Friday, January 31, 2014

Beware...

It's a straightforward picture. An elderly, bespectacled, white woman, in a blue sweater and black slacks, seated at an angle on a chair; one arm resting across her knees, the other propped lightly against her chin. She looks directly into the camera.

"Irma Katz suggested," reads the caption, "in an interview this week that women should not get drunk around men because it put them at risk of being raped."

Cue the outrage. The same outrage that sought out Emily Yoffe when she said much the same thing on Slate. I think that it should be remarkable how polarizing this is, but I'm unsurprised, I think.

I guess it's just as matter of how you're taught to understand it. As an African-American. I was taught to always be careful around police officers and other authority figures. My father told me lynching stories that could keep you awake nights. I've never encountered anyone who says, when African-American parents give their children "the talk," that they're engaging in victim blaming. Or that we're somehow going to be judged poorly by whites for not standing up for ourselves. (Hell, we're taught that we're going to be judged poorly by whites no matter what we do.) We're taught that this is the sad reality of what we need to do to stay safe. The first time I had to ask a police officer in an unfamiliar town for directions, the poor man was confronted with someone who was ready to bolt at the slightest indication that anything was amiss. I had spent three years in college working with the police officers on my college campus, and I still treated any officer that I didn't know as a potential threat. And so I was careful. I took every precaution that occurred to me.

Not because I would be blamed by the people who cared enough about me to give me the advice. My parents, my aunts and uncles. They would have all stood up for me. I knew that if things between me and a police officer had gone south, the simple fact that I am black wouldn't have been an affirmative defense within a court of law. But I also knew that being in the right doesn't heal broken bones, staunch the flow of blood or repair sundered nerves. And I knew, they knew, we all knew - that if my number came up, none of it, no precaution I could take, would make a difference. My parents had moved from the City to the distant Suburbs to bring me up somewhere that would be free of many of the things that they understood to be a threat. (They, and I, paid a price for that. I have decided it was worth it. I'm uncertain that they would both agree.) But in their understanding, and thus in mine, nowhere was ever truly safe. There was never any telling when things would go horribly wrong, I would be on my own (no matter who else was there) and I would become just another statistic. The police would have their story. And I would have mine. That, we knew. What they didn't know, and feared to find out, was whether my story would be told by me, or by the medical examiner.

Sometimes, I bristled. It wasn't fair. Why did I always have to be the one who needed to know all of the rules, and follow them to the letter while the people whose job it was to enforce the rules could violate them at will? But, as my father reminded me, life wasn't fair. And he wasn't the only one. My whole childhood, and even through my adolescence, was a series of reminders of how life wasn't fair.

Of course, that was many years ago. I've matured in the interim and come to understand that parents and elder relations prepare you for their lives, and not your own. And my life has been different. But I haven't forgotten. I understand that I have casually undertaken things that, in my grandparents' time, could easily have been a messy (and very, very painful) form of suicide. And that shadow still lingers.

I understand why women become upset when they're told to take precautions against sexual assault. (To a degree, I envy them their anger. Outside the walls of my home, anger was something to be guarded against, lest it be seen as a provocation.) But I also understand why those warnings are made, and why the people who make them see themselves as well meaning. They're no happier about the state of affairs than we are. Their world is different from ours. We should count ourselves fortunate for that.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Quiet Time

One of the differences between the Chicago area, where I'm from, and the Seattle area, where I now live, is that the Seattle area strikes me as quieter. Mainly, I think, because of a lack of trains and loud insects. When I was growing up on the far western edge of Chicagoland, one could hear the trains for miles away. And when I moved into the city proper, the El wasn't very far away. At the same time, the insects were rarely quiet. It seemed that the chirping of crickets and cicadas was a constant background soundtrack (less so, of course, in the city than the suburbs). Here in the Seattle suburbs, there are no trains, and insects aren't very vocal and that makes the place seem eerily quiet at times. Despite the length of time that I've been here, I've never really acclimatized to the lack of noise.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Check the Box

"I don't have a checklist [for whites adopting black children]," [Chad Goller-Sojourner] says, "but if I did, it would sound something like this: If you don't have any close friends or people who look like your kid before you adopt a kid, then why are you adopting that kid? Your child should not be your first black friend."
Growing Up 'White,' Transracial Adoptee Learned To Be Black
This one quote at the end of the piece, opened the floodgates, with people accusing Mr. Goller-Sojourner of being angry, or ungrateful; or "wondering" aloud if he wouldn't rather have been left to languish in foster care, rather than being adopted by a loving white couple. Which is understandable. We have come to think of racism as not only a Bad Act, but as the mark of a Bad Person. And to the degree that Mr. Goller-Sojourner comes across as questioning people's motives, there is a perceived subtext that he's calling people out as racists.

This, I think, misses the point.

