Tilting at Windmills

 

In my youth, I used to play miniature golf. There was this whole animated course to navigate – clown’s mouths, windmills, uneven terrain – and my ability to overcome these obstacles surely meant I was on the cusp of professional success. The local putt-putt served as my Augusta, and if I could shoot better than par, I believed I was on my way to a Masters title. But childhood fantasies crack and collapse before the harsh reality of a real course. See, making a good putt once in a while is only a small piece of the greater game of golf. It is not a long leap to see how this relates to politics.

When these candidates campaign for votes, they display a very specific skill set that is quite inadequate for governing. The ability to speak, to throw down a witty quip, to walk away from a debate unscathed – are these attributes indicative of a candidate’s ability to steer the national ship?

The truth is we used to have substantive debates. A small group of anchormen/women would dissect the candidate’s positions and we as a nation of voters would be more educated. We’d analyze the logic of their arguments, their vision, the details of their plans, and we’d gather around the dinner table to discuss the future of our nation. But things are different now.

Today, in a generation where 141 characters represents the national attention span, where cynicism dominates the landscape and the ruination of professional careers is more captivating than resolving national problems, the media is content to report sound bites. We hear who launched the best barb. We fact check to see who was lying. We search for the slightest crack in these stained-glass window candidates and then answer poll questions about honesty quotients and favorability.

This re-direction of attention – from substance to subtext – has consequences. First, in order to win debates, our candidates now emphasize their retort and rhetoric skills. Second, when candidates do have a few moments to speak, they spit out a Tweetable phrase and then direct voters to their website, where some ghostwriter has crafted voter-friendly paragraphs with about as much depth as a street gutter. And third, the next generation of voters gets the sense that this is how politics has always worked, and our future leaders will begin honing their own skills to focus on presentation over platform. And thus, the cycle will continue.

The point here is the teleprompter speech and debate repartee represent the miniature golf version of politics. Once in office, these candidates will have to deal with nuclear issues, looming debt, and the economic disparity crushing the country. They’ll have to resolve half a nation paying income taxes to support half a nation which can’t. They’ll be required to incentivize hiring, to alleviate poverty, to enhance education, and to establish trade policy. In other words, they’ll have to govern.

Whether the public’s attention drives the media content, or vice versa, perhaps it is time to look at things anew. What if debates revolved around vision? What if each candidate got fifteen minutes to articulate their vision for America? What if, instead of tete-a-tetes, we placed these candidates upon the stage and put their platforms and voting records on a big screen behind them? What if rather than questions like “what would you do if North Korea got a nuclear weapon?” we asked questions like, “Please list the specific incomes and liabilities you will need to bring our national debt down from 18 trillion dollars to zero.”

Then again, maybe the public wants things in brief. Maybe I’m a dinosaur who wants to sit and read full paragraphs with well-oiled arguments. Maybe the future will take place in a world of abbreviation. If so, FML.

I hope they have a clown’s mouth at Augusta!

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By ccxander

Puzzled?

It’s billed as a night of intellectual challenge, where groups of up to twelve strangers are locked in a room and given sixty minutes to solve their way out. Escape Room LA. The Detective. For those not in the know, here’s an overview:

The building is in downtown LA, somewhere on 8th street where drab brick and climbing metal stairs give the place an exoskeletal look. When you arrive, there’s an intercom which requires a three digit number to access. The intercom number sits just above the intercom but if you’re not looking for it, it’s about as visible as Bill Clinton’s morality. After three minutes of trying to figure out how to get into the building, my group and I saw the code and then realized how bad an omen it was that we couldn’t even solve the puzzle for opening the damn door.

Inside, a metal elevator takes you up three floors, and if you can avoid the idiotic jokes about whether the elevator is the room you need to get out of, you are a better person than I am. Upon exiting the elevator, a room awaits, where a single lady sits behind a plastic desk hosting $2 water bottles and a Mac laptop with your reservations. Drinking a bottle of water before being locked in a room for up to an hour has devastating consequences. I’ll not elaborate.

You sit on plastic chairs as other strangers enter and then there’s a nervous energy as you size each other up for things like IQ, body odor, and the sort of dick-swinging competitiveness that all puzzle-solving humans inevitably get when confronted with intellectual challenge, I guess. People shake hands, make jokes, and then you are led into a second room where the host rifles off the rules of the game and presents a few hints on how to succeed. The feeling is a bit like entering the Haunted House at Disneyland, just before the floor drops out and your inner child screams with terror.

You are told, “out of 1471 escape attempts, only 141 groups have gotten out.” This is meant to be informative but you and the others share an imaginary wink as you make nonverbal promises to be group number 142 and your collective ego swells as you walk through the door.

Once inside, things happen. The sixty-minute clock begins to tick. There are numbers and letters and photos and airplanes and locks and books and folders and darts and clocks and enough codes to make the NSA anxious. Your group spreads out across the small room and begins trying to piece together which things are clues and which aren’t and whether the idiots around them are bright enough to help them out of this place or just idiots who will prove sixty minutes of worthlessness. You find yourself sharing brilliant and logical deductions with perfect strangers whose intellectual equivalent are the blocks you are solving. With so many puzzles, however, the escape room requires teamwork. At some point, you give it over to the Gods of Decryption and pray like hell these strangers don’t make a mistake.

All the while, there’s a gum-chewing secretary in the room, one who begins with an attitude and grows increasingly friendly as your group fails to solve anything other than the light switch and how to pick up dropped pieces of paper. As you reach levels of frustration only seen in places like the DMV or on hold with your cable company, she drops hints – think a quick jerk of her head or a subtle finger point toward a clue. Once or twice, she speaks with a New York accent and wears slightly less than enough perfume. The ticking wall clock only adds to your frustration as pressure mounts on both your brain and your bladder.

As some point, there comes a moment when you realize you have no prayer of exiting this place before time runs out. There’s a certain sadness, an acknowledgement of your failure, followed by a harsh hour of blaming all of the rest of the people in the room for being too stupid to help you. The puzzles mock you for the final minutes, daring you to try to solve them quickly, but with the sort of arrogance that cryptography always wields when time is of the essence.

When time expires, and assuming you are still in the room (and let’s be honest, with only 10% of the people finding their way out, you probably will be), the secretary walks you through all of the puzzles and explains how each one of the clues could have been resolved. While many of the puzzles prove very solvable, some require the mind of a Dalí or a Picasso.

And then it is over. The host takes a group photo of you before you leave – evidence of your failure that they’ll likely use for promotional purposes.

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As you walk down the hallway home – feeling the adrenalin rush of a mind well-worked, of a night spent in pursuit of an unobtainable grail, of an hour with stupid strangers who really should have pulled the intellectual oar a little harder – you smile, because the damn night was just so much fun.

And then, with the door to the street closing behind you, you reach back inside and grab a brochure for The Cavern, another Escape Room that will pit you with eleven more strangers in complete darkness. Because that way, if any of those morons actually get an idea, at least you’ll be able to see the light bulb above their head.

By ccxander