Monday, October 31, 2005

A story from HS

The summer after graduating high school, my friend Matt and I flew out to California to spend 6 weeks coaching at the Stanford National Forensics Institute, basically a debate camp. He specialized in "policy debate", and I was a multiple-time state-winner in Lincoln-Douglas debate and in competitive speech.

So they put us in a dorm at Stanford, and we were really only busy from like 9am to 2 each day. After that, we were free to fuck around as much as we wanted. As a new high school grad, 18.5 years old, I had already decided that this summer I was going to get drunk and do things to girls that I hadn't managed to do at that juncture. Probably, coaching at a debate camp was not the best way to attain that goal, but I digress.

Before moving to Michigan my parents were on the faculty at Stanford so I kind of knew some kids in the area still. At our age couldn't get into any of the nice bars in Palo Alto or Menlo Park, but there was a slightly seedier establishment a little off the main strip in Menlo Park where a california friend's ex-con older brother was bartending. We were quietly served alcohol with no hassles, so long as I kept buying pot from the guy after-hours. Big Green

So one afternoon at like 2:30 we're in there getting drunk, just because we can, and it just so happens that I was sitting next to a fairly cute girl up at the bar. I screwed up all my courage, and actually started to talk to her. Turns out she's a local high-school kid, maybe 17 (I guess this place was real popular with the local underage crowd too), and her name is Jen.

The cool part is that she's (GASP!) actually being friendly to me and not blowing me off. In fact, she's being downright flirty, which is making me feel funny down below, especially when her hand comes to rest on my leg.

So I chat with her, and I eventually say "hey well listen, I'm free like every afternoon, we should totally hang out." to which responded quite agreeably, even gesturing to my buddy Matt and saying that she will invite her friend along when we hang out (does this mean Matt gets laid too? awesome). So I get the girl's number (on a napkin, I didn't have a cell phone back then) and she has me write mine on her hand (YAY I AM GONNA GET SOME).

This is where things go from "stomach queasy from the prospect of sticking something of mine into something of hers" to "stomach queasy from kinda sick". You see, at this point Jen's friend shows up...pushing a wheelchair.

She then picks Jen up off the barstool, and puts her in the wheelchair.

At that moment, for the FIRST TIME, drunk-ass, dumb-ass Haseeb realizes that Jen has no legs.

The horror. I have drunkenly flirted with this torso for nigh on 27 minutes. I've made plans. Numbers have been exchanged. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. fuckity fuck. Can I lose my virginity to a legless wonder? Is this going to forever brand me as a "loser"? My pride, combined with alcohol, is kicking my ass right now.

So Jen and friend (don't remember the bitch's name but all of a sudden I wished I was being set up with the chubby friend) leave the bar ("I'll call you tomorrow!" she says), and Matt turns to start making insane fun of me. drug dealer barkeep joins in. I just bury my face in a beer and say the word "fuck" a lot. Thinking back, this may have been when and and where I started smoking cigarettes.

So Matt basically tells me that I'm a total piece of shit if I don't at least go hang out with this girl, and I reluctantly agree. "30 minutes, Matt. We go, we hang out with this girl for THIRTY MINUTES, and then we're fucking out of there. And you have to come, don't fucking ditch me." Matt agrees.

Next day, Jen calls, and says how to get to her parents' house, so Matt and I strap on the ol' rollerblades and go over there. Jen's parents greet us briefly, but the girls are already pretty much out the door so it's like smile, wave, have fun kids and we're outta there heading down the street.

The girls take us to a nearby park and when we get there Jen (the amazing, legless, but also fairly cool Jen) whips out not one but TWO bottles of vodka, and my 30 minutes just got slightly less hellish. I had never done vodka straight before that day, but I'm hanging out with a legless bitch who wants a piece of my cock'n'balls, so I was pretty much just glugging it down. Matt is trying not to laugh, as he and chubby friend girl take the other bottle and head off for some privacy. He catches my eye and smirks as he's leaving. I hate that fucker.