There seems to be some convenient amnesia in the modern United States that allows us to deny the facts that Americans tend to tie certain behaviors to skin color and can be VERY critical of people "who act like someone they are not." I've read a lot of pious claims that "we all just treat people like people." This is either openly disingenuous or profoundly ignorant. From the way that I read this the point is that his adoptive parents were unable to do something that we commonly expect of parents - to teach their children to behave in accordance with the expectations of others - and they had no resources to turn to. When other parents fail to teach their children how society expects them to behave we don't call out their children as "angry" or "ungrateful" for acknowledging that. Instead, people are quick to castigate the parents. The fact of the matter is that even today, the Average American who one might encounter walking down the street is going to have a set of expectations as how a African-American is going to behave that is different from the way they would expect an Caucasian to behave, the way they would expect an Asian to behave or the way they would expect a Latino or Latina to behave. And note that this is independent of whether or not this Average American is Caucasian, African-American, Asian or Latino/Latina themselves. (In the African-American community, when I was in my teens and twenties, non-conformance to certain behavior patters would earn one the label of "confused." This was a rather severe pejorative that meant, in a nutshell, that some0ne Was Doing It Wrong, race-wise. Whether it was a Black man who didn't speak in the proper vernacular or a White woman who acted "street," the Confused were either pitiable for not knowing the Proper Way to Behave, contemptible for rejecting it or both.)

I think that we've allowed ourselves to believe that "race doesn't matter" to a much greater degree than it's actually true, because we don't want to see ourselves as Bad People. And this pushes us into ignoring the differing expectations that different groups are subject to and the penalties for ignoring them. And so we don't understand that adoptive parents who are not prepared to teach children the specific requirements that the broader society will have for them may wind up with children who, as adults, will acutely feel that lack of preparation.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Confessions of an Amateur Iconoclast

When I was in college, I took a Creative Writing course. I think I got the "writing" part down, but "creative" always managed to elude me. This was back in the days before the ubiquity of computers, so first I wrote them out longhand, then banged out page after page on a typewriter. I kept a couple of the manuscripts, and once I did have a computer of my own, I retyped a couple of them, dropped them into a folder and forgot about them.

Not long ago, I found them in a long-unused backup folder and read them again. Wow. I really sucked as a writer. I think because I saw myself as the audience for my work, and so the stories I wrote mainly dealt with what, at the time, I saw as the most serious flaw in most fiction: happy endings. But the strange thing was that I didn't write depressing stories - I mostly wrote pointless ones. For instance, the theme of one of my stories was basically that sometimes you fight your inner demons, and the demons win. But there was really nothing at stake for the main character in the story. He meets a woman and he attempts to use her as motivation to win the struggle against the darkness in his heart, but it takes over anyway and he ends up murdering her. But since he gets away with it, and simply goes back to his life with no-one being any the wiser, although he's still trapped in a circle of inner conflict, he doesn't really lose anything. The other story that survived into the present is even worse. I decided to subvert the trope of the character being hunted for a crime that he didn't commit, so this guy DID commit the crime. Except that it wasn't really a crime. Maybe it was a tort. But, since I had no legal background, and hadn't bothered to do the research, it could have simply been that my "protagonist" had simply pissed off a bunch of people (and precipitated the death of his ex-girlfriend) by simply being a really obnoxious and needy prick. Anyway, he wandered around feeling sorry for himself and being unemployed - and most of the story is basically one long flashback about how he'd gotten himself into the situation to begin with. The police aren't even after him. Again, not much of a point.

By the way, I know what you're thinking about this point. My classmates thought the same thing, with one of them demanding to know: "Does the girlfriend ever survive?" Once, maybe twice...

In a way, despite the dark goings-on that drive them, the stories are oddly funny to read. At the time I was about 20 years old, and doing my best to live up to a reputation for being "notoriously un-romantic." To me, following that was "being original." After all, if everyone else was writing stories about how people overcame challenges in life, and went on to have happy relationships (and by everyone I mean the culture at large) what could be more original than failed challenges and disastrous relationships? (One story, which I didn't keep, was a near-future science fiction tale featuring a bounty hunter whose assigned target turns out to be his ex-wife. Of course, it doesn't end well. The ex-wife lives, but that's likely the story's only redeeming quality.)

When you're a jaded forty-something, what was edgy and original to you as a not-particularly-well-read college student seems like simply the latest in a torrent of bad unbelievably execrable writing. But I've found some use in reading my own writing - in addition to making feel that I've matured (rather than simply grown old), I think I better appreciate just how difficult writing can be. Compelling, original and well-crafted stories are much more difficult than coming up with a theme, a setting and some interesting characters. And successfully subverting an age-old trope is a real accomplishment. But most importantly, staying out of the way of the story that you're attempting to tell is harder than it sounds. If I didn't know what the themes of my stories were going into them, I don't think that I'd have ever figured it out. There are just too many possibilities, all created by me not knowing what I was doing.

Of course, back then it all seemed so important. As if one creative writing course, taken on a whim, was going to be the step that catapulted me into a career as a writer. I suspect that I was better off for never really having gained a foothold. Being an author has never been my strong suit. But I'm glad that hung on to the remnants of that time. Sometimes, it's good to be able to see the footprints that you left behind.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Theological Error in the First Degree

I don't understand.

A 28-year-old mother reportedly murdered two of her children and severely injured two others, in what was an apparent attempt at an exorcism. Zakieya Avery and another woman who is 21 years old were reportedly attempting to release demonic spirits they thought had possessed the siblings, reports the Washington Post.  They were each charged with two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted first-degree murder.
Police: Maryland Mom Kills Two of Her Toddlers In Exorcism Attempt
Given the wording of Maryland's murder in the first degree statute, I don't see how this case fits the description, unless an amateur performing an exorcism counts as “Mayhem.”
“This was all about what was in their minds,” said Capt. Marcus Jones, commander of the Montgomery County’s major crimes unit. “They felt like there was something bad going on with the children, and they were trying to release it.”
So... not even the police think that the two women had set out to kill the children? But isn't that a requirement for a first-degree murder charge unless felony murder is being alleged? This seems kind of like a prosecutor going after low-hanging fruit by playing the “mother kills children - she must be a bad person” angle. Now, as far as I'm concerned, this is what happens when you start believing in supernatural forces that you can't see, but can affect the mundane world and everyday people, and can, in turn be affected by them. It's not like the idea of supernatural possession is at all new idea. And plenty of people will tell you that even lay believers can cast out demons. About three seconds with Google is all you need. (And, sadly, this isn't the first time that an exorcism has ended badly and lead to criminal charges.)

