Do you know (person who does something only very tangentially related to you)? They’re in  (field that’s only vaguely related to your topic). I bet they have some great advice for you,” stop.  That should be your last meeting.

There is no perfect piece of advice.  There is no external compass that can point  you in the direction of certain success. Only getting out of the meeting rooms and back to your desk, or basement, or coffee shop, or temporary office space, or bar, or  wherever you’re doing the actual work of the startup, can do that.  Chasing after just one more piece of advice from just one more fascinating expert has been the death of many a project.

Break the chain of well-intentioned meetings! It’s a path that leads to another and another, and another, a series that can go on forever until you run out of gas with the window of opportunity left far behind you.  Have faith in your own  expertise – you might know less than the experts, but your real-world experimental findings are worth much more than their hypothetical guesses.  Get out of your mentors offices and back in the lab.  The next time you hear the phrase “you know, you should really speak to…” say, “No! No, I really shouldn’t!”

Having trouble deciding if you should totally steal someone else’s artwork and then be a complete butt about it? For those coming late to the story, frat-fave DJ Diplo last week totally ripped off the work of Brooklyn-based illustrator Rebecca Mock for one of his promotional videos. When she called him on it, he kept it classy by responding with creepy misogynistic taunts, which some might consider an interesting tactic with a person who now totally has the legit right to sue you.

Now, the usual defense in this kind of case is for the perpetrator to claim that their blatant theft of a hard-working artist’s sole means of support is actually NOT theft because it gives the artist free publicity.  It’s like stealing a pizza from a restaurant but claiming that other people will see you eating it and be so impressed that they’ll decide to go themselves. Of course, the “…but it’s free publicity” defense starts getting kind of funny when the publicity is obviously not the type the artist would ever have wanted. We all read a lot about privilege, but one good definition would be, ‘I’m so great, of course I can take anything I want because anyone would be proud to be associated with me.’

It’s funny to think that folks in the music industry, which spends a serious amount of time making a big-assed deal about their own copyright issues, should be such douches about other people’s, but them’s the crappy crappy breaks. In any case, on the off chance that there really is a big community out there who is struggling with understanding the basic, 5-year-old morality of this issue, read on!


mysteryThe patriarch of an ancient manor house is found stabbed, face-down in his turtle soup! Luckily, a detective is taking a holiday in the village! Was it the overprotective nurse? The shifty-looking scientist? The debt-ridden daughter with Communist tendencies?  No! It was the actress’s friend who is actually the illegitimate son and heir, and incidentally also the leader of a notorious band of jewel thieves!

Golden Age detective fiction (1920-1950) straddled a weird time in English society. Hemlines were up! The stock market was up! Minorities and women…existed! And the genre of the murder mystery was still trying to figure itself out. It was certainly a different flavor of fish from the Victorian detective thriller of 30 years earlier.  Read today, many Sherlock Holmes mysteries are actually adventure stories, or even straight-up novels, with solutions that rely on facts hidden from the reader until the big reveal. They are plot-driven, not problem-driven. I mean, the ghost is actually a dog painted in phosphorus? When phosphorus has never been mentioned before? Really? By modern standards it’s all very Scooby Doo.

So Golden Age fiction stories occupied a strange in-between time period. They weren’t quite adventure stories with daring rooftop chases and duels, but they weren’t just sentimental novels where lovers defied all odds for a chaste embrace. And they weren’t supernatural thrillers (although occasionally they became the opposite, morphing into dry mental puzzles with cryptography and word games). Authors like Christie, Sayers, and Allingham tried a mix of everything, and by the mid-20’s a genre had emerged.  It wasn’t Noir, it wasn’t Romance, it wasn’t Action Adventure, it wasn’t Horror – it was Mystery.

Golden Age mysteries have a specific, predictable template that allows readers to expect a specific predictable rhythm (this is pulp fiction after all – enjoyable, disposable, repeatable). A group of upper-class people come together.  A body is found.  The suspects react with horror.  One-by-one they’re all discovered to have motives and opportunity. Then the prime suspect is proved to be a red herring (usually when a second body is found).  Finally, the detective has a big reveal.

