The Greater Good
By: Liz Warren Pederson
Nathalie called me— called me!— to discuss her deathwatch project. She said the technology is there but the market for hardware is iffy at best, especially coming from a startup. She said there was no point launching from the inventor’s country of origin because socialists lack ambition. She said the inventor had only come to her because his full-time employer didn’t think the IP was aligned with its core values. The plan is to use a crowdfunding platform for market validation and to attract first-round investment. She said a courier would bring me a prototype so I could test it. Then she sighed. “Jay. Manufacturing will be like passing a stone.” That she called at all just goes to show how “compelling” she thinks this is for the American market. It was only the third or fourth time we’d actually spoken in the year I’d worked for her.
There are hazards to intergenerational relationships. For instance: I keep getting into pissing contests with Polly, where I tell her that her generation is incapable of the basic functions of adulthood and she tells me that my generation is comprised of self-interested isolationists. Later, I read that in fact my generation is not investing in nor leading in the nonprofit sector, leaving a gaping hole after the boomers that the Millennials will eventually fill with their energy and passion and their go-getter mothers who will actually execute the work.
Nathalie tells me that golf courses are facing the “threat” of boomer death. Younger generations just don’t play golf. This is partly due to demographic shifts in the workplace, but also due to broader social changes, including the expectation that fathers should be active caretakers and participants in their children’s lives. My father played golf, for example, which is why I do not. Now businesspeople build relationships on the Saturday morning soccer field. The old boys will wither on their Jack Nicklaus–designed courses, diddling their clubs and comforting each other with their casual misogyny until the whole enterprise turns into an unsustainable cost center. Oh well, right? Golf courses are a waste of water.
At the same time that she’s out there suggesting that my entire generation is morally bankrupt, Polly is co-opting its critical pop cultural output of the 90s. There she is, with her flannel shirts, with her high-waisted cutoff jean shorts, her Doc Martens, the weird lipstick that gives her dull maroon lips, her idolatry of the snotty-nosed weeping Romeo of Baz Luhrman. It must be said that her retro look is one reason I was attracted to her in the first place. She listens to Nirvana like I guess I listened to the Velvet Underground. No, wait. The Doors. I genuinely like the Velvet Underground.
Nathalie made me read an 84-page document that the pope issued decrying capitalism and the idolatry of money and calling for a return to human values. Why, he said, is it news when the stock market rises or falls, but when a homeless man dies in the street, no one notices? To me, that seems like something a pope would say, but Nathalie says it’s a radical new platform for a stale and troubled brand. Is that what Catholicism is now? A brand?
Polly tells me that people of conscience are obligated to work for the greater good. In her mind, that means nonprofit or one of those so-called triple-bottom-line enterprises like the one with the shoes. You have to look carefully at places like that; you have to really look at the dynamics of it all, at whether the “help” they’re offering is even wanted, because some of them are basically feeding you and/or the people they are trying to help a shit sandwich. It looks good and then you bite into it.
One of the things Polly doesn’t seem to grasp is that all of this do-gooder-ism is actually misplaced, from an economic standpoint. This is according to a really well-known economist that Nathalie put me in touch with. He said the best thing that the average citizen can do is act in his own best interest. This is the assumption that underpins the living ecosystem that is the economy. All you have to do is look out for yourself and everything will be just fine.
Nathalie is always bugging me about Tucson. “Why do you live there?” she g-chats me. “There is no creative class.” She doesn’t mean artists. She means entrepreneurs. There was a time in this country not too long ago that creativity and commerce were considered antithetical. Now we lionize the Steve Jobses of the world. We tell ourselves he was an artist, that he was pursuing a divine vision, and we tell ourselves this in part because that is what he told us. He was a marketer, but he was also a believer. He believed what he was marketing. I guess that’s what passes for art now? Nathalie thinks so.
Polly tells me I am using my work for Nathalie as a crutch. “Is this how you want to spend your life?” she asks me. She means, working part-time, remotely, as a virtual assistant for a woman who spends most of her time abroad trying to teach Europeans to think like Americans. Polly bought me a GMAT prep book and a magazine with top graduate programs. She bought me a book called Strength Finders 2.0. She told me she believes in me. She says, “You spend a lot of time thinking about things you can’t change. What about finding something you can?” The only thing worse than dating a Millennial is dating a pragmatic Millennial.