As much as we hear about a secular-lead "War on Christianity," why isn't something like this a part of it? Think that there shouldn't be broad carve-outs of abortion coverage in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act? You just might be a foot soldier in the War on Christians. Appearing, for all the world, to trump up a charge against someone for a tragic misapplication (perhaps) of their faith? It's all good. How does that work?

And this isn't to say that people who kill others in the name of driving spirits out of them should simply walk away scot-free. And as far as I'm concerned, this is a result of something between a woeful lack of understanding of the real world and barking madness. But when we're fairly sure that what's happened resulted from an act of faith (however incorrect and/or misguided) rather than malice aforethought, isn't that what Manslaughter charges are for?

The Limits

I was going through some old documents from a couple of computers (or more) ago, and found this, which I had originally written back in 2004. This strikes me as unpolished - perhaps it's too direct, or maybe it's simply not as verbose as I've come to be since I started writing this weblog. Anyway, I'm posting it here because I think, as wonkily stated as it is, the central point still stands. But perhaps I'll have to revisit the topic at some point, and see if I can do better with it.

Pleased with his success, Joel [Harris, Colborne Corporation board member] continues. "Did you read about that fellow at the New York Times who got away with that? Everybody [is] afraid to challenge him 'cause he's a black guy."

The table falls silent. I give Joel a look usually reserved for people who fart loudly in public.
Cynthia Barnes, "Dispatches From the Great American Pie Festival."
Poor, stupid, Joel. He transgressed one of the unwritten rules of modern America: You don't get to criticize people not as "privileged" as yourself. Which means that white men get to pick on each other, but that's about it. As ubiquitous as this rule is, it's somewhat surprising that ANYONE manages to accidentally run afoul of it. Sure, you get the occasional Republican activist staging some whiny protest about how white folks don't get any respect (and yes, it's just as whiny when other people do it), but these are usually INTENTIONAL actions.

I haven't really followed the Jayson Blair case - I don't follow journalism. Not that I don't read the news or watch TV, or read magazines - but I don't really care what goes on behind the scenes. In any event, I don't know if Blair is getting a pass from people who would otherwise be more critical of him, because they fear that to do so would call the Urban League down upon their heads. But there are a lot of people who feel that way, and there are a lot of people on both sides of whatever line you care to draw that benefit from that situation.

But, I'm starting to get off message (I LOVE that phrase), so let me get back to the point. Being male, but not white, I get to take pot shots at men of all types, but women are off-limits. As I'm straight, homosexuals are off-limits too.

And so the question becomes: "Why is this?" How come I can make snide comments about, or be critical of certain people, but not others? Once political correctness became the order of the day, the idea was that it was uncool to say anything that might make someone else feel bad. But if this is REALLY about being PC, why are white guys everybody's whipping boys? Do we honestly think that they don't have feelings?

So I've concluded that this is more about payback. It's open season on those people who were once considered your betters, because of all the time that they spent dogging you in the past. We've altered the laws of physics, and created a society where crap actually flows uphill. And woe betide you, if you're dumb enough to actually complain about it.

This is, of course, a case of "the sins of the father" coming back to haunt their sons, and a number of the sons are more than a little peeved at being punished for actions that, in some cases, took place before they (or maybe even their parents) were so much as glimmers in someone's eye.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Imagine, If You Will...

The hurt came on gradually. (It wasn’t pain. I had yet to experience real pain, although I didn’t realize that at the time.) It built upon itself until it was intense enough that I limped badly, and one arm hung lifelessly at my side. Still, I trudged along, towing the wagon behind me, and tossing newspapers, as best I could, onto porches. I had a job to do, and it would be done. It was slow going, given that I had really only one usable arm, but I was nearing the end. I was covering for open routes that were adjacent to my own, and so was delivering many more papers than usual that day. Dimly, in the back of my mind, I realized that my friend was likely going to get to the house before I got back. We had planned for him to come to me, for once, rather than I make the trek to his place. But what had been cause for considerable excitement earlier in the day was now a secondary consideration.

When I finally made it back home, I pulled the wagon far enough into the yard that it was clear it belonged at our house, and left it there, dragging myself up onto the porch with no other thought than lying down. My ankle and my arm were throbbing, and all I knew was that I didn’t know why. My little sister met me at the door.

“Your friend is in the hospital,” she said.

“That’s. Not. Funny.” I snarled, through gritted teeth. I didn’t know what she was up to, only that I had exactly zero time for it.

“No! Seriously!” she protested, as I pushed past her and headed to my room. “Mom!”

When my father came in, I was stretched out on my bed in a fog. His entrance barely registered.

“What’s the matter, June Bug?”

“I’m alright,” I mumbled in a blatant show of youthful deceit. “I think I hurt myself.”