And then…the 50’s happened.  The rise of post-WW2 technological advancement and social change made the classic murder mystery impractical.  So many of the tropes it relied upon just didn’t make sense anymore – they required an audience steeped in turn-of-the century stereotypes for their ‘gotcha’ moment.  It was the end of an age.

Any mention of someone having been an actor in their past automatically means they’re not who they claim.

The Victorian stigma against entertainers made a convenient excuse why someone would keep their past ‘on the stage’ a secret, while still providing a hint that they might successfully impersonate another character. But by the 1950’s, Hollywood glamor had confused the occupation’s class sigma, and this one stopped making sense.

A corpse with the face smashed in means someone is attempting to conceal the victim’s identity

Bad car accident, a fire, a fall where the body just happens to land on its face…An unrecognizable or missing head automatically means an attempt to disguise identity.  But with the rise of blood-typing, fingerprinting, and later DNA testing, this just stopped being a thing.

Dentists.  Any mention of a dentist means the victim’s identity isn’t what the reader thinks it is

Like ‘corpse with the face smashed in’,  it always means that dental records for two people have been switched to conceal the identity of a victim. So…this just is no longer relevant.

Stopped clocks always show an incorrect time of death

A smashed clock is a great way for the plodding local police to incorrectly establish time of death, clearing the way for the detective to point out that the time has been re-set to confuse authorities. The end of hand-wound clocks finished this trope fast enough. Also, as upper-level policing became more white-collar it became less acceptable to portray them as being so dumb.

Foreigners are always red herrings
Golden Age mysteries love to use the reader’s own racism against them. One common plot is to make a German or Chinese character the prime suspect, with exotic political or religious motivations, and then prove that they were actually set up by some blue-blood Englishman doing it for the sordid cash payout.  The rise of a more global community ended this one when people started realizing it was just as racist to believe that only the British were capable of crimes.

Cliche: Communists are silly

As characters, Golden Age Communists are usually spiteful, pimply young men, under-educated and eaten up with sour grapes, using their racy politics in an attempt to impress the daughter of the manor. Then the Cold War kicked in, and suddenly everyone started taking Communists a lot more seriously.

Fingerprints don’t exist

It’s not that Golden Age detectives don’t know about fingerprinting – by the 20’s it was a standard part of police procedure – it’s just that there never are any.  “It was wiped clean” is the refrain in every single novel ever.  Or the weapon was dropped in a pool.  Or the fingerprints were added afterwords to make it look like suicide.  Or the texture was wrong. Or…but you get the idea.  I suspect by the 1950’s the public may have realized it was unlikely that not a single useful fingerprint had ever been found, anywhere, ever, and gave this one up.

Moral murderers all have lethal diseases that will kill them in a matter of months

Was the murder a revenge for the horrible crime that the victim themselves committed twenty years earlier?  Was the murder done to stop the victim from ruining the life of an innocent young beauty through their dastardly blackmail? Well then, you can bet that the murderer just happens to have been given only a few months left to live in any case, thus relieving the detective of the responsibility of exposing them. But the simple morality of the 20’s didn’t last into the more complicated world of the 50’s and 60’s. Good and bad suddenly became less clear-cut.

Media of today could learn a valuable lesson from Golden Age detective fiction:  holding on to the tropes and stereotypes from an earlier age always hamstrings the story.  At the very least it makes the writers seem out of touch with their readership.  That doesn’t mean it’s necessary to turn every piece of literature into a whirlwind tour of the latest inventions and moral philosophy, but it does mean staying true to what the characters might actually be feeling and doing. Tropes are helpful building blocks for fitting a piece of media into a specific genre, but too often they turn into a lazy writer’s shorthand.   Might I suggest reconsidering the following common tropes in media.

