Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Outrage Queens by Paul Constant - Seattle Features - The Stranger, Seattle's Only Newspaper:

There's this story I heard once from a homeless veteran I'll call James. He had a pinched face and a smoky voice and huge, square glasses and the kind of wicked alcoholism that accelerated from zero to knife-fight in about half a sip of beer. I was working the night shift in a coffee shop, and James, who at the time was sober and taking a computer programming class, was keeping me company. He told me about this thing he used to do, back in Vietnam.

On those days when he didn't have to be anywhere, James would go out into the jungle. His friends used to go into town to pick up some prostitutes, but James was in one of his religious phases, and so he didn't tag along. Instead, he'd hollow out a coconut, put his gold watch inside of it, and leave it on the jungle floor. Then he'd go hide, and wait. If he was lucky, an orangutan would come along and notice the watch gleaming inside the coconut. It would reach inside to see what the shiny thing was. James would fashion the hole in such a way that an open hand could get into the coconut, but a closed fist was too big to get out. The orangutan couldn't figure this out, and it didn't want to let go of the shiny thing, so its hand would be stuck inside.

The orangutan couldn't seem to make the connection between its hand being stuck and letting go of the watch. Those two problems—the stuck hand and the wanting the thing inside the coconut—were hurtling forward through its ape brain on parallel tracks, and they seemed unsolvable. And so the orangutan started to get agitated. It was at that point that James would jump out of the shadows, he told me, and quickly beat the confused orangutan to death with the butt of his gun.

James clearly loved telling the story, and I loved it, too: It seemed to have so many meanings. If we're the orangutan in the story, we don't understand that the simple solution to our predicament would be obvious if we could just let go of the thing we want. If we're James in the story, we're unknowingly acting out the cruelty and the pointlessness of the Vietnam War on a tiny scale, for recreation, even as the larger war is playing out all around us. I've been thinking a lot about James's story since the government shut down on October 1. I'll tell you why in a minute. But first, I want to talk about the internet.