“Where does it hurt?”

With my good arm, I pointed to my ankle and forearm.

“Your friend,” my father told me, “Was hit by a car on the way here. He’s in the hospital. Would you like to go see him?”

I nodded, even though, realistically, I couldn’t see myself even getting out of bed at that point. I couldn’t even muster up the sense of alarm that such a revelation should have triggered. My father frowned for a moment.

Seemingly apropos of nothing, he said, “Your grandmother believes that she has the ability to heal people.”

“My grandmother,” I reminded him, “Believes that people’s hairstyle choices are influenced by ‘the Devil’.” (Despite the fact that I was still nominally Catholic at this point, the Devil was a sore point with me - especially where my grandmother was concerned. It would be a few years before my skepticism about Satan would result in conflicts with my classmates, and from there to me formally dropping the religion I’d been raised in, and replacing it with a dour, misanthropic and mildly militant atheism.)

Normally, I would have paid for such open disrespect of my grandmother and her religiosity, but my father let it slide. He pulled up a chair next to my bed and gently took hold of my ankle in both hands. I don’t remember how long it took, although it seemed like just a short time; but the hurt subsided, then faded, and then ceased altogether. While I was still trying to work out what, exactly, had just happened, he took hold of my arm, and did the same.

“Feel better?” he asked.

“Yeah...” I said, not really understanding what was going on.

My father drove me to the hospital to see my friend. He’d been unable to find his way directly to our house, and while searching the neighborhood for the correct street, been struck by a patrolling police car at an uncontrolled intersection. (When I found the spot later, there were visible marks in the asphalt from where his bicycle had been pushed along the pavement. And I realized that I’d crossed that very intersection earlier, with a wagon full of newspapers. It was part of the open routes that I had been covering the day of the accident.) When we got to the hospital, my friend was sleeping off sedation. Among other injuries, his arm had been broken and his ankle separated.

I was confused. My father, who had known the extent of my friend’s injuries when I had come home from my paper route, didn’t say anything, and I couldn’t come up with any intelligent sounding questions to ask. I was having difficulty processing it all. Just a couple hours before, I had been hurting in the same places. It didn’t make any sense. ESP and all that stuff wasn’t real. It was just trickery that people on television did. You know, the kind of fakery that got people to tune into That’s Incredible.

My father than I never again talked about my grandmother’s supposed ability to heal people, or the fact that, apparently, it ran in the family. It was also the last time that he ever actively moved to soothe me when I was hurt; he reverted to the “real men are tough” position that I’d become accustomed to. I never really came to terms with whether I believed in physical empathy or not. There were a number of times in my teens and early twenties when I experienced what seemed for all the world like sympathetic pain, but without any knowing, before its onset that the other person was hurting. I always chalked it up to coincidence, because how would you ever confirm such a thing? “Okay, here’s the plan - we’re going to become friends and then at some random point, someone is going to injure you painfully, and we’ll see if I can feel it before I actually find out what happened.” Yeah. I could just imagine trying to get that past an ethics committee.

Every so often, I would talk about it with people; whenever we were discussing strange or unexplainable things. I always hoped that someone would come up with a “reasonable” explanation, but one was never forthcoming. A few people were critical of my holding on to skepticism in light of what really did look like evidence that strange things were afoot. And I have to admit that there were times where it did seem more like denial than anything else.

The world is a big place, even leaving aside the sheer size of the Earth. I know, intellectually, that I’ll never be able to experience, understand or explain all of it. Some things are just going to be mysteries. But I also know that I’ll always want to know, that I’ll always want everything to fit together nicely and neatly into a workable pattern that explains everything. And perhaps not coincidentally, tells me that I really see things as they are. But I know that I don’t see the world as it is. I see it as I experience it. And that those experiences sometimes rock the boat. I think I hold onto this story because I’ve learned to value that rocking, and the sense of wonder that goes with it. Perhaps it’s time that I learned to cultivate it, and again open my eyes.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Unmarriage Minded

Taking a stand against patriarchy is much easier if you're well-educated, have a stable income, and live in a community where you could theoretically find an educated, employed man to marry. For poor, uneducated women, especially those who have kids, the question of whether to get married looks a lot different: It's the choice between raising children on one or two incomes, between having someone to help with household chores and child-rearing alone while working multiple jobs.
Emma Green "Wealthy Women Can Afford to Reject Marriage, but Poor Women Can't"
One of the assumptions that seems to crop up over and over in the "Marriage versus Poverty" argument is that there is a rather large cohort of single people in general (not just women) are willfully passing up an ironclad Good Thing simply to be contrary. The numbers don't seem to back this up. As Gallop points out: "Regardless of age, Americans are much more positive about marriage than not, as the majority of all age groups are married or want to get married someday. Fewer than one in 10 young Americans have never married and say they do not want to get married. These findings indicate that there is a significant desire for marriage even as the overall marriage rate has dropped in recent years."
It's lonely in Column 3.
Given the fact that I think that a lot of women would agree with the idea that a second set of hands (and a second income) would be welcome when raising children, we have to ask why they aren't marrying. My personal opinion runs towards the following: 1) worthwhile partners aren't just beating down the door to offer a ring, 2) single mothers, especially poor ones, have other things to do the preclude them from trolling singles bars looking for Mr. Right and 3) many of the men they do know have three or more strikes against them already or simply aren't interested. In other words, given what they understand the prospects to be, remaining single strikes them as a rational choice, if not their only real option under the circumstances. But one of the great things about the modern World Wide Web is that I don't have to speculate on why people who would rather be married aren't - I can simply find someone who has already asked the question, and see what they have to say.
Hmm... "Holding out agianst the Patriarchy" and "Pissing off Social Conservatives" don't seem to have scored very highly.
Now, it's possible that single parents make up the majority of the "Never married and do not want to get married" group. But I doubt it. I do, on the other hand, suspect that you'd find a pretty good batch of them in "Have not found the right person" and "Money/Financial reasons." Because given the overall American desire for marriage, it simply makes sense to assume that unmarried people - even those who would be better off married for whatever reason - have a rational reason for not walking down the aisle yet.