Answering machines that record incoming messages out loud

Yes, it’s a great way for the wrong person to overhear a private message, but who actually owns an answering machine? Is it likely your hip young 20-something characters would? Really? The kind that records on tape, out loud to an empty house?  While it’s true that about half of US homes still have old-fashioned landlines, that number is very heavily skewed towards the elderly. Unless your screenplay is about geriatric patients whose kids set up their answering system in the late 80’s, ditch it.

No one has a cellphone.

They left it at home.  It’s out of battery.  It’s out of minutes.  It’s out of range. They refuse to buy one. They dropped it in a toilet.  Or in extreme cases, the monster just happens to emit a cellphone signal-dampening field (funny how that happens).  If you’re writing about characters who would probably have a working cellphone, give them a bloody working cellphone. If its existence messes up your modern-day plot, there’s something wrong with the plot.

Cliche: Teenagers watching a TV news broadcast

In days gone by this was a great method of exposition – the TV in the background would just happen to run a piece about the escaped criminal who would attack our hero in the next scene.  A majority of Americans do still get some news from the TV, but who are they? Probably not anyone under 35. In fact, do they even watch broadcast TV?  If they have a Netflix account, chances are no. If your hero is a teenager, reconsider.

Finding an incriminating scrapbook of newspaper articles related to a crime

First of all, did anyone ever do this?  Save every scrap of information about something horrible they’re trying desperately to forget?  Probably not, but at least up until the year 2000 it was technically conceivable as a plot device. This isn’t a thing anymore.  Someone stumbling across an incriminating Google News search history, maybe.  Paper news, nope.

Scientists must be punished for their hubris

In the 80’s, science or technology was shorthand for the soulless progress that would soon destroy our souls. In fact, ‘spirituality beats science’ was a real favorite for a solid decade there. In this trope, a scientist  tries to attempt something new and cool, then is is immediately killed by their creation.  Usually in an ironic way, after saying something like “I have become an invincible god!!!11!”.  It’s true that anti-intellectualism is still a thing, but in today’s STEM-desperate academia, it’s hard to imagine those poor scientists with any power at all.  Between the politics of tenure and bloody battles for a dwindling funding supply, there just isn’t time to take over the world.  Our stereotype of a power-mad megalomaniac would be much better embodied through a mad banker or crazy start-up dude.

When a genre times out, there’s nothing to do but update it and move on. In time the more thrilling Golden Age mystery works turned into spy fiction, and the more cerebral became police procedurals. Both are totally legit forms of literature, and both will probably give way in turn as their own tropes become irrelevant.

Already we can see some of it happening. It would be great to think that the police give 200% like the Detectives of CSI, sacrificing their personal lives, challenging their superiors and putting their reputations on the line against an uncaring bureaucracy for what they know is right every time…but that’s just not the way the system is set up.  Nor would it really be realistic for them to do so. The medical procedural, a literary offshoot of the police procedural, suffers from the same problem: Modern medical law and insurance policy just can’t realistically reward, or often even allow, the type of above-and-beyond compassion and medical largess we see on shows like House.

These tropes haven’t timed out just yet, but they will given time. And when they do, we have to be willing to leave them and move on.  The murderer can’t always be the debonaire heir to the family fortune.  We must admit, at least to ourselves, that sometimes the guilty party really is a Communist German sympathizer with an accidentally smashed watch. And a working cellphone.

New-Logo-Vertical-DarkDamn it Uber, I like you so much as a service. You’re everything I look for in a disruptive business concept: grass roots, reliable, demonstrably better than the status quo. So why do you keep doing such terrible, terrible things as a company? You’re coming perilously close to my Chicken McNugget line.