So Jen and I are talking...actually, Jen's talking and I'm just kind of staring at my dixie-cup. Anyway after a while Jen decides she's uncomfortable on the chair and wants to know if we can move to a bench in a secluded spot. We do so. Next thing I know, her hands me in spots that all of a sudden I DO NOT MIND BEING MASSAGED IN. I guess the vodka is kicking in. What's that, Jen? You want to sit in my lap? Sure, what's the harm in that? Nice flowy skirt you've got on by the way...really detracts from your lack of lower extremities, but hey at least it allows me easy access to...well whatever. You get the point, Arsians.

Whether it was vodka, or the hormones of an 18 year old kid, or a bit of both, suffice it to say we end up in a position where she's "straddling" me (if you can straddle without legs), and um...demonstrating her upper body strength, with the assistance of a conveniently low-hanging tree branch. (Gee, you think she knew about this spot ahead of time?) Yes, ladies and gents, the girl is doing pull-ups on my monkey bar.

So there you have it. I lost my virginity in a public park to a drunk high school chick with no legs. It was 37 seconds of intense pleasure, followed up by wave upon wave of ridiculous nauseating shame and self-hate.

Anyway, after some awkward after-fuck cuddling (yes I cuddled a torso), Matt and chubbygirl show back up. Matt had a bit too much vodka and had vomited, thus preventing him from reaching any further than 2nd base. So Matt is walking, I put my blades back on, and we're heading back to Jen's house. Matt splits off for the dorm (for more vomiting), chubby girl goes to her own house, and it's just me and Jen arriving back at her home, still very drunk.

I'm ready to just see her to the door and get the fuck out of dodge, but of course her friggin' parents corner me and insist I come in. So I try my best to get my composure, take a quick bathroom break, and then go sit on the couch and stare at the TV until the dad walks in.

Just so you get a good idea of what's going on here: I'm 18. I'm drunk as shit. I just fucked a legless girl, and now I'm alone in the living room with the legless girl's dad. Yeah. NOT GOOD.

Anyway, the dad starts asking me about me, where I'm going to college, how am I liking my job, how am I liking Palo Alto, etc. I'm trying my best to just keep my answers short and trying not to slur my speech. Eventually he tires of the chit chat and moves on to the topic of his daughter, but rather than be pissy or threatening he seems really friendly and super-nice. "Listen, Omar, Jen's mom and I are really happy she met you. It's so nice of you to hang out with her. I mean, she's a wonderful girl but obviously you know how judgmental kids can be", to which I respond "oh sure Mr. such-and-such, no problem, yeah she's really fun."

Mr. Such-and-such takes a pause, and thinks before speaking again. "Anyway, thanks for taking the time, and thanks for walking her back home, it was really good of you...

...most guys just leave her hangin'. "

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Punk Walrus's Halloween Story

I make goody bags. We're the best on the block.

For safety, we buy a pack of glow-bracelets, the ones that you snap and shake, and they glow for 8 hours. You seem at concerts and stuff. I can buy 4doz for $40. Every kid gets one (wee ones, I ask parental permission, because even though the goo is non-toxic, better safe than sorry).

Each plastic boo-ghost bag has:
- 1 full-sized Snickers
- Full sized Reece's PB Cup
- A small GID rubber duck
- A small silver bead maze
- A set of vampire fangs with whistle
- GID spider ring (see below)

Why? My parents were cheap. My father was one of those Grinches who had this speech about how hard he worked and didn't owe brats a damn cent, and for years, I was the one who had to scrub the damn egg from the cars and house, or pull TP out of the trees every Nov 1st.

After few years of this, and my mother relented and gave kids a stick of chewing gum. Cheap, yes, but we didn't get TP'd or egged that year. Later, my mother somehow got like a gross of cheap plastic spider rings because she didn't like the idea of kids rotting their teeth with candy. We didn't get egged or TP'd, but I was "the house that gave out crummy spider rings every year."

All this time, I was not allowed to go trick-or-treating.

In high school, a bunch of friends who spent their childhood overseas (military brats, state department brats) commiserated they didn't get to go ToT'ing either. So one year, even though we were 14-ish, we dressed up, and went out. No one said a thing. So we did it for the next 3 years, and noticed some people gave out FULL size bars (one guy gave out 1lb bags of M&Ms), and how awesome they were.

So that's why. I love Halloween, and it's my money, and sure there are some ungrateful brats, but I don't do it for them. Parents are pretty cool, too, and we deck out our yard with gravestones and haunted accessories.