Now, I don't know a lot of single mothers. I don't really move in those circles. But, thinking of the few that I have known; they've met potential husbands either at work, or through some sort of serendipitous meeting that happened to allow them some time to converse. A lot like everyone else, actually. But the single moms I know also tend to either have enough support, from friends and/or families, to actually date and take their time to get to know prospective partners pretty well (entering into marriages lightly is unwise, and I suspect that single mothers are acutely aware of that) or they have enough money for competent childcare. Now, it's been a long time since I last did social work, but I don't recall the poor people I encountered as having a lot of time available for a dating life. And maybe that's a large part of the issue. Barbara Ehrenreich points out that many low-wage jobs are physically demanding and have unpredictable schedules. These, on their face, would seem to make things harder when it comes to finding a workable partner.

So I think that the idea that poor women, especially those with children, "reject" marriage is off-base. I think the issue is more that, with all of the demands on their energy and time, that actively looking for an appropriate partner tends to slide into the area of "unaffordable luxury." So rather than playing the blame game, or lording allegedly superior morals over them, perhaps helping to fix that would start to change things.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Whose Sandwich Is This?

One day, I found myself standing on a street corner in Chicago on a Winter day in sub-zero temperatures. I was facing away from the street, standing in front of a middle-aged (or older) man who was huddled in a doorway, swaddled in a bundle of ragged blankets and clearly suffering. I was in my twenties, having graduated college and working with children who's been taken out of their homes for abuse or neglect. Because the facility was open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, I didn't have a standard Saturday and Sunday weekend. Having weekdays off, when almost no-else I knew did, I often needed to find something to do with myself during the day, while everyone else I knew was working. On this particular day, I'd decided that I'd take the El downtown and walk around for exercise. For lunch, I'd dropped into Arby's. At the time, they were running a promotion offering five roast beef sandwiches for five dollars. Seeing a chance to take care of three meals at once, I bought five to go. By the time I'd reached the freezing street corner, I'd eaten two. The plan was for the others to go home with me and into the refrigerator. But seeing this homeless man, suffering in the cold, changed the plan. I stepped within arms reach, and held out the bag with the remaining sandwiches. He took them immediately, mumbled a hurried "Bless you," and quickly fell to eating.

The episode left me with a question: Whose sandwiches had I given him? Mine? Or his?

For me, three Arby's sandwiches at a dollar a piece were a small thing. Working in social services, I wasn't exactly raking in the dough, but I had two roommates to share expenses with, and so I wasn't hurting for cash. I certainly had enough money to spend on the hot new thing - a trading card game called Magic: The Gathering. And spend money on it, I had. The Arby's promotion was, for me simply a convenient way to have lunch, dinner and the next morning's breakfast squared away all at once. Or, if I'd decided to have something else for dinner that evening, a lunch or dinner later. There was food at home, and a grocery store only two or three blocks away.

For the homeless man, trapped outside without shelter, the sandwiches seemed to be much more. I don't know if they were his only meal for that day (or longer). But he certainly wasted no time tucking into them. There's a certain gusto, I've found, that only the desperately hungry can bring to meal. It likely overstates the case to say that those sandwiches stood between him and a bad end. While the calories would likely have helped, I held no illusions that they alone would have prevented the man from freezing to death, were he so at risk once the Sun went down and the winds picked up.

But what, I wondered, if they were the difference? What if those three somewhat-warm sandwiches were literally the difference between life and death? Did I have the right to withhold them? Had he asked for them, did I have right of refusal?

If someone needs something, and another can supply it without harm to themselves, at what level of need does the needy have an affirmative right to the thing, such that it is wrong to withhold it?
In the intervening years and decades, I've turned the question over in my head, but never come up with an answer. While I can articulate the circumstances under which I understand that it violates the Rules for me to refuse to share a resource, I can never come to a point at which I could force someone else to do the same without violating those same Rules.

I stood there in the cold and felt a compulsion to share what I had. Intellectually, I understand that I had a choice and could have simply gone on my way. But something within me, whether it was a need to purchase my own self-acceptance or the simple realization that this man was in dire straits and everything that people had taught me up to that point said that you don't ignore that sort of thing, told me that there was no other choice and I did as I was required to do. But, if I am required to do so, why not anyone else? Or, if they are not, why am I?

I am unable to reconcile them. Not that I know what I would do if I did. At the time, to keep the sandwiches that I had bought and paid for, seemed too much like theft. That's all that I know.