Everyone has a Chicken McNugget line. It works like this. The average American attempt at dieting lasts a day and a half – it gets broken at about 3pm the second afternoon. That’s the point at which the brain says, “Listen – I respect that you’re dieting, really! But here’s this doughnut. Isn’t it possible that this is an unusual exception? I mean, you’ve had a really rough day/ you’re unusually hungry right now/ you deserve a reward/ not eating it is wasteful/ you promised yourself treats now and then/ whatever other excuse will fit in here to SHORT CIRCUIT YOUR LOGIC AND EAT THIS DOUGHNUT.” A serious dieter will take a step back and say waaaaaitaminit, this is exactly the type of situation where I said I wasn’t going to eat a doughnut. But most of us won’t.

When a person doesn’t want to diet, there will always be a completely logical reason why they can’t diet today. When a student doesn’t want to do their work there will always be a completely valid reason why they couldn’t possibly have done it. And they will believe, truly believe that they were totally, powerless over the situation, no matter how ridiculous the excuse. Studies show that the same is true of many folks convicted of violent felonies – they have completely plausible and valid reasons why it was everyone else’s fault that they were forced to track down and stab that one dude.

But everyone has a Chicken McNugget line. That’s the point at which the junk food you crave is so godawful disgusting that your brain just can’t find an excuse ridiculous enough to eat it. Chicken McNuggets are an unholy mix of cartilage, nerves, and skin, mixed with grain-based fillers, and held together with silicone. They qualify as food only under the definition “items that fit in my mouth”. I pass a McDonalds every day on the way to work, and sometimes the smell tempts me. My brain steps in with its siren song: I know you don’t eat crap like this, but isn’t it possible this is a totally different situation where you should reward yourself with an arg arg arg they’re just so so nasty, for the love of god don’t do it…

Car service Uber is getting perilously close to my McNugget line. Their app has resulted in at least one death, a whole bunch of rape cases, generalized attacks (with a hammer?) and one “slapping in response to a burp“, all of which they’ve denied any responsibility for. They’re accused of everything from failing to enforce the background checks they claim protect their customers, to engaging in aggressive campaigns shaming and discrediting the victims who have been assaulted by their drivers. They use startlingly icky sabotage tactics against competitors, which, if not illegal, are at least creepy as hell. And not that it makes a lick of difference, but their misleading pricing has given them and F rating from the Better Business Bureau, which isn’t easy. Hell, even some Ikea locations have a A+, so it can’t be that hard.

But today’s snafu is particularly ‘eek’-inducing – at a recent dinner, Uber’s senior vice president of business, Emil Michael, explained his plan to spend a million dollars on a smear campaign against journalists who dare report on Uber’s failings. The focus for his ire was PandoDaily editor-in-chief Sarah Lacy, who’s been key in exposing some of Uber’s scarier infractions, particularly against women. Michael suggested that researchers could be hired to “dig up the dirt” on journalists and their families, and use what they found as a threat to keep them silent. In his own words, it would give the media “a taste of its own medicine”. When it was pointed out how this might backfire, he responded, “Nobody would know it was us”.

Now, besides the basic first amendment issues at work here, this is about as bad PR as a company can manufacture. Using threats of violence and intimidation against a plucky underdog who dares to stand up to a powerful business is a classic Hollywood trope.

At the same time, it’s easy to understand the allure. Terror is an extremely effective weapon in silencing critics, particularly when the victims are women with families to protect. For all that movies are full of square-jawed fathers trying to save their wife and kids from kidnappers/burglers/ terrorists/dinosaurs, in reality these soft targets are much more likely to be used against a mom. Few dudes consider sending their family into hiding or requesting FBI protection before publishing an exposé, whereas their female counterparts are often forced to do just that. Just ask any of the brave lady journalists recently targeted by Gamer-Gaters. But while it’s easy to silence critics, it’s much harder to silence the fact that they’ve been silenced.

When asked for comment, Michael gave a carefully worded response that said, in summation “LOL/JK, I was just a little annoyed”. It’s still better than an earlier response where he said Lacy should be held responsible for any woman who got themselves raped by a taxi driver after deciding not to use Uber. I swear I couldn’t make this stuff up.