Oh, and the ring is a tribute to my late mother. The one who had the clue.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Happiness instead of wealth for measuring national prosperity

October 4, 2005
A New Measure of Well-Being From a Happy Little Kingdom

What is happiness? In the United States and in many other industrialized countries, it is often equated with money.

Economists measure consumer confidence on the assumption that the resulting figure says something about progress and public welfare. The gross domestic product, or G.D.P., is routinely used as shorthand for the well-being of a nation.

But the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has been trying out a different idea.

In 1972, concerned about the problems afflicting other developing countries that focused only on economic growth, Bhutan's newly crowned leader, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, decided to make his nation's priority not its G.D.P. but its G.N.H., or gross national happiness.

Bhutan, the king said, needed to ensure that prosperity was shared across society and that it was balanced against preserving cultural traditions, protecting the environment and maintaining a responsive government. The king, now 49, has been instituting policies aimed at accomplishing these goals.

Now Bhutan's example, while still a work in progress, is serving as a catalyst for far broader discussions of national well-being.

Around the world, a growing number of economists, social scientists, corporate leaders and bureaucrats are trying to develop measurements that take into account not just the flow of money but also access to health care, free time with family, conservation of natural resources and other noneconomic factors.

The goal, according to many involved in this effort, is in part to return to a richer definition of the word happiness, more like what the signers of the Declaration of Independence had in mind when they included "the pursuit of happiness" as an inalienable right equal to liberty and life itself.

The founding fathers, said John Ralston Saul, a Canadian political philosopher, defined happiness as a balance of individual and community interests. "The Enlightenment theory of happiness was an expression of public good or the public welfare, of the contentment of the people," Mr. Saul said. And, he added, this could not be further from "the 20th-century idea that you should smile because you're at Disneyland."

Mr. Saul was one of about 400 people from more than a dozen countries who gathered recently to consider new ways to define and assess prosperity.

The meeting, held at St. Francis Xavier University in northern Nova Scotia, was a mix of soft ideals and hard-nosed number crunching. Many participants insisted that the focus on commerce and consumption that dominated the 20th century need not be the norm in the 21st century.

Among the attendees were three dozen representatives from Bhutan - teachers, monks, government officials and others - who came to promote what the Switzerland-size country has learned about building a fulfilled, contented society.

While household incomes in Bhutan remain among the world's lowest, life expectancy increased by 19 years from 1984 to 1998, jumping to 66 years. The country, which is preparing to shift to a constitution and an elected government, requires that at least 60 percent of its lands remain forested, welcomes a limited stream of wealthy tourists and exports hydropower to India.

"We have to think of human well-being in broader terms," said Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley, Bhutan's home minister and ex-prime minister. "Material well-being is only one component. That doesn't ensure that you're at peace with your environment and in harmony with each other."

It is a concept grounded in Buddhist doctrine, and even a decade ago it might have been dismissed by most economists and international policy experts as naïve idealism.

Indeed, America's brief flirtation with a similar concept, encapsulated in E. F. Schumacher's 1973 bestseller "Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered," ended abruptly with the huge and continuing burst of consumer-driven economic growth that exploded first in industrialized countries and has been spreading in fast-growing developing countries like China.

Yet many experts say it was this very explosion of affluence that eventually led social scientists to realize that economic growth is not always synonymous with progress.

In the early stages of a climb out of poverty, for a household or a country, incomes and contentment grow in lockstep. But various studies show that beyond certain thresholds, roughly as annual per capita income passes $10,000 or $20,000, happiness does not keep up.

And some countries, studies found, were happier than they should be. In the World Values Survey, a project under way since 1995, Ronald Inglehart, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, found that Latin American countries, for example, registered far more subjective happiness than their economic status would suggest.

In contrast, countries that had experienced communist rule were unhappier than noncommunist countries with similar household incomes - even long after communism had collapsed.

"Some types of societies clearly do a much better job of enhancing their people's sense of happiness and well-being than other ones even apart from the somewhat obvious fact that it's better to be rich than to be poor," Dr. Inglehart said.

Even more striking, beyond a certain threshold of wealth people appear to redefine happiness, studies suggest, focusing on their relative position in society instead of their material status.