Since then, I have been unable to revisit that experience. I live near Seattle now and the sort of bone-jarring cold that swept the Windy City back then is little more than a memory. Seattle can lack comforting warmth, especially during the Winter rainy season, but it is never Cold in a way that forces you to realize that this is how nature can kill a man. And I'm much older now, and more prepared for the world around me. I'm more aware that there are people living on the streets who are only a short way away from danger and I'm more ready to offer (at least token) assistance. I've collected too many blessings to count from those who need them far more than I.

Perhaps one day, I will find myself again unready in a situation in which I have a choice to make, and I will be able to complete what I started that day. Until then, the question lingers, imposing itself on me at odd intervals and angrily whispering that I have work left to do. I don't know why I need to answer it, only that I do. Such are the Rules.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Misplaced Chivalry

It all started simply enough. Facebook offered to help actor Wil Wheaton find "pages he may like" and offered up: Kim Kardashian, Amazon.com and Nicki Minaj. Mr. Wheaton was most emphatically not impressed, and noted as much on Facebook. The response? "no shit talking Nicki. Crapping on young black women who are popular with other young women doesn't make you look good." Needless to say, Mr. Wheaton was even less impressed.

But here's the thing: whenever I complain about this sort of thing, a nonzero number of people tell me that I'm not allowed to be bothered by it, because I'm a White Heterosexual Male in America and check your privilege, Wheaton.

This bothers me a LOT, and I resent being accused of making gender- or racially-motivated comments, when I'm really making talentless-crap-motivated comments.
While I sympathize with Mr. Wheaton's position here (although I don't follow popular music, so I can't speak to how talented Ms. Minaj is or is not) I think that he would have been better off sticking to the topic at hand - the fact that Facebook doesn't seem to understand what he likes very well. Allowing a Random Internet Commenter to draw him into talking on the intersection between Ms. Minaj's talents as a performer and her race is unlikely to lead anywhere good. Besides, it is, for the most part, off topic. And it perpetuates a discussion that I'm not sure that we need to have - Why should Nicki Minaj be above having white people say that they don't like her music? Are we, as black people, so brittle that we require the accolades, or at least the silence, of everyone around us? She has millions of Facebook likes - why should the opinion of someone who is, in the grand scheme of things, Just Another Random Dude on the Internet make any difference?

I could somewhat see it if Mr. Wheaton were an influential music critic. The sort of pop-culture tastemaker who could can make or break careers with a well-aimed sentence. Then it would make sense that his opinion of Ms. Minaj would be important. And if he'd then shown a persistent ax to grind against women and minority artists, there would be a valid complaint. But that's not the case. Mr. Wheaton is influential within certain circles of science-fiction fandom, but it's unlikely that even rabid fans of his work take their pop-culture music cues from him. And those that do, likely aren't big fans of Nicki Minaj in any event.

Shifting the focus from Facebook's suspect (and likely self-serving) algorithms for determining what users may or may not like to a fight over privilege - especially when the "victim" is a popular music star with a net worth in the multiple millions of dollars - simply reinforces stereotypes about black people that are as bad as the others that we've been working to overcome (or depending on your viewpoint, live down). Black and female (and not as "young" as some think) doesn't equate to "helpless before the raging juggernaut that is the reasonably well-known white guy."

Nicki Minaj doesn't need to free of criticism from those that aren't like her. And she certainly doesn't need criticisms of major corporations recast into hateful criticisms of herself, just so some random internet fan can convince themselves they're riding to the rescue. And the rest of the African-descended community doesn't need it either. We can take care of ourselves. And I suspect that the same is true of women.

Friday, January 10, 2014

What the Meaning of "Meaning" Is

Maybe I'm not looking at this is the right way, but I've never really been able to understand what people mean by "meaning." There have been times when I've mentioned that I don't believe in deities, and someone would say: "It must be sad that your life has no meaning." And I'd always respond, "Well, what is it supposed to mean?" (The ensuing conversation never ends well for me.) Perhaps it's because I don't realize that I miss it, but I'm unperturbed by a lack of meaning in my life - in much the same way that I'm unperturbed by never having been to another galaxy. Without really understanding what I'm allegedly missing, I can't really feel the loss.

Although people can normally tell me why they're glad that their life has meaning (and this usually comes down to giving them a reason to live another day), it seems that it's hard for people to articulate what that meaning actually is. Which, I suppose, is why there are about three-quarters of a trillion jokes about some guy climbing a mountain to ask a guru about "the meaning of life," only to get some screwy answer. I guess it makes sense, as it's been reported that religiosity tends to correlate with people having a sense of meaning, and as near as I can tell, meaning or purpose are just as much a matter of faith as a divinity.

To a degree, it seems that for many people their faith is their meaning. Which I suppose I understand, but that always raises the question (for me, anyway) of how they explain people who lack faith, but have meaning in their lives. Which is normally where things go off the rails. Maybe the issue is that I look for "meaning" to be something unique, an element unto itself, rather than simply a re-labeling of something else, such as joy, perceived purpose or faith.

The Universe is a big place, and I'm just a very small, and very temporary, part of it. I'm okay with that because I can't really understand why I shouldn't be. And maybe that's why "meaning" has no resonance for me. It could be that I'm simply not egotistical enough, but as I move through my life, I find myself a part of any number of things that are bigger than I am, in that what happens with them is of great importance in my life, yet those things wouldn't notice if, right now, I ceased to exist. In the grand scheme of things, I don't see how it's possible for one life - or even a thousand lives, to "mean" anything. But when I look up at the night sky, I see marvels, all because of the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. And I am content.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Did We Do That?