I drop off a few things at Polly’s, and her mother’s there, with her little bird bones and her stage four cancer. I can hardly look at her; I don’t know what to say. I am grateful to not be wearing the death watch prototype, which is still in a box on my desk. But when Polly steps out of the room, her mother grabs me by the wrist and looks me in the eye and says, “Jay, you are a good person. A good person.” And she says it like it’s a benediction, like she has special access to my psyche, like that’s the gift of coming death: truth-telling. But is it really? She says it because she knows about Polly and me. She says it because she’s dying. What she really means is, she wants it to be true so she doesn’t have to worry about what will happen when she’s gone.
The death watch is Nathalie’s biggest product launch to date. She says it’s because she believes in it, but she’s also the majority shareholder. It’s basically a wristband like those fitness trackers, or it will be. The prototype is clear blue plastic and bulky. It’s supposed to count down your life expectancy. Some of the inventor’s early testers reported feelings of euphoria, the minute-by-minute bliss of being alive. There’s some other research out there that Nathalie finds less compelling. It demonstrates that heightened awareness of one’s death results in aggression, particularly toward those who are different from you. I think there’s enough of that out there without a fucking wristwatch spurring it on. I don’t wear the prototype.
“Can you believe what’s happening right now in South Sudan?” Polly asks me. She is appalled that I don’t know the details, or even have a general sense. Being “informed” is part of her rubric for being a “good global citizen.” It goes along with spending guilt money on shoes and glasses that supposedly help people in third -world countries and teaching middle school, where she feels that she can really make an impact. And you know, touché. I really can’t argue with that last bit.
I stopped watching the news ten years ago. It was after they posted the beheading of Nick Berg online. I still think about that sometimes, it comes to me out of nowhere. I imagine myself as Nick, the only one without a mask, naming his family members, his city. The last summary of his life, preserved in the atrocity that is the Internet. I like to think that he had no idea it was coming. It has to be easier, not knowing. And what about that lineup of anonymous men? Could anyone of them have done it if he was alone? If there was no camera? Maybe they believed it was a proud moment, that it was the unequivocal right thing to do. But maybe they were terrified. Maybe they felt trapped suddenly, backed into delivering on what Nathalie would call their brand promise. The way they just set Nick’s head down by his body after, like they didn’t know what else to do with it.
My mother called for our once-a-month chat. She asked about Polly. She asked about Nathalie. She asked about my “friends,” by which she meant this gang of guys I play poker within her imagination. The truth is, it’s fucking hard to get to know people out in the real world. I spend most of my life online, lurking in the comment sections of various polemical news sites. Polly says those sites just bring out trolls and get people angry, but I leave every single thing I read nodding my head. It all seems to make sense at the moment, even when I read point–counterpoint–type stories back to back. I don’t know what I believe, really.
I built the survey tool for Nathalie’s death watch beta testers, of which I am also one. I take the survey, too, and I make up my results because every time I tried to take the thing out of its bubble wrap, I felt time slow and sharpen, like stop- motion animation run at half-speed, the exact feeling I had the time I barely avoided rear-ending a big rig that materialized out of a dust storm on the freeway. Early-stage panic attack. I didn’t feel great lying about my experience with the death watch, but what are scruples anyway? They change, depending on the angle. You buy your shoes, they donate a pair to shoeless kids in the third world: this is a brand, not aid, it’s brilliant, as Nathalie says. What happens to the indigenous shoe market in those countries? It doesn’t matter, because we’re helping, and that help coincidentally turns a profit for someone else down the line, and then they pay a bunch of people to make more shoes, and those people buy still more shoes and this writ large is the economy. It is the greater good. It is good. It makes me good. It makes me good. Doesn’t it?
Liz Warren-Pederson’s work has appeared in The Normal School, Barrelhouse, The Portland Review, So To Speak, and others. She completed her MFA at the University of Arizona.