So, it begs the question, why the hell is this guy still talking? Or more importantly, why is Uber still letting him talk? In public? Don’t they have any sense of self-preservation at all? I don’t know enough about the financial ins-and-outs to say if he should fired or not (I mean, obviously, but he hasn’t been yet, so…?). But Uber, at the very least, for your own good, lock him in a basement somewhere with a gag on so he can’t keep making these outrageous PR blunders every time he opens his mouth. While you’re at it, lock up most of your senior staff – very few of them are passing the basic “pretend to be human” test right now.

I want to use Uber. I want to use them so badly. And I can always find an excuse why this time is the exception. The local drivers aren’t to blame for corporate error/ yellow cab drivers are often so much worse/ it’s cold out/ I’ve got my puppy Oyster with me/ I’m wearing these awesome heels. And as of yet, my willing suspension of disbelief is still gamely chugging away, defending what I really want to do from what I really know is right. Especially if I can’t get a ‘Go Green Ride‘ car. Hey Go Green, do some usability testing already – you’re fantastic, but your app sucks.

So if that doesn’t work out, I may still use an Uber. We haven’t crossed my Chicken McNugget line…yet. But it’s not going to take much more – this camel is already carrying a whole lot of straw. Just try me, Uber, just one more revelation, one more horrible remark, one more incident. I’m using you today, maybe, but tomorrow, who knows.

controllerI’m not a gamer. I tried Candy Crush a couple times but I couldn’t really figure it out. I once roomed with a guy addicted to Final Fantasy, but it only lasted a couple weeks. I do tend to mention IKEA a lot in my writing – IKEA is kinda like a game, right? It’s sort of a cross between Pinball and Tetris.

Angry teenage hackers can go through all my devices and all they’ll find are complaints to Burts Bees and a couple pictures of my little dog, Oyster. I was born too early for nude pictures, I don’t have any serious financial assets, and I can’t be fired from my job. I live in an apartment building, so there isn’t even a front lawn on which to burn a cross.

Which means that, when it comes to Gamer Gate (the male-supremacist movement focused on driving women from the gaming community) I really don’t have much of a stake. I don’t have an opinion on anything that impacts them, and in return, 4chan hasn’t declared one of their fatwas on Oyster. Do it at your own risk, guys, that puppy is the size of a chicken but he’s a nasty biter, and I haven’t given him his yearly rabies shot yet.

Begun as a revenge campaign by a (male) gamer against his journalist ex-girlfriend, Gamer Gate has spiraled into a bigotry-fest of downright weirdness (they drew themselves a female mascot to prove they weren’t misogynistic, then held discussions about fucking her). Speaking as an outsider, it’s… well, it’s just plain strange. My immediate reaction is to shake my head and thank goodness I have no wish to try any game more complicated than “World of Goo”. It’s like learning about horrific atrocities in Iraq – yes, it’s terrible stuff going on over there, but I had no interest in ever visiting Iraq anyway, and this just reminds me why.

Even in the academic field of fandom, where the tools of the trade are privilege vs. stigma, us non-gamers are used to shrugging over the confusing gyrations of the gaming community. All that vocabulary I don’t understand, the technology that seems so specialized, the members who often represent my worst memories of 7th grade… Incidentally, the same is also true for Sports fandom scandals. Lots of us just want to shake our heads and say, “Honestly, what’s up with that?”

It’s a question much of the non-gaming world may be asking right now. What’s up with that. Does this impact anything real at all, or is it just the usual creeps being creeps?

Well, here’s the thing: bigotry is really bad for business. Appeals to our better nature may or may not have any effect, but as proud Americans, surely we can appreciate a solid appeal to our wallets. The same way the auto industry sure as hell better care about ISIS atrocities lest they impact the flow of oil to American gas stations. The same way the flower and catering industries should be on the front lines of gay marriage advocacy.