Among the atrocities that Frances and Dan Keller were supposed to have committed while running a day care center out of their Texas home: drowning and dismembering babies in front of the children; killing dogs and cats in front of the children; transporting the children to Mexico to be sexually abused by soldiers in the Mexican army; dressing as pumpkins and shooting children in the arms and legs; putting the children into a pool with sharks that ate babies; putting blood in the children’s Kool-Aid; cutting the arm or a finger off a gorilla at a local park; and exhuming bodies at a cemetery, forcing children to carry the bones.
Linda Rodriguez McRobbie "The Real Victims of Satanic Ritual Abuse"
Wow. How did I ever manage to forget about the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare of the 80s and 90s? I think, had you asked me about it last week, I would have suspected you were pulling my leg. But reading the Slate article about the Kellers reminded me of all of the bizarro-world craziness that seems to have gripped the entire nation. For most of the hysteria, I was in high school and college - too young to be a parent with a child targeted by Satanists, and too old to be a target myself. So it was all just something strange to watch unfold on television news. By the time that it really got rolling, I likely found the whole thing to be ridiculous; it was my skepticism around the existence of Satan (more so than my lack of sincere faith in God) that had driven me to stop paying lip service to my nominal Roman Catholicism. A religious comic book in which a mixed-race group of born-again Christians battled Satanists (who had a penchant for the human sacrifice of svelte hitchhikers), which a cousin had given me, was kept around main for comedy value. (Considering how often the story's Satanists wore their black robes, it was remarkable that no-one else ever seemed to notice them.) So, to me, of course the accusations of Satanic Ritual Abuse were bunk. (But I'll admit to the flaw in my logic. If hundreds if millions of people could go to church every week and worship a deity I was pretty sure was fictional, it should have made logical sense that their could also be a church for the devil, as well, regardless of my conviction that it, too, was a fiction. And there is, or was, a real Church of Satan out there.)

But I think that a lot of us had forgotten about the SRA scare. In hindsight, it seems to be a bizarre and superstitious episode for the late 20th century. Hadn't we gotten past literal witch hunts back in the 1600s? (Or whenever it was.) After all, I knew a handful of people who styled themselves as modern-day Wiccans, and everyone thought that they were merely (very) eccentric, rather than dangerous. They seemed to be fairly open to talking about their supposed "powers," and were even willing to give demonstrations - not that they were particularly convincing (but a couple had been interesting).

I wonder if we always forget about moral panics, or any other type of scare, as time moves on, and new anxieties push their way to the forefront. Maybe it's just the nature of hysteria that while it seems to be the only important thing in the world while it's happening, once it's over, it simply fades away. But, of course, as Ms. McRobbie's article points out, there are lasting consequences to these things, and forgetfulness doesn't change that.

One Thousand, Two Hundred

1,200 posts. It feels like a different number, but strangely, I couldn't tell you what it was, or even if it were higher or lower. Having done this now for a little over seven years, I don't know that it's done for me what I intended it to. I still don't feel like a competent writer or particularly adept at getting my thoughts together quickly. But still I chug away at it. I'm not sure I understand why. When I started, it felt like an attempt to build discipline. Then it took on the character of maintaining a new habit, and not letting it fall by the wayside. Now, it sort of feels like OCD. (In the snarky, non-clinical way that us laypeople in the public use the term, anyway.) It's morphed into a part of me, rather than simply a form of expression.

As a very rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation, I've maybe typed somewhere in the vicinity of half a million words into this thing over the years. And released them out into the ether to an unknown fate. In a way, weblogging isn't my cup of tea, because I'm a better responsive writer than an expressive one. (I suppose this is why so many of my posts are responses to things that I've read.) But, having started this, I don't know what finishes it. Perhaps 2,400 will give me more insight into that.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

With This Shotgun...

[James] Taranto [of the Wall Street Journal] then builds on their [George Akerlof and Janet Yellen's] assumption that men are marriage-reluctant by arguing that women are also marriage-reluctant. Indeed, he paints a picture of men and women as natural enemies who can only be brought together under duress, specifically women's duress, which makes women desperate enough to manipulate men into unhappy marriages through sex and guilt trips.
Amanda Marcotte "WSJ Writer Blames the Rise of 'Fatherless' Children on Women"
I remember having discussions about this topic back in my twenties, and was always surprised by the argument that marriages were often miserable was no reason to remain single, given that it made perfectly good sense to me. To a degree, I think that it was something that grew up at the intersection of the ideas that marriage was as once permanent and a duty. If, once you married someone, you were stuck with that person for life, it paid to be very careful about going into it - and if that caution meant that someone never married, so be it. But rather than argue that the stereotype of the unhappy couple trapped in a marriage that neither one wanted was different from most people's actual experience with marriage, the common response to this was that circumstances should be altered so that the need to marry simply overwhelmed any impulse to be cautious.

There has always been a certain low-level hysteria surrounding the rate at which people married. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, the fact that no-one in my social circle had tied the knot was a constant source of consternation to some of the older people that we knew, who were certain that we were the vanguard of a new wave of unwed libertines who would gleefully sleep around instead of treating our sexuality as the exclusive property of some future spouse. And if walking down the aisle meant being an unhappy spouse rather than a happy single, that was simply the price to be paid to avoid a Post-Marriage World. Which, of course, never arrived. The rate of eventual marriage still hums along at about 9 out of 10 people, and single are still regarded as somewhat odd.