Nothing defines this shift better than a 1998 survey of 257 students, faculty and staff members at the Harvard School of Public Health.

In the study, the researchers, Sara J. Solnick and David Hemenway, gave the subjects a choice of earning $50,000 a year in a world where the average salary was $25,000 or $100,000 a year where the average was $200,000.

About 50 percent of the participants, the researchers found, chose the first option, preferring to be half as prosperous but richer than their neighbors.

Such findings have contributed to the new effort to broaden the way countries and individuals gauge the quality of life - the subject of the Nova Scotia conference.

But researchers have been hard pressed to develop measuring techniques that can capture this broader concept of well-being.

One approach is to study how individuals perceive the daily flow of their lives, having them keep diary-like charts reflecting how various activities, from paying bills to playing softball, make them feel.

A research team at Princeton is working with the Bureau of Labor Statistics to incorporate this kind of charting into its new "time use" survey, which began last year and is given to 4,000 Americans each month.

"The idea is to start with life as we experience it and then try to understand what helps people feel fulfilled and create conditions that generate that," said Dr. Alan B. Krueger, a Princeton economist working on the survey.

For example, he said, subjecting students to more testing in order to make them more competitive may equip them to succeed in the American quest for ever more income. But that benefit would have to be balanced against the problems that come with the increased stress imposed by additional testing.

"We should not be hoping to construct a utopia," Professor Krueger said. "What we should be talking about is piecemeal movement in the direction of things that make for a better life."

Another strategy is to track trends that can affect a community's well-being by mining existing statistics from censuses, surveys and government agencies that track health, the environment, the economy and other societal barometers.

The resulting scores can be charted in parallel to see how various indicators either complement or impede each other.

In March, Britain said it would begin developing such an "index of well-being," taking into account not only income but mental illness, civility, access to parks and crime rates.

In June, British officials released their first effort along those lines, a summary of "sustainable development indicators" intended to be a snapshot of social and environmental indicators like crime, traffic, pollution and recycling levels.

"What we do in one area of our lives can have an impact on many others, so joined-up thinking and action across central and local government is crucial," said Elliot Morley, Britain's environment minister.

In Canada, Hans Messinger, the director of industry measures and analysis for Statistics Canada, has been working informally with about 20 other economists and social scientists to develop that country's first national index of well-being.

Mr. Messinger is the person who, every month, takes the pulse of his country's economy, sifting streams of data about cash flow to generate the figure called gross domestic product. But for nearly a decade, he has been searching for a better way of measuring the quality of life.

"A sound economy is not an end to itself, but should serve a purpose, to improve society," Mr. Messinger said.

The new well-being index, Mr. Messinger said, will never replace the G.D.P. For one thing, economic activity, affected by weather, labor strikes and other factors, changes far more rapidly than other indicators of happiness.

But understanding what fosters well-being, he said, can help policy makers decide how to shape legislation or regulations.

Later this year, the Canadian group plans to release a first attempt at an index - an assessment of community health, living standards and people's division of time among work, family, voluntarism and other activities. Over the next several years, the team plans to integrate those findings with measurements of education, environmental quality, "community vitality" and the responsiveness of government. Similar initiatives are under way in Australia and New Zealand.

Ronald Colman, a political scientist and the research director for Canada's well-being index, said one challenge was to decide how much weight to give different indicators.

For example, Dr. Colman said, the amount of time devoted to volunteer activities in Canada has dropped more than 12 percent in the last decade.

"That's a real decline in community well-being, but that loss counts for nothing in our current measure of progress," he said.

But shifts in volunteer activity also cannot be easily assessed against cash-based activities, he said.

"Money has nothing to do with why volunteers do what they do," Dr. Colman said. "So how, in a way that's transparent and methodologically decent, do you come up with composite numbers that are meaningful?"

In the end, Canada's index could eventually take the form of a report card rather than a single G.D.P.-like number.

In the United States there have been a few experiments, like the Princeton plan to add a happiness component to labor surveys. But the focus remains on economics. The Census Bureau, for instance, still concentrates on collecting information about people's financial circumstances and possessions, not their perceptions or feelings, said Kurt J. Bauman, a demographer there.