It’s a lot easier to take civil rights personally when they might directly affect our paychecks. And the gaming industry is big about passing out paychecks to pretty much every other industry I can think of, from manufacturing to movies. Globally they’re valued at more than $65 billion, the fastest growing segment of the US economy.

What we’re dealing with here is called the taxi driver’s dilemma. A taxi driver sets a threshold for the amount of money they need to make in a day, promising to go home only once they’ve got enough. If fares are scarce, they’ll have to stay out all day and night to reach the quota, but on good days they can go home early! It seems to make sense until you do the math – in actuality, setting a threshold like this makes you less money, for more work. It would be a much better strategy to leave early on days with no fares, and stay out late on days with good ones. Twice the cash, less driving.

Females like gaming, or at least, young females express about the same rate of interest as young males. Unlike football, or trains, or a pathological love of dinosaurs, there doesn’t seem to be any particular gender bias built into the thrill of pushing buttons, (or whatever those young whippersnappers are doing these days, oh my aching back, etc).

So where is the gaming industry’s capitalism-fueled indignation? Where is the accountant in some cubical, staring at a spreadsheet, counting out the numbers again and again, until they finally come to the conclusion: “Shit, maybe if half our potential audience wasn’t worried about getting raped and murdered every time they play, we could double our income?”

It would be like if a bunch of Swedish people decided only Swedes deserve to eat IKEA meatballs. And then dispatched teams of angry, violent Scandinavians to all the international IKEA’s of the world to beat up locals when they tried to order lunch. I’m pretty sure Corporate HQ would notice that drop in sales pretty fast. I shudder to think what a company like IKEA does to folks who impact their bottom line. All those tiny tools…

Anyway, it’s a classic Taxi Driver’s Dilemma. The gaming industry can indeed pander to the creepy vocal minority by staying silent about the treatment of their female audience. And doing so does indeed help them fulfill their quota of skeezy dudes who want to buy their stuff. But there really are only so many skeezy dudes in the world, no matter how loud all the shrieks of offense.

Instead of trying to reach 100% skeez saturation, gaming companies could be working less hard for twice the money if they would just lend a little support to the other half of the world’s population who also wants to buy their stuff. You know, the ones who, right now, have been driven away from their product by creepy dudes. More than half the world’s population, actually, I’m sure there are plenty of guys who are just as creeped out by this kind of awfulness.

So come on, accountant with a spreadsheet, stand up for a lady’s right to give you lots of money! If I was the gaming industry right now, I’d be desperately donating to every women’s rights charity I could find, launching outreach campaigns, and hiring women like mad. I hear there are lady gamers with lots of cash, and maybe, just maybe, if they weren’t constantly afraid for their lives, they would like to give some of it to you. Hell, maybe I’ll even give it a go.

urbanThe physical experience of shopping at an Urban Outfitters is different than shopping at a Zara or Gap.  Unlike other stores’ carefully organized layouts, at Urban, clothing is strewn in piles dozens high and wedged into wall units. Multiple styles are crowded onto the same rack. Some styles are hidden in nooks and crannies, under pieces of furniture where only the most dedicated spelunker will find them.  And everywhere, carefully-folded piles of shirts, shorts, and jeans, dozens high, require the shopper to shred the entire tower to find a specific size.

This is a setup meant to encourage browsing. It’s not a setup meant for quick item location.  Finding a specific type of shirt is a daunting task.  Sometimes jean are in the same place, but then again, sometimes they’re not. But Urban still makes it work with a secret weapon: manpower.  They flood their stores with, by my count, twice the number of staff other stores employ on the sales floor at any given time.  Yes, finding a specific tank top often requires dismantling an entire 6×6 display, but I suspect Urban has run the numbers, and discovered it’s cheaper to pay a college student to immediately re-fold everything than it is to buy classier fixtures.

In the physical world, retail outlets can afford to use the “acceptable anger strategy” of customer service, assuming that their customer’s frustration can be overcome through other, more human means.  At Urban, the jumbled “garage-sale” feel stays just this side of impossible by the constant ministrations of staff. It’s almost fun, in a way. Like playing hide-and-seek, with the bonus that someone else has to clean up after you.