Of course, the squeaky wheels are the ones that get the grease, and to the degree that marriage boosters see single people everywhere they turn, each new generation of them is going to be just as convinced as the last that Something's Terribly Wrong. And this will push them to see to stem the tide, even when the tide is simply minding its own business.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Does Not Compute

"Utah officials wants an emergency stay so that county clerks in the conservative and predominately Mormon state can refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples," NPR's Howard Berkes reports for our Newscast unit. "The state argues that children generally fare best when raised by heterosexual parents."
Couples Urge Sotomayor To Deny Utah's Bid To Block Gay Marriage
Okay. Let's stipulate (despite the fact that many people dispute this) that children do, in fact, do better with heterosexual parents. In that case, I have one question. Who cares?

The idea that same-sex relationships should be impeded because children will do better with a pair of opposite-sex parents seems to be predicated on the idea that children who would have same-sex parents would instead have opposite-sex parents. What rational basis is there for that assumption?

There doesn't seem to be a means by which blocking same-sex couples from marrying results directly in the children that would live with those couples winding up in heterosexual households. If the same-sex couple goes ahead and has a child or adopts, you wind up with a child being raised (from a legal perspective, anyway) by a single parent. If they would have had a biological child, by whatever means, but then decide not to do so, there is simply no child at all. If they would have adopted a child, but don't, the child stays in the system. And, as a veteran of the child-welfare system, I can say without much fear of contradiction that there isn't a viable amount of competition between homosexual and heterosexual couples for children - it's not like a child that isn't adopted by a same-sex couple has an opposite-sex couple just waiting to take them in.

So why make the comparison between how children fare in homosexual versus heterosexual homes, instead of between homosexual homes and foster care or institutions? Personally, this smacks of anti-homosexual prejudice more than anything else. Having worked with children in both foster care and institutions, I'm pretty sure that a stable family environment is nearly always the better option (there are, however, some youth that just can't make it in less restrictive settings - but they are unlikely to ever be adopted or fostered out in any event) - which may explain why no-one ever makes the comparison. But the current, disingenuous argument seems so openly flawed that I'm impressed that it's trotted out so often. One would think that most courts that weren't already predisposed to agree with the logic would simply disregard it up front.

Of course, I failed Omniscience 101 pretty badly the last time I took it, so the fact that I can't see how you ensure that children wind up with heterosexual parents through the simple expedient of preventing same-sex marriages doesn't mean that it can't be done. But if there IS a way for this to work, I'd like someone to explain it to me, because I've never come across an explanation. Accordingly, I'm inclined to think "that children generally fare best when raised by heterosexual parents," is really just a way of dressing up prejudice in the threadbare cloak of concern for children. (I've already pontificated on how we don't normally, even in reactionary states, privilege the supposed "rights" of children above the freedoms of adults to decide who they will or will not share their lives with, so I won't bore you with that again.) Or, perhaps more charitably, people are simply grasping at straws in the quest for legal standing for their attempts to tell everyone how they should live.

In any event, the choice presented is a false one, whether or not the research is sound. And that makes using it look bad, regardless of the reason.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Fear For The Children

Maybe the lesson here is that Kinder Surprise eggs should be cleared for import.
Both of those children are much more likely to die in a swimming pool than by gunshot. And given the way gun deaths in the United States usually work, if the little girl pulls the trigger, the person she is most likely to shoot is herself. (Note, however, that gunshots are a rare suicide method for women, and rifles aren't normally the weapon of choice for anyone.)

Both the Second Amendment and gun-control types tend to engage in over-the-top fear-mongering, each of them seeking to have us believe that there's a dangerous psychopath around every corner - who either needs killing by "a good guy with a gun" or who would suddenly become a productive member of society if only scary-looking weapons (and a lot of the former Assault Weapons Ban was based on appearance, rather than function) were somehow kept out of the hands of people who tend to treat them like Erector sets (or, as gun collectors themselves tend to put it, Barbie dolls).

The American obsession with safety theater is going overboard. The simple fact of the matter is that banning "assault weapons" (a technical term often misused for the scare factor) wouldn't make a dent in gun deaths in the United States - they're not often used in either street crimes or suicides. This ad is all about ginning up fear of the vanishingly rare occurrence of mass shootings - and the even more rare occurrence of one in a school.

And notice how neither of the children in this ad is of the ethnicity most likely to be subject to homicide by firearm - African-American. Inner city children are dying at an alarming rate. The Assault Weapons Ban, when it was in place, didn't make a dent in that. If it is reinstated, suburban parents might rest a little easier; but the hobgoblin slain will be a mostly imaginary one.

The impulse to attempt to reduce the incidence violence by seeking to remove the tools of violence is an understandable one, but misguided. If the War on Drugs has taught us anything, it's that you can't simply ban your way out of people doing harmful things to themselves or others with inanimate objects. None of this is to say that our world wouldn't be a safer place if there weren't firearms around. Guns are dangerous even when people aren't intending to use them as weapons. But the American penchant for gun violence - which is rather low, in the grand scheme of things - isn't a function of the number or type of guns available to the average citizen. It's a function of a society in which, for many people, violence is an acceptable means of getting what they want (or, perhaps more importantly, feel they need). Banning scary weapons won't help that any. Just like banning chocolate eggs with toys in them doesn't teach children not to stuff things in their mouths.