But he added that there was growing interest in moving away from simply tracking indicators of poverty, for example, to looking more comprehensively at social conditions.

"Measuring whether poverty is going up or down is different than measuring changes in the ability of a family to feed itself," he said. "There definitely is a growing perception out there that if you focus too narrowly, you're missing a lot of the picture."

That shift was evident at the conference on Bhutan, organized by Dr. Colman, who is from Nova Scotia. Participants focused on an array of approaches to the happiness puzzle, from practical to radical.

John de Graaf, a Seattle filmmaker and campaigner trying to cut the amount of time people devote to work, wore a T-shirt that said, "Medieval peasants worked less than you do."

In an open discussion, Marc van Bogaert from Belgium described his path to happiness: "I want to live in a world without money."

Al Chaddock, a painter from Nova Scotia, immediately offered a suggestion: "Become an artist."

Other attendees insisted that old-fashioned capitalism could persist even with a shift to goals broader than just making money.

Ray C. Anderson, the founder of Interface Inc., an Atlanta-based carpet company with nearly $1 billion in annual sales, described his company's 11-year-old program to cut pollution and switch to renewable materials.

Mr. Anderson said he was "a radical industrialist, but as competitive as anyone you know and as profit-minded."

Some experts who attended the weeklong conference questioned whether national well-being could really be defined. Just the act of trying to quantify happiness could threaten it, said Frank Bracho, a Venezuelan economist and former ambassador to India. After all, he said, "The most important things in life are not prone to measurement - like love."

But Mr. Messinger argued that the weaknesses of the established model, dominated by economics, demanded the effort.

Other economists pointed out that happiness itself can be illusory.

"Even in a very miserable condition you can be very happy if you are grateful for small mercies," said Siddiqur Osmani, a professor of applied economics from the University of Ulster in Ireland. "If someone is starving and hungry and given two scraps of food a day, he can be very happy."

Bhutanese officials at the meeting described a variety of initiatives aimed at creating the conditions that are most likely to improve the quality of life in the most equitable way.

Bhutan, which had no public education system in 1960, now has schools at all levels around the country and rotates teachers from urban to rural regions to be sure there is equal access to the best teachers, officials said.

Another goal, they said, is to sustain traditions while advancing. People entering hospitals with nonacute health problems can choose Western or traditional medicine.

The more that various effects of a policy are considered, and not simply the economic return, the more likely a country is to achieve a good balance, said Sangay Wangchuk, the head of Bhutan's national parks agency, citing agricultural policies as an example.

Bhutan's effort, in part, is aimed at avoiding the pattern seen in the study at Harvard, in which relative wealth becomes more important than the quality of life.

"The goal of life should not be limited to production, consumption, more production and more consumption," said Thakur S. Powdyel, a senior official in the Bhutanese Ministry of Education. "There is no necessary relationship between the level of possession and the level of well-being."

Mr. Saul, the Canadian political philosopher, said that Bhutan's shift in language from "product" to "happiness" was a profound move in and of itself.

Mechanisms for achieving and tracking happiness can be devised, he said, but only if the goal is articulated clearly from the start.

"It's ideas which determine the directions in which civilizations go," Mr. Saul said. "If you don't get your ideas right, it doesn't matter what policies you try to put in place."

Still, Bhutan's model may not work for larger countries. And even in Bhutan, not everyone is happy. Members of the country's delegation admitted their experiment was very much a work in progress, and they acknowledged that poverty and alcoholism remained serious problems.

The pressures of modernization are also increasing. Bhutan linked itself to the global cultural pipelines of television and the Internet in 1999, and there have been increasing reports in its nascent media of violence and disaffection, particularly among young people.

Some attendees, while welcoming Bhutan's goal, gently criticized the Bhutanese officials for dealing with a Nepali-speaking minority mainly by driving tens of thousands of them out of the country in recent decades, saying that was not a way to foster happiness.

"Bhutan is not a pure Shangri-La, so idyllic and away from all those flaws and foibles," conceded Karma Pedey, a Bhutanese educator dressed in a short dragon-covered jacket and a floor-length rainbow-striped traditional skirt.

But, looking around a packed auditorium, she added: "At same time, I'm very, very happy we have made a global impact."