Discount furniture store IKEA  overcomes the built-in frustration of walking around a maze of a store, long lines, and carrying your own packages, by imbuing their store with a quirky cheekiness. Yes, this is horrible, hah ha, but we’re all in this together saving cash!  Have some meatballs and lingonberries! It’s almost fun! They have almost certainly run the numbers and decided more money can be made by exposing users to a vast number of products than can be made by improving the customer experience. Like Urban Outfitters, a certain number of people will swear to never return, but many will shrug and say, “well, I guess it wasn’t that bad – and hey, look at this great shirt/necklace/dresser/bag of meatballs.”

In the digital world, it’s a little more complicated.

In 2011 my company shared an office with one of those cool online cosmetics services.  They specialized in sending out boxes of samples to subscribes each month. Not Ipsy, the other one. As a workspace it was great – perfume samples everywhere, free coffee in the kitchen, but there was one significant downside.  Our pod was placed right next to the customer service team.  Every phone call, every single phone call, with almost no exceptions, started this way:”Hi, this is E___ at B____, how can I hep you?  Oh I’m so sorry!”. By week two we came to realize that the apology was, in fact, probably encoded into their script.

Now, the customer service team at this company was absolutely gorgeous. For almost all of them this was their first job directly out of college, where many had belonged to the same sororities.  The uniform was stilettos, professionally blown-out hair, and full evening makeup no matter the weather or time of year.  Lunchtime meant doing each other’s nails and nibbling on celery.  A couple times a day a bell would ring. The entire team would lay down their headsets, take off their heels, and do yoga together.  Then they would spend 8 hours apologizing. Constantly apologizing. Shipping issues, technical issues, packaging issues,  “Oh I’m so sorry, let me see what happened” over and over and over

I can only assume this company had run the numbers and decided it made more sense to employ a huge and very specialized customer service team  – at the time significantly bigger than their tech team – to apologize, than it did to solve the institutional problems their customers were complaining about.

In the real world, this is a brilliant compensatory strategy.  Walk into a physical store with a complaint about your perfume and meet the sheer perkiness, the earnest enthusiasm of these gorgeous mayflies, and few shoppers with would find themselves able to stay angry for long.

But charm doesn’t work at a distance. There’s a certain charm to being annoyed and confused by the IKEA store. People boast about it.  There’s a 30 Rock episode about it. There’s no charm to being confused by the IKEA website.  Virtual services can’t afford to compensate for organizational failings with quirkiness the way a store in the real world can, because they require a level of trust that isn’t needed at a physical location where someone can simply walk away.  Few disgruntled shoppers at Urban Outfitters ever approach the level of panic and outrage evinced by those cosmetics customers. You could hear it through the speakers 10 feet away.

Perhaps all of us could take a page from the Evil Overlord list. This was a viral email from back in the mid-90’s listing all the classic blunders an evil ruler might make in their quest for domination. It includes common sense suggestions such as “My ventilation ducts will be too small to crawl through.” and “I will not turn into a snake. It never helps”.  One of the best ideas here was this: “All naive, busty tavern wenches in my realm will be replaced with surly, world-weary waitresses who will provide no unexpected reinforcement and/or romantic subplot for the hero or his sidekick.”

As more and more services arise to mimic interactions that previously required physical proximity (I’m looking at you, Google Shopping, Instacart, PostMates…), we’d do well to remember this.  Charm, romance, playfulness, all of these are important tools in allowing customers to overlook issues with the real-world shopping experience.  But when it comes to a virtual storefront, there’s no substitute for actually solving the problems people raise as quickly as possible on an institutional level.

In an app or a website, the “world weary waitress” of proper user interaction beats out the “busty tavern wench” of fun customer service every time.  In a way, by the time the complaint makes it to customer service, it’s